If you've ever heard a joke about West Virginia, West Virginians tell the same jokes about people from McDowell County. McDowell County is the poorest county in West Virginia, with a median household income below $22,500, and has the lowest life expectancy in the country for men and the second lowest for women. Opioid abuse is off the charts. This is that Appalachia.
The night before I went into McDowell County I was sitting at a bar in Bluefield in neighboring Mercer County. The gentleman I was speaking with told me they had three rules when they went into McDowell County: have a full tank of gas, make sure your car door locks worked, and bring a gun. He made very clear that he wasn't kidding.
In all of my travels I have never seen a noticeable difference when going from one county to another within the same state. Maybe it was in my mind from all I had heard and read, but McDowell County felt different to me both when I crossed into it and when I crossed out. It was a sunny day, but it felt grey nonetheless. It felt colder than it actually was.
I didn't go to McDowell County in search of doom and gloom though, I went in search of hope. I wanted to see what avenues they were pursuing when it came to tourism, and what potential, if any, I could find. This is deep in coal country, with town names like Coalwood, War, Warriormines and Skygusty. With the coal industry dying out and the population shrinking at alarming rates, I wanted to see if tourism could be an answer for those who wanted to stay. I came away more hopeful than depressed with some interesting insights. I met some wonderful people and saw some really cool places.
My first stop was to take some photos of the historic Elkhorn Inn in Landgraff. From what I saw both online and on the ground, you could count the number of hotels in McDowell County on one hand, and the Elkhorn Inn is the only one which is more than just a place to crash. Built as a coal miners' lounge in 1922, it has served many roles through its history including a state police barracks and a private home. It was bought and restored as an inn by the current owners in 2003. I would have loved to stay here, but the price was prohibitive for me at over $100 for a room with a shared bath. The restaurant is very highly rated, but the dinner price tag of $70+ is more than I was willing to pay. This place was cool to see, but I have to think they could bring in a lot more business with lower prices. In my mind, a bustling business is a good thing. Running a business like this in a location like Landgraff is undoubtedly a huge challenge and a labor of love. I wish them well.
My second stop was the World War Memorial in Kimball. After the lady who worked there asked if I was lost or had made a wrong turn somewhere, I was given a wonderful personal tour through the memorial. I also had an amazing conversation about growing up in McDowell County, as my guide was one of 15 children born to a coal mining family there. This beautiful building was the first memorial dedicated to African-American soldiers who fought in World War I. During the first few decades of the 20th century, more than 80,000 African Americans migrated to the coal fields in southwest West Virginia, forming as much as a third of the workforce. While they still faced discrimination, they were well paid and had opportunities for education and advancement. In an oft repeated statement, when you're underground in the mines, everyone is black. During WWI, more than 1500 black soldiers left from McDowell County to enlist in the military. After returning home, these veterans petitioned the county to build this memorial which served, as it does now, as not just a memorial but a gathering place, meeting hall, banquet facility and community kitchen. I really enjoyed my visit there, learned a lot and was happy to see that this place is being well cared for. It had fallen into disrepair for many years and was devastated by the floods that swept through the county in 2001. It is nice to see the state and county saw fit to rebuild and repair this wonderful building and fascinating piece of history.
My next stop was right across the road at the Visitors' Center. I thought since it was the first I'd seen in the county, it would be a good place to get some information or at least some brochures. The lady working there was surprised to see me and when I asked what there was to see in the area, her reply was priceless: "ain't much to see 'round here". When I pressed her, she asked "well, what do you want to see?". To be fair, this apparently also served as the Veterans Affairs Office, and the lady was undoubtedly a volunteer, but still. "Ain't much to see around here" may be the worst answer I could have imagined. If you want tourists, you have to be ready to provide information and make suggestions. If you have a tourist information office, it needs to be better than this. Either that or just post a sign on the door that says "Ain't much to see 'round here".
Arriving in Welch, the county seat, my first impression was that it was a really cool small town. Welch had been a fairly prosperous city during the first half of the 20th century when it was called the Heart of the Nation's Coal Bin. My second impression was that it was really hard to find parking for my high clearance van - I spun around the entire one-way downtown area 4 times before I found a spot (there is a municipal garage for cars). My third impression was how empty Welch was - although there were a few people roaming around and the courthouse seemed pretty busy, most of the storefronts were vacant. My lasting impression was that this historic gem, with some sprucing up and a few bars and restaurants around could be a really great destination. There was only one Airbnb in town, and a hotel or two on the periphery. Most of the businesses were functional ones - a drug store, a gas station etc. There were plenty of empty buildings that still looked structurally sound, though, but they were fading fast. If Welch wants to give it a go, they need to do it before roofs fall in and things move beyond repair. Whatever they need to do to get someone in those storefronts, they should. Empty storefronts are the cancer of any town. On the plus side, there were some beautiful murals which brought some real life to the town, painted by local McDowell County artist Tom Acosta. There was also a nice riverfront park and I could picture a bar with an outdoor deck over the river and live music in the summer. I had a delicious fried bologna sandwich at a tiny cafe downtown by the courthouse. Most of the people I talked to were friendly. I wouldn't recommend more than a quick stop here at the moment, but if Welch put some thought into it, it could be a really cool place to spend a night or two. The authenticity of the place was striking, and there are plenty of people out there who want real, authentic places to visit. But at a bare minimum, there has to be somewhere to stay.
