Destination: West Virginia’s Coal Heritage Trail
The story of the southern West Virginia “smokeless” coalfields is a remarkable legacy of working-class culture, industrial might, racial and ethnic diversity, and the creation of a unique and distinctive culture of national significance. The winding Coal Heritage Trail juxtaposes scenes of early West Virginia coal mining against a backdrop of breathtaking scenery. Covering miles of mostly backroads and small towns, the trail passes by reminders of an era when coal was king in rural West Virginia. As you travel, watch for the National Coal Heritage Area wayside exhibits (marked by the blue stars on the map), where you can learn the history of this intriguing region.
Be sure to stop in some of the small, charming towns as you travel. Nestled in the valley beside the Bluestone River, Bramwell was home to the first prospectors and company owners in the Pocahontas Coalfields. Pick up a walking tour brochure at the Bramwell Depot and take a few minutes to stroll down the brick streets and stop for homemade ice cream at The Corner Shop. Another unique small town you don’t want to miss is Fayetteville. In Fayetteville you’ll find a vibrant shopping district and fantastic restaurants, windows to browse with lots to buy, and a lovely town park. With an interesting restaurant scene, Fayetteville is always a good place to stop for lunch, perhaps at the Secret Sandwich Society or Pies and Pints. As you drive through Welch, enjoy the murals painted by local artist Tom Acosta and watch for the National Coal Heritage interpretive waysides beside the McDowell County Courthouse.
If you are looking for lodging, Beckley offers more traditional options and the New River Gorge region has everything from bed-and-breakfasts in historic houses to rustic cabins tucked away in the woods. Two state parks, Twin Falls Resort State Park and Hawks Nest State Park, offer lodges, cabins, and camping, along with other amenities.
Between Pineville and Mullens you will pass by the imposing Itmann Company Store. Not open to the public, this massive cut stone structure was designed by noted Bluefield architect Alex Mahood and served as the company store and offices for Pocahontas Fuel. It was in operation until 1980. In Beckley you will find many choices for dining as well as the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine, where you can tour authentic coal camp structures and take a trip underground with retired miners. Tamarack cultural center, the nation’s first showcase of handcrafts, fine art, and regional cuisine, is also located in Beckley. The New River Gorge region is home to whitewater rafting, world-class rock climbing, and the New River Gorge National River. You will also experience the New River Gorge Bridge, which spans the New River Gorge at a height of 876 feet and is home to the annual Bridge Day festival, held the third Saturday of October.
More than 100 years ago, thousands of men moved their families from small farms in the mountains and hollows and from countries around the world to mine coal from the depths of the earth in southern West Virginia and build an industry. Your trip along the Coal Heritage Trail will give you a glimpse of that industrial past while offering beautiful winding roads, interesting experiences, great places to eat and sleep, amazing views, and a chance to meet some of the nicest people in the world.