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Route 52 in Bluefield
U.S. Route 52 is the main thoroughfare for automobiles and trucks across West Virginia's southern coalfields. It roughly follows the rails of the Norfolk & Southern Railroad - previously the Norfolk & Western - for 95 miles from Bluefield to Williamson. Here, the road heads north out of Bluefield. Photograph by Michael Keller.

Riding Route 52

The Old Coal Road

By Su Clauson-Wicker

Many who live in southern West Virginia's coalfields grow poetic complaining about the tortuous curves and steep inclines of U.S. Route 52. But talk of flattening her out to bed proposed I-73 brings mixed emotions. Route 52, the old coal road, can be rough and sooty, but she reminds us that this was the country's richest coalfield, providing the low-smoke coal that helped to fuel America's industrial revolution.

Dr. Stuart McGehee, archivist for the Eastern Regional Coal Archives and a frequent GOLDENSEAL contributor, is more emphatic. "We have a storehouse of coalfield history along Route 52 - coke ovens, tipple shafts, a gold-domed Russian Orthodox church, Victorian company stores. To destroy these gorgeous artifacts would be a tragedy."

Anyone with an interest in coal history should follow the sinuous route along what was the nation's most productive piece of railway from the late 1890's until the 1920's. At one time, 220 mines operated along the Norfolk & Western Railroad in the heart of the rich bituminous, "smokeless" coal country, spanning 95 miles between Bluefield and Williamson. The mines were mostly run by independent coal operators who leased the land from the railroad. Their Italian-crafted coke ovens, mansard-roofed company stores, triple-tiered coal superintendents' homes, and the ubiquitous rows of company houses still stand as reminders of the era when the demand for high-grade coal from this region, known as the Pocahontas coalfield, put mines elsewhere out of business.

You can read the rest of this article in the Spring 2002 issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.