I will sidetrack for a moment here to discuss signs I saw at several locations in McDowell County. These may be the most unwelcoming things someone can see when they aren't familiar with an area. They are threatening and meant to intimidate. In reality, they have no more weight than a simple, one dollar, store-bought "No Parking, Towing Enforced 24 Hours" or similar sign. If you are trying to attract tourists, someone needs to get rid of these signs or pay for businesses to replace them. These are an absolute no in a struggling area.
From Welch, I traveled deeper into coal country. I went through Coalwood, childhood home of Homer Hickman who was the author of Rocket Boys which was turned into the wonderful 1999 movie October Sky. I traveled on to War, hoping to find someone to talk to. I wasn't exactly hungry, but it was cold and grim and a cup of coffee and maybe a slice of something tasty seemed in order. I stopped into the coffee shop there and found myself in a real gem of a place. The owner, a sweet lady named Orbie Campbell, had lived there her whole life. Her husband John had been a coal miner, and they had bought this little coffee shop back in 1969. The walls were covered with paintings and photos of John F. Kennedy who visited McDowell County three times during the 1960 election cycle. Even in 1960, he was concerned about unemployment in the county and wondered aloud "what to do with men when machines have thrown them out of work". That exact problem is one of the biggest the county faces today. Ms. Orbie and I spoke for an hour or so while I sipped my coffee and she smoked cigarettes in the corner. She told me I would have really liked their little town if I had been there a few years before. I believe her. When I asked her what the answer is, she said she'd like to see a bigger road through town. She believed that if the tiny road (Route 16) were widened and straightened, it might serve as a more major artery into the state. There were plenty of coal and timber trucks that came through, and there might be something to that idea. I loved spending time with her and will treasure our interaction for a long time. If you only find yourself in one coffee shop like this in your life, you'd be lucky. If you are ever in or near War, West Virginia, do stop in and see my friend Orbie. She will speak a kind of truth that only someone who has lived in a place for 75 years can.
The last part of the story of what I saw was the promise of the Hatfield-McCoy trail system in the area. The Hatfield-McCoy trail system is a web of ATV trails that spiderweb across the southwest of the state. This is a huge tourist initiative. The McDowell County trail head is at Indian RIdge in Ashland. I was excited to try and get out on the trail, but most of the infrastructure was closed up for the winter. From looking around a bit it seemed like a permit would cost me $50, and a one day rental would be between $215 and $400 plus tax, fuel and safety equipment. I know there are several guided tours available, but the cheapest I could find was $250 with a minimum of 2 riders. I know this trail attracts ATV folks from all over the world, and many arrive with their own ATVs. But I was hoping to get out on the trail for an hour or two and I felt like that would cost me about $300. I would love to see some people catering to the walk-up, day tour crowd. I think there is a lot of potential here but the businesses need to expand their reach. There are some "ATV resorts" around offering camping and RV sites and even cabin rentals, and most of the towns are ATV friendly on the streets. I love the idea of this, but from talking to business owners it hasn't brought the business that was promised. I think this system has enormous potential, but needs a long term plan and some serious organization. I'm a travel professional and have spent my entire adult life organizing tours and accommodation and I found the information on the trail system difficult to sift through. When you are in the rafting communities in West Virginia, you know it. These communities need to draw from that already established and highly successful industry.
I spent exactly one day in McDowell County. I saw a lot of burnt out buildings, crumbling infrastructure and pill heads which is exactly what I expected to see. But I kept my eyes open and looked deeper. People are leaving McDowell County in droves and following jobs outside, as a hundred years ago they poured in to pursue the coal jobs available at that time. This out-migration is happening in so many parts of the country, but it seems to hurt here a little more. There are answers though and with a little capital, things could turn around. A university could bring in business, jobs and money like it does in surrounding counties. A State Park with cabins and a lodge, like those found in other parts of the state would be a huge addition to McDowell County. There is land and stark beauty here, and genuine coal history which I think would be incredibly interesting and at least a reasonable draw. A fully and accurately recreated coal town connected to the ATV trails would be incredible. Historic scenic train rides are doing well in other parts of the state. The existing tracks and winding mountainous scenery might make this a viable option as well. There are good options that exist, but all would require significant investments by someone.
I really enjoyed my time in McDowell and met and talked with people and learned about their lives in the way I hoped I would be able to everywhere I went. They had an easy-going way about them it's hard to put my finger on. I would have liked to leave some more tourist dollars around, but a lot of what was there was out of my price range which seems counter intuitive. Bringing tourism into McDowell is not going to be easy, it would be harder than almost anywhere I've been because it is so far gone. But it's possible, and I would love to see it happen. McDowell has been down for a long time now, but it is not quite out.