Thurmond lies deep in the New River Gorge on the main line of the C&O (now CSX) Railroad, in the heart of Fayette County's once fabled coalfields. With just enough level land for necessary tracks and switching operations, coal cars from surrounding mines were assembled here into longer trains for the main-line run to market. The town became an important revenue center for the C&O, and in 1910 the railroad's receipts from Thurmond tallied more than those from Cincinnati and Richmond combined.
Although Thurmond was never a coal company town per se, it was an equally monopolistic enterprise. Its founder, W. D. Thurmond, eventually built more than thirty houses that he rented to railroad employees and others. Within his town limits, the proprietor enforced a policy of prohibition, but across New River, the wealthy McKells of Glen Jean did not. Their 100-room Dun Glen Hotel, opened in 1901, hosted a fourteen-year diversion that Ripley's Believe It or Notis said to have labeled “the world's longest lasting poker game.”
In spite of W. D. Thurmond's efforts, both his town and the McKells' unincorporated settlement on the opposite shore became the playground of the New River coalfields. When P. H. Kelly became mayor in 1911, he was praised by The Fayette Journalfor his willingness to “send big, little, old, young, black, white, foreign born or any other kind to the town lockup.” Unlike nearby Mount Hope, Thurmond never boasted of its Sunday school attendance.
The railroad provided Thurmond's only access to the outside world until 1921, when a road was built to connect it to Glen Jean. The glory days ended in a blaze when the Dun Glen Hotel burned in 1930. By the 1950s, when the railroad changed from coal-burning steam engines to diesels, Thurmond was almost moribund. Although still a ghost town, it has become a center for white-water rafting on the New River and a major tourist attraction in the New River Gorge National River. Enough of its fabric remains to provide a haunting idea of what it once was like.
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