Dunglen Hotel Was Waldorf of Mountains
By Wallace E. Knight
May 4, 1952
(Staff Writer for The Gazette)
Dunglen Hotel Was Waldorf of Mountains
By Wallace E. Knight
THURMOND, May 3. - It is very quiet here today. The rushing waters of Loup Creek and New River make low background noises, and occasionally the penetrating whistle of a train is heard. That is all.
Turn back the clock a half-century, though, and watch as the train pulls into Thurmond. Here it comes - a chugging engine followed by five passenger cars, all of them jammed to capacity.
On board are coal executives and miners, traveling salesmen, local people from shopping tours, lumbermen visitors.
One final jolt and the train halts; and passengers pour off, greeted by an assemblage of friends, loafing onlookers and busy railroaders.
"Uncle Dave, an ageless Negro, circulates through the jostling crowd with his baskets of fried chicken, fried fish and pies. (Although most of the purchasers don't know it, a lot of Uncle Dave's "chicken" is fried turtle, carefully cut and dis- [sic] disguised. It doesn't make much difference, though - it's good).
But soon the crowd begins to thin. A few men head down the tracks toward the main part of town, but most of the travelers, carrying bundles and luggage, start across the bridge to the west bank of New River.
From the bridge their destination is easy to see. It is a hulking four-story building with long porches and neat grounds, gleaming white against the green backing of a steep hillside.
"The Dunglen Hotel," one of the drummers says to a friend. "They call it 'the Waldorf of the mountains' - it has napkins and tablecloths."
All this was a half-century ago, when Thurmond and the Dunglen were a part of the mountain empire of one man, when coal brought strange bedfellows to this wild land and offered them everything from violence to wealth.
Thurmond seemed a full-fledged city. Incorporated on Jan. 1, 1900, it had a newspaper, fine rail facilities, repair shop and a roundhouse, many businesses, two hotels and other attributes of importance.
In a few years it was to produce three times the amount of revenue from freight than Cincinnati. (In 1910, 4,283,641 tons of freight originated here, producing $4,824,911 in revenue).
Today, even though great amounts of coal still are shipped from here, these things are hard even for local people to believe, for there is no room here for a town.
Along this side of the river the hills go straight down to the water. The Chesapeake and Ohio tracks interrupt the decline briefly, and at a slightly widened spot below the station several business buildings fit into line.
The road leading into town threads down Loup Creek from Glen Jean and U. S. Rt. 21 in central Fayette County. When it reaches the New River and the bridge, which was built exclusively for rail transportation, a single-lane passage allows autos to cross.
For practical purposes the road ends here, however. Connections up and down the New range from poor to impassable.
And at the place where the Dunglen Hotel stood there is nothing now but a small grocery store and a baseball diamond.
The memories are strong, though. When men who knew the area in its heyday get together the talk of the old Dunglen and of Thomas Gaylord McKell, who built it, is rich and interesting.
Tom McKell was a coal baron. His son, William, inherited the family lands and ruled them with the same strength his father had; and between them they left a lasting imprint here.
The story goes back to 1870, when Miss Jean Dun of Chillicothe, O., was married to Thomas McKell. Miss Dun's father presented the couple with 12,500 acres of Fayette County land, most of it virtually unexplored.
McKell saw the potential of the property after a few trips to the region, and quietly bought up other land here. Before long - and actually without too much outlay - he owned 25,000 acres..
His next step was to negotiate with the C&O for the building of a railroad bridge across the New at Thurmond, which was then a huddle of houses named in honor of Capt. W. D. Thurmond, a coal man and a banker.
The bridge was completed in 1892 - and coal began to flow from along Dunloup Creek (as it was known then) in ever increasing amounts.
A rush of business moves followed. McKell virtually built Glen Jean, which in name honors his wife, and made his own residence there. His opera house there (built 1896) featured the leading plays and actors of the era.
He tried his hand at publishing. The West Virginia Herald operated at Thurmond for several years, finally folding up in 1902.
And he built the great Dunglen Hotel at the turn of the century.
"It had a large lobby," said a man who knew it then, "and rooms were on three floors. Below the lobby level were showrooms and sample rooms and storage areas.
"The dining room was big, and the gambling rooms were fitted with every game known around here. Some of the playing was fabulous, too."
McKell set up banking in the hotel, too. The New River Banking and Trust Co. opened in a room of the Dunglen on Aug. 11, 1904.
A little more than a month later, Thomas McKell died at the age of 59.
His soon, William, took firm hold now. Will had lived at Glen Jean since 1893, after his graduation from Yale, and he was a stern businessman.
Under his guidance, the McKell Coal and Coke Co. prospered and grew; and a dozen other companies, operating on land he leased to them, mined coal in the McKell empire.
In 1909 Will organized the Bank of Glen Jean, and four years later he built the Kanawha, Glen Jean and Eastern Railway.
This road, about 15 miles total length, connected Glen Jean and Kilsythe, Mt. Hope and Pax, and fed into the main line of the Virginian Railway.
"It wasn't as long as a lot of railroads," one veteran said, "but it was just as wide. And it carried a wonderful lot of coal."
