Teddy Roosevelt believed success came to those who were in constant motion (he also suffered from bouts of depression when he wasn’t moving, but that’s beside the point). He often played a game with his family where they’d all march forward in a line. The rules were simple: Don’t change direction. They’d have to climb rocks, ford creeks, and even scale walls. The game ended when Ole Teddy said it ended. It could apparently last for hours.
While I’m not a “gamer” per se, I do abide by Teddy’s view that movement is advisable. So, when I looked at my calendar and saw a blank spot, I decided to hop in the car to visit my Mom who lives in Southwest Virginia.
After a leisurely lunch at her local Wendy’s, I decided I wasn’t done moving and turned the car toward the very bottom of West Virginia. We were heading to the town of Bramwell.
Bramwell boasts 364 residents and a remarkable history. At the end of the 19th century, this part of the world was producing massive quantities of coal. Coal, as I’m sure you know, was used to power the country’s industrial boom. This led speculators, investors, and businessmen to flock from the north to take advantage of the sudden opportunity. Those who hit it big built Victorian mansions to display the success they’d dug up. And, according to the all-knowing Wikipedia,
“In the late 1800s the town acquired some notoriety for having the largest number of millionaires per capita in the United States.”
Today, many of their houses remain. Some beautifully restored. Others in some form of ruin.
As my mom and I walked around the small downtown area, I reflected on this history. I thought about how much had changed for this part of the world. I was reminded of Valparaiso in Chile, another place that had gone from boom to bust. While I was lost in my deep thoughts, my mom was struck by how cold it was. “Let’s get back in the car.”
So we did.
We headed to Pocahontas, which is just over the border in Virginia. While Bramwell was where the coal operators lived, Pocahontas was home to the workers. Its streets are lined with much more modest houses and lots and lots of churches.
One, St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church has ten huge murals reminiscent of the finest Italian frescoes. Or at least that’s what my mom told me. The door was locked, which I discovered when she kept chiding me to try to break in to see the murals. “They’re unbelievable!”
And that level of skill should come as no surprise. The wealth that existed here in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries was vast. And skilled artisans from every part of Europe came to find work in and around the mines.
After having our fill of education, I pointed the car back toward my mom’s place for a mint julep.
And, there you have it, a surprising visit to a surprising corner of our planet that proves there are fascinating stories everywhere. You just have to look.
An interesting article. It reminded me of my native South Wales when coal was the black gold. Interestingly the mine owners here also built some impressive homes and castles on the back of those who slogged their guts out deep beneath the ground. Cardiff was the coal capital of the world and at one time was the busiest port in the world sending Welsh coal, mostly anthracite, to all four corners of the globe. The small seaside town of Penarth just outside Cardiff has an impressive number of these palatial dwellings where it was once said had more millionaires than anywhere else in the U.K. outside of London. No doubt about it a lot of miners from South Wales left for the States taking their skills and this is bourne out with Welsh names of towns in Pennsylvania like Tredegar and Brynmawr to name just a couple.