The Rise and Fall of a Coal City
by Jessica M. Fair
There are many legends and myths surrounding the ghost town of Thurmond in southern West Virginia. Now used as a put-in for whitewater rafting trips, it's hard to even imagine that this town was once famous for its liquor, gambling, and coal. Thurmond is located in Fayette County, West Virginia. It lies on the north side of the New River, between Arbuckle and Dunloop creek. Thurmond is one of the more notorious of the coal towns built around the turn of the century in Southern West Virginia.
Thurmond received its name from Captain William Dabney Thurmond, who was from Amherst County, Virginia. He settled on Arbuckle Creek in the 1840's and later became a Confederate leader with his own company, Thurmond's Rangers, in the Civil War. His home was torched by Union troops in 1863, so he moved his family away from Fayette County and returned in the early 1870's. He built his new home in Minden and became a surveyor for John Bower. Money was tight in those days, so Thurmond agreed to his wages being paid in 73 acres of land on the north side of the New River. Captain Thurmond was a very ambitious man; he knew that coal was being transported down Arbuckle and Dunloop creeks and trains would meet at a junction conveniently located on his property (Sullivan, Thurmond: A New River Community, 2). He also knew that the growing coal industry would result in major amounts of money and new families being brought to southern West Virginia.
Captain Thurmond was a strict Baptist who expected the best from himself and everyone that he came in contact with. As more and more people moved to this area of Fayette County, he planned to build his own small community, which he wanted to name "Arbuckle" ( Bragg, Thurmond, 7). Thurmond had big dreams for the new mines that would bring in coal, coal camps, more people, food, and supplies.
The C&O railroad was completed through the New River Gorge in January 1873. The eastern and western parts of the United States were connected by it at Hawk's Nest, located in Fayette County. This railroad would become the main street of Thurmond. By the 1880's, a dozen mines were shipping coal through Thurmond's land. People rushed in for "smokeless coal and coke". Coal was shipped from Collins and other Dunloop creek mines, Minden and its brother mines on Arbuckle Creek, Nuttalburg, Kaymoor, and Coal Run. Many other things were also being shipped on the C&O for the new people moving in to mine coal, such as fruit, furniture, clothing, and mining equipment. "At one time there was more freight handled there from the C&O than any depot between Richmond and Cincinnati" (Donnelly, Historical Notes, 46).
For the first decade after the railroad was completed, Thurmond and his son hauled wagonloads of produce and tobacco for twenty cents across the river (Bragg, Thurmond, 7). The C&O built a depot on Thurmond's property for the Dunloop Branch line and made plans for a bridge. Thurmond built houses on his property to rent to C&O workers and their families (Bragg, Thurmond, 13).
By 1875 there were 75 people living in houses on Thurmond's property, and two general stores, and two coal company offices had been constructed. The central location of these mines to the C&O led to the location of a Western Union Office and an Adams Express Company in Thurmond. (Bragg, Thurmond, 13). Thurmond applied for a Post Office to be built on his property. He submitted the town's name as "Arbuckle" but it was rejected, so "Thurmond" was chosen instead.
Captain Thurmond built a hotel on his property in 1891. Because of his strict Baptist morals, he would not allow any gambling or liquor at his hotel. Many men that came to the Thurmond Hotel weren't accustomed to this plain lifestyle, including Mr. Thomas G. McKell (Bragg, Thurmond, 2). He moved directly across the river from Thurmond and built the most famous Thurmond landmark--The Dunglen Hotel.
The Dunglen Hotel was a 3 « story wooden building, which boasted a double- decker porch on three sides and 100 rooms for rent. The average cost for a one-night stay at the Dunglen Hotel was $2.50, more than the average coal miners weekly wage. Coal miners struggled to put food on their table while rich coal operators gambled away more money than their workers would ever see here. This hotel also offered dancing, prostitution, and liquor. Many men were attracted to the Dunglen because it offered quietness from the railroad, which the Thurmond Hotel didn't (Bragg, Thurmond, 2).
In 1901 Captain Thurmond officially incorporated his town and outlawed the sale of liquor. In order to save his business, Thomas McKell extended the boundaries of Glen Jean, (the town he owned), to include his hotel. This extended property became known as Ballyhack or Southside.
The Dunglen had bands, fine china, fresh seafood, parties, and political conventions. The bottom floor had a mortuary, grocery and dry goods store, drug store, shoe shop, furniture store, and bank. The Dunglen was nicknamed "Little Monte Carlo" for its liquor and gambling. Coal miners were paid on Saturday evening and would "blow off steam" at Southside. Prostitutes and gamblers would ride the train into Thurmond on Saturdays to meet the tired miners and take their money (Melody Bragg, Window to the Past, 5). Some of the Southside saloons were the Bear Wallow, Stackale Drive and Dancehall, and the Black Hawk. Whiskey was sold for ten cents a drink or $1 a quart.
By 1900 there were twenty-six mines in the vicinity of Thurmond. But by 1909, the town's decline began when the Virginian Railway offered the C&O railroad its first competition. When prohibition was passed in 1914, Southside was wiped out and the Dunglen became just a hotel. The C&O became less prosperous and so did the people. More of the town of Thurmond declined in 1922 when a serious fire burned parts of the town and wasn't rebuilt. The Dunglen Hotel was destroyed by arson in 1930.
The depression years saw more erosion in Thurmond's business district. Between 1931 and 1938 the National Bank of Thurmond, the Armour Meat Company, the New River Banking and Trust Company, and the C&P telephone district offices left the town. The last major industry left in Thurmond was the railroad, and even it ceased to be a factor in 1940 when the C&O switched to diesel engines and there was no longer a need to stop at Thurmond for water and coal. Soon afterwards the Thurmond depot closed (Bragg, Thurmond, 25).
A major event in Thurmond's recent history was the 1969 opening of Jon Dragon's "Wildwater Unlimited" and the creation of the New River whitewater rafting industry (Sullivan, Thurmond, 41). Some rebirth of the area as a tourist attraction resulted from the great increase in the numbers of people visiting the area, attracted by the rafting industry. Most rafting companies use Thurmond as an Upper New River put-in. The Thurmond Depot has also been rebuilt. In recent years, the creation of the New River Gorge as a national park has aided in the general economic development of the area.
Captain William Dabney Thurmond was a pioneer with big dreams and a will to make them come true. Even after his death in 1910, the town lived on until progress shut it down in the middle of the century. The town of Thurmond has made a small comeback, however, with the large business of rafting and being restored by some of the locals. Although built to be a hard working, religious community, Thurmond will always hold a place in Ripley's Believe It or Not for the Dunglen Hotel's fourteen year poker run, taking in $6,000 a month at a mercantile store without the use of cash, and having the Masonic Royal Arch Chapter No. 24, which had a membership of over 1,000 people. "This was the first lodge in the country to erect its own building and its members traveled to Thurmond by train to attend meetings" (Bragg, Thurmond, 24). This is impressive for a town that never had a permanent population of more than 500 ( Lewis, Thurmond, WV, 3)!
Melody Bragg, Thurmond and Ghost Towns of the New River Gorge. Glen Jean, GEM Publications, 1995.
Melody Bragg. Window to the Past. Glen Jean: GEM Publications, 1990.
Shirley Donnelly. Historical Notes on Fayette County, W. VA. Oak Hill: Privately Printed, 1958.
Eugene Lewis Scott. Thurmond, WV. Gauley Bridge, Thomas In-Prints, 1994.
Kenneth Sullivan. Thurmond, A New River Community. Eastern National Park & Monument Association, 1995.
West Virginia Historical Society
West Virginia History Center