Southwestern West Virginia doesn’t get a lot of visitors. This is a shame because there are some really cool places to see there. It's more of a shame for them, though, because jobs are scarce in the southwest since coal has dried up and the economy could use some tourist money coming in. During my time there I saw some wonderful tourism initiatives, some things I would change and some things that just left me shaking my head.
I started my tour in tiny Bramwell in Mercer County. Historically, Bramwell was the business center of the Pocahontas Coal Fields. During its heyday, Bramwell supported a population of over 4000 people. The Bank of Bramwell was the financial center for the whole region and 14 passenger trains a day pulled into the station. In the late 1800s, Bramwell was said to have the highest concentration of millionaires per capita in the country.
Today, it is a town of faded glory with a population of around 350 people. There are still some beautiful homes in the town including one that has been converted to a Bed and Breakfast, but Main Street was all but empty when I visited. I was happy to see at least one storefront had been done up with the local high school colors, making it feel less shuttered than it was. It blows my mind why towns won’t make this kind of effort to keep their business centers from looking run down and empty, even if they are. I will give credit to the town or maybe to the building owner for at least having one window looking healthy.
The shining star of the town was the Visitor Information Center and museum, located in the old train depot in town. I was thrilled to find it open on a Sunday afternoon. It absolutely blows my mind when these places are closed on weekends as this is when most tourists are traveling. The gentleman working there was friendly and very informative. He gave me a great walking tour map of town and directions on the best route to take. The museum, though small, was full of local treasures and also very informative. Obviously someone had really put some time and love into assembling their collection. There was also a gift shop which had a nice assortment of books and local crafts. If you are going to have a staffed visitor center, it may as well double as a gift shop. Tourists often want mementos of the places they have visited and you might be surprised how many postcards and fridge magnets you can sell.
Bramwell, and specifically the train depot are a part of the National Coal Heritage Area LINK. This is a cooperative effort with the National Park Service to interpret and preserve the coalfield heritage of southern West Virginia as an area of nationally historic significance. I am such a huge fan of the National Park Service and our National Park System, especially when it is used to preserve area like these which may not have the resources to do it themselves. Unfortunately the National Park Service is severely underfunded and cuts are made seemingly every year. This is an organization whose sole reason for existing is preserving our natural and cultural heritage. Please support the Park Service and encourage your congress members to do the same. This area could really use a lot more support to preserve these towns and buildings, and I would love to see the National Coal Heritage Area expand its influence.
From Bramwell, I made my way through McDowell County which you can read about HERE, and on to Matewan in Mingo County. Matewan is in the heart of Hatfield-McCoy country and was also the site of the Matewan Massacre, a shootout between miners who were trying to unionize and the agents who were trying to prevent it. This story was told in the 1987 movie Matewan. Matewan is capitalizing on both by telling these stories and more in their wonderful and free town museum, also located in the train depot. This museum is very well done. Though minimalistic, the town has written up condensed versions of both stories as well as many others surrounding the town. They have a well-stocked gift shop. My favorite feature in the museum though was their free loaner bicycles. They had a small pile of bikes and helmets you could sign out and ride around town on. This was not some expensive initiative to buy new matching bikes, but rather was probably just started by asking people to donate old bikes. I love this idea and want to give Matewan a high-five for it.
The alley by the train tracks where the massacre took place is well preserved, down to the bullets in the walls there. I will mention that the alley had, at one time, a recording which would play on demand and tell the story of the massacre. While I know this may seem like a good idea, it’s not. I have almost never seen one of these working in my travels. All you have to do is stand at a crosswalk with a button or by an elevator and watch as children come up to them. They will press the button a hundred times, hit it, mash it, pull it, push it with their forehead and elbow, kick it and generally do anything they can think of to this poor button. Putting a button outside in public is asking for it to be abused. I love the idea in theory, but it never works very long in practice. You are better off with signs.