All along the lines were mining towns. Today many of the names are lost, but these are most of them:
Dewitt, Harvey, Collins, Nichol, Sun, Sunset, Derryhale, Turkey Know, Dunloup, Callaway, McDonald, Lee, Kilsythe, Fayral, Cepece, Price Hill, Sidney, Oswald, Tamroy, Graham, North Kilsythe, Siltex, Pax Branch.
Probably the mine at each of these towns was producing more than 500 tons of coal per day in the best years, old timers say. The Sun Mine seemed to have been the largest, its production filling about 50 rail cars daily.
This coal output was the key to the Dunglen. The traveling salesmen who flocked to the hotel would ride the train to each of the mining towns - or walk the ties - and hit every company store.
"They called a lot of them 'tie walkers,'" a railroader explained. "They learned to step on every tie, but since they usually were in a hurry they practically hopped to where they were going. They could go like blazes, even in the dark."
This week a pair of men who worked in and around Thurmond when the Dunglen Hotel was new met in Mt. Hope. Admittedly, they were the oldest men in the smokeless coal industry - and the history they have helped make is long.
Holly Stover, hearty and white-haired, looked across the desk at P. M. (Phil) Snyder, coal operator and banker, and laughed reminiscently.
"You remember the dances there, Phil," he said. "I think it was Vorhee's Orchestra from Columbus that played for the first dance at the Dunglen - people from all over the southern part of the state were there."
Snyder nodded. "It was a fine sight, too," he said. "Everyone rode the C&O to Thurmond, and the dances went on all night long."
Snyder's younger brother, T. H. Snyder, smiled and agreed. "Those were great days: we all could get together and raise money for the dances, and then hire the best orchestra available in the East."
Stover was a C&O telegraph operator in Thurmond just after the turn of the century, and he freely admits the Dunglen was a little rich for his salary then.
"I gave them my lobby trade," he explained. "I'd go and sit and watch, but I couldn't spend much."
Others were spending, though. On one well-remembered poker game a New River operator lost his coal mine; and at a business meeting at the Dunglen one of the largest transactions the area ever knew took place.
"It was about 1902," Snyder said. "The Berwind-White Coal Mining Co. had been negotiating for the purchase of the W. P. Rend mins at Minden. When the deal was completed, the Berwind- White boss wrote Rend a check for $1,250,000 and handed it to him in his room at the Dunglen."
Snyder, who is one of Fayette County's most popular people, remembers the hotel as the place where he attended a campaign meeting in 1900, too. That year, when McKinley was elected to his second term as President, Snyder was elected sheriff of the county.
"Now, let me see," Stover went on, "it was a man named Butterfield who was the first manager of the Dunglen." Dr. Gory Hogg of Lewisburg, who was practicing medicine at Harvey at the time, was a frequent visitor at the hotel - and before long he married Mr. Butterfield's pretty daughter, Nancy."
In the early decades of the century, William McKell kept the hotel and his empire in neat business shape. William was thought by many to be something of an eccentric, though: his methods often were unusual, to say the least.
"He never wanted anyone to know he gave a penny away," one of his old friends said, "but he gave thousands of dollars to charity.
"Once a lot if [sic] his railroaders faced a layoff," the friend continued. "McKell solved this by setting up a rude sort shops to repair his locomotives. His men didn't know how to do the work so it took them months to finish a routine job that could have been done by the Virginian maintenance men in a week."
When William decided to close his Bank of Glen Jean after years of operation, his business sense was displayed, however. "The bank had enough money in government bonds alone to pay off all the depositors."
One of the man's pet projects has gone down in the lore of the sports world, also.
"His men played baseball and bet on the games, and pretty soon so many ringers were being brought in that the games were virtually fixed.
"McKell set out to promote a game he called 'big ball' then. He organized teams and had special oversized softballs made, and pretty soon a lot of his workers were having fun at the game. They called it 'Letemhitit' ball eventually, since it was almost impossible to strike out.
"McKell had graduated from Lawrenceville Academy. One time he brought a whole team of Lawrenceville boys, along with teachers and coaches, all the way from New Jersey to pay 'Letemhitit' with the miners. Everyone had a fine time, but the miners licked the tar out of the Lawrenceville players."
McKell, a bachelor, died in the mid-1930s. His bachelor brother, Thomas, who had handled family interests in the Chillicothe area, had died earlier, so the McKell lands, went to cousins. Much of it has since been purchased by other companies.
Long before William McKell died the Dunglen Hotel had faded. Its period of brightness was clouded by the World War I, and after the war a slow decline set it.
The auto and an attendant shifting of emphasis from the railroad to the highway took business away from Thurmond, and 'tie walkers' became motorists.
Gradually even the town began to fold up. Businesses moved away - many of them to Mt. Hope and Oak Hill - and coal mines around Thurmond closed as they were worked out. The charter was relinquished years ago.
It was during the early years of the depression, probably the summer of 1930, local people recall, that the Dunglen burned. Fire lit up the whole area; and when it burned itself out the frame building was destroyed.
There will never be another hotel like it around this part of the New River. The circumstances that fostered it all are changed now.
Kids play ball today on a diamond where the old Dunglen stood, the bright spot where the drummers and gamblers and social leaders and coal men met.
The diamond is pretty small, though - just about right for a game of "Letemhitit."
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