Southern West Virginia Coal Heritage Trail: A New Black Gold

Southern West Virginia Coal Heritage Trail: A New Black Gold
Being from West Virginia, my roots are tinged with coal dust and steel rails. It’s a noble heritage of hard work, callused hands, and long hours spent chiseling the bituminous rock from the earth and keeping the steel wheels rolling. Coal is energy; and West Virginia is coal. We’re proud to say that we keep the lights on.

The Mountain State is a different place today. When my grandfathers and great uncles were miners and railroad men, the labor was manual. Armies of tough, tireless workers were needed to gouge into the hills and retrieve the rocks that powered the United States’ emerging industrial might. Today, the demand for coal is still at a premium, but the need for workers is not. As mechanization boomed following World War II, strong backs began losing out to powerful machines. The once bustling mining camps and company towns began a slow decline. Much of the robust industrial infrastructure that defined the state was shuttered and left for the hills to reclaim.

Years ago, the only way to reach Thurmond was by iron horse. Today, ponies of all stripes can visit.

Today, coal is still king, but its subjects are far fewer in number. Fortunately, those that remain are a resilient lot. Instead of demonizing the industry that seemingly abandoned them, they have embraced what remains. The rich, diverse history and culture that sprouted from the black diamond is now being celebrated. A big part of this revitalization is the Coal Heritage Trail. This tangle of remarkably pristine blacktop offers a first-hand look at the industrial force that molded and defined the state’s character. The National Coal Heritage Area comprises 13 West Virginia counties that boast some of the craziest twisties in the country. To the touring motorcyclist, The Coal Heritage Trail is 187 miles of rugged switchbacks, rocky rivers, and sweeping vistas spiced with a unique history, a plethora of nifty old buildings, lots of trains, and a generous serving of peg grinding asphalt. What’s not to like?

Motorcycle & Gear

2012 Honda CB1000R

Helmet: Nolan N-Com
Jacket: Tour Master Epic
Pants: Diamond Gusset Defender Jeans
Boots: Sidi Doha
Gloves: REV’IT! R59

Mansions and Camps

Our exploration of the Coal Heritage Trail officially begins in Bluefield. The city’s historic reliance on coal mining and the railroad is evidenced by numerous murals and displays honoring these industries. At the huge Norfolk and Western rail yard, we bear right on Route 19 bound for Highway 52 and our ticket to the mountains.

Not far from town, we discover the massive spires of Pinnacle Rock State Park. Reaching 3,100 feet above sea level, these sandstone formations provide stunning prospects said to encompass several counties.

A spring shower on a summer day makes for a nice roadside respite.

Dropping down into the Bluestone River Valley, we exit Highway 52 for a little exploration in Bramwell. In the late 1800s, this small town had the most millionaires per capita in the United States. Coal mine owners built luxurious mansions along the river, many of which are still standing today. And while wheelbarrows full of cash are no longer the norm here, stunning flower gardens in full bloom add a different sort of richness to the quiet streets of Bramwell.

We continue charging north on Highway 52, surprised at the dearth of traffic, especially considering this is the major thoroughfare in the region. The remarkably smooth pavement dodges and weaves through stands of shady hardwoods. It’s easy to catch glimpses of the rusting remnants that once powered the mighty coal industry. A seemingly endless line of blackened Norfolk and Western hopper cars serenade us into Kimball with a rumbling symphony of steel wheels, diesel roar, and a frightening horn capable of waking the dead.