The rest of the town was not doing well. Physically it was in good shape. There was a really cozy looking B&B right on the main street, and the Mine Wars museum looked interesting but was unfortunately closed for the winter during my visit. But there were a lot of empty storefronts as well. A gentleman I spoke with told me that the Walmart in nearby Williamson had pretty much killed the businesses in town. It was sad, but not yet beyond hope. They have a trailhead for the Hatfield-McCoy ATV Trail System, and a few businesses which are trying to make a go with that which was encouraging. During the summer months, there is apparently an airboat tour LINK which leaves from Matewan and takes in some of the sites from the Hatfield-McCoy feud. I think this is a wonderful idea and will have to come back to check it out. Of all the towns I visited in the region, Matewan was the one I found most active in trying to attract tourism. They are innovative and active in this pursuit and promoting what they already have through their history to do so. It would be great to see more businesses open on Main Street, and I think this may be a town worth gambling on. I liked Matewan and was encouraged by their efforts. It’s a town worth checking out.
From Matewan I bounced back and forth between Kentucky and West Virginia checking out the Hatfield and McCoy sites. I had a good set of directions and really enjoyed some of these sites. If you are in the area you should definitely stop in at the old McCoy homesite and well in Pike County along Route 319. The owner of the property is Neil Warren who is now retired and spends his days discussing the feud with tourists. He was incredibly informative and knowledgeable and seemed really happy to talk with me. I spent ten minutes looking at the old well and foundations, but an hour talking with Neil. I’m not the only one who enjoyed talking with him, Kentucky has honored him by making him a Kentucky Colonel.
Williamson is a city which straddles the West Virginia/Kentucky border. Unfortunately for the West Virginia side, the Kentucky side has the development – the Walmart, grocery stores and restaurants are mostly clustered on west side of the Tug Fork River. The downtown area is on the West Virginia side, and is overflowing with potential.
My big draw to Williamson was the Hatfield-McCoy museum which I found on a hill in an unused section of the old high school. At first I thought it seemed like a great use of unused, city-owned property. By all indications from their website, the museum should have been open at the end of November when I visited, but I found it closed. There was a number to call, but I had no service on either my AT&T phone or my Sprint phone. This is something you MUST know about your town if you are trying to provide a phone number to tourists.
Put out but not deterred I went to the downtown Visitors Center to see if they would call for me. This place was warm and welcoming in an old building made entirely of coal. The lady working there was wonderful, helpful and informative. We discussed tourism potential and she told me the Hatfield-McCoy connection was all they really had. She did direct me to the nearby Mountaineer Hotel to check out, which I would later in the day. She told they knew the town needed a café, for example, but there had to be money or an investor to make that happen. I peered out at all the empty storefronts and thought coffee making equipment isn’t that expensive, somehow a deal must be possible. Or how about a coffee cart set up in the front section of one of the restaurants? I digress, but I really enjoyed our conversation and she talked to the man who ran the museum and he said he would meet me there in five minutes.
I returned up the hill and sat outside the museum in the cold for half an hour. Nobody came. Tell me you’re closed, tell me you can’t make it, tell me anything, but don’t tell me to wait out in the cold and no-show on me. If this is “all we’ve got” then it better be something you can deliver, or you have nothing. I was really excited to see this museum and I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance. I may have been the only tourist in town that day, but you lost me.
My visit wasn’t a total wash though. I returned downtown and went to see The Mountaineer Hotel. What a beautiful old hotel it was too, and I was glad to see it up and running. The lobby was warm and really inviting. The rooms, though small and a bit dated, looked clean and comfortable and were named after people who had stayed there. Among the more famous were John F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, Jerry Lee Lewis and Paul Newman. What a little treasure this place was. I’m really glad I visited.
I got a good feel from Williamson. It seemed like a nice enough place, and the few people I talked to were pleasant enough. I was told they were trying to push being a medical center, and there were several medical offices around. This is a good industry and I wish them well. Not every town wants tourism, but it seemed like with a little effort they could draw some in. And to me, when you’re in a town like this, every little bit helps.
I enjoyed exploring this part of West Virginia. The people were nice and there is some real history in those hills. I learned a lot about the Hatfields and McCoys and enjoyed driving down some great back roads. There is an infrastructure in place for tourism, but it didn’t seem like there was a real plan. With a little investment of time and money, this area could improve dramatically.