Editor’s note – Garret Mathews wrote feature stories and, later, columns for the Bluefield, W. Va., Daily Telegraph from 1972 until 1987 when he was hired to write the metro column for the Evansville, Ind., Courier & Press. His legacy website – www.pluggerpublishing.com — has a link (Folks Are Talking) that features dozens of pieces he wrote for the Bluefield newspaper. The Telegraph’s circulation area takes in McDowell County, one of the poorest counties in the United States.
When I left the region 30 years ago, McDowell County was in critical condition. In some areas, the unemployment rate was more than 80 percent. Indeed, it was easier to count the number of men and women who had jobs. People were moving out in droves, leaving behind scores of abandoned houses and boarded-up storefronts.
Today, the place is on life support with little hope that coal can make a comeback, and almost no chance that any other industry will sprout roots and pick up the slack. There is no four-lane highway in McDowell County. No chain restaurants. No chain motels.
In the early 1950s – before mine mechanization – around 100,000 folks lived in these mountains. Now, it’s closer to 22,000. More than 50 percent of McDowell County residents have annual incomes below $25,000. One in three lives in poverty. Internet service is limited. Telephone service is spotty.
It’s almost impossible to attract professional people because of the lack of decent housing. The overwhelming majority of school children qualify for free lunch.
I have a deep affection for McDowell County and return occasionally to drive the twisty backroads. This helps me remember the plucky folks who, decades ago, told a green writer their stories of hand-loading coal onto wagons pulled by mules, and how they survived mine explosions that killed dozens of their comrades.
If this part of the country hasn’t been beaten down enough by a battered economy, a new scourge has popped up since my last byline appeared in the Daily Telegraph.
Drugs, mostly methamphetamine and OxyContin. McDowell County leads the state in the number of overdose deaths. A good chunk of residents don’t bother looking for work because they know they can’t pass the employer’s drug test.
Many who remain in the Free State, as it’s known, are dependent on federal aid. Infrastructure is aging. Raw sewage gurgles next to decrepit mobile homes. Clean water is at a premium.
The cost to maintain McDowell County as it is – never mind making improvements – is staggering and will only get worse.
Why not consider something new?
Why not consider turning part of McDowell County into a national park that would celebrate the area’s rich mining history?
Many buildings from coal’s glory days are still in place. Refurbish them. Add signage and costumed interpreters to tell visitors about the shaft elevators, the preparation plants and the maze of underground pathways.
Recreate a bathhouse. Explain how each coal digger had his own tag so the checkweighman would know how much product the guy shoveled during the shift.
The remnants of several coal camps are still in place, and some come complete with tipples. In most cases, the company stores are long gone. No worries. Build replicas. Explain how mine owners controlled every aspect of their employees’ lives from the houses they lived in to where they got groceries. Invest in piles of faux scrip to pass out to the kids.
Back in the day, national attention turned to McDowell County when the contract between the coal operators and the United Mine Workers expired. Some strikes lasted months and there was picket-line violence between the opposing sides. Construct informational kiosks at some of the hotspots.
Visitors will need lodges and restaurants. Build on site. Hire locals to run them.
Yes, many families will be forced to relocate, but there is precedent for such action.
In 1926, a bill was signed by President Calvin Coolidge that provided for the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in East Tennessee. The legislature appropriated funds for land acquisition. Additional money was raised by wealthy individuals and private groups. School children famously pledged their pennies.
The park was dedicated in 1940. Millions of people visit every year. A once-downtrodden region is now on solid footing.
McDowell County was once the largest coal producer in West Virginia. Those days are gone. What’s needed is a Plan B. A nice, green one.
The words “tourism” and “Free State” have rarely been used in the same sentence.
Maybe that time has come.