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Bramwell

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Bramwell is the Brigadoon of coal country. Beautifully situated on a level plain formed by a horseshoe bend of the winding Bluestone River, and climbing the hills to south and east, it seems to exist in another time and, most assuredly, in another place. Almost alone of West Virginia's southern coalfield towns, Bramwell still exudes a palpable sense of prosperity and well being.

The Virginias, the self-described “mining, industrial, and scientific journal devoted to the development of Virginia and West Virginia,” chronicled Bramwell's early years. In its October 1884 issue, the magazine announced:

Bramwell is the name of a new mining village that has recently been laid out on the west bank of Bluestone river, Mercer county, W. Va., on the new westward extension of the New River branch of the Norfolk & Western RR 5 miles below Pocahontas. This village is deservedly named in honor of Mr. J. Herbert Bramwell, the distinguished mining engineer now in charge of the mining operations of the Flat-top coal companies. The company will have its local headquarters at Bramwell, which occupies a handsome piece of bottom land in a large bend of Bluestone river.

Most of that description was accurate, but Bramwell was definitely not a mining village. As headquarters of several coal companies, it became home base for their officers, as well as for associated lawyers and bankers. Bramwell was almost exclusively an executive town, while Pocahontas, across the state line in Virginia, was where the miners lived and worked. Bramwell in its heyday was so affluent that its high school teams were dubbed “the Millionaires.” Local architect Walter Jefferson Smith, who charged “five percent of cost,” designed many of its turn-of-the-twentieth-century buildings. What Smith's designs lacked in state-ofthe-art style, they made up for in opulence. Houses designed by outsiders were more up-to-date, and at least one was designed by a Philadelphia firm, testament to that city's tentacles in the Pocahontas coalfields. Bramwell claims many things, but one assertion discloses its lifestyle more clearly than all the rest: its leading pharmacy was the third in the United States to stock Chanel No. 5 perfume.

Bramwell's glory days were brief, from the last two decades of the nineteenth century through the 1920s. Boosters claimed a population of some four thousand at the turn of the century, but census figures indicate that the population peaked in 1920 with 1,696. Even before the Depression struck its death knell, the younger generation of coal company barons had begun to abandon Bramwell in favor of Bluefield. Most of the town's fabric survived the following decades of genteel decline, and in recent years Bramwell has become a regional tourist destination. Several mansions have been converted into bed-and-breakfast inns, and others are frequently open for tours. Bramwell was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district in 1983, and the Historic American Buildings Survey has recorded a number of its buildings.

Writing Credits

Author: 
S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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