McDowell County was formed in 1858 and named for James McDowell, a former governor of Virginia. West Virginia's southernmost county, it remained one of its most isolated and underpopulated until the end of the nineteenth century. In 1890 the population was 7,300; in 1900 it had soared to 18,747, and by 1910 it had skyrocketed to 47,856, making McDowell the fifth most populous county in the state. The same two catalysts that spurred development in other counties in the region explain this remarkable growth: coal and the railroad. Coal mines were opened and towns grew up alongside the Norfolk & Western Railroad as it inched its way down Elkhorn Creek northwest from Bluefield in the 1880s and early 1890s. In 1907 an observer claimed that settlement was so extensive that “the traveler as he passes through is unable to discern where one coal town ends and another begins.” Almost overnight, the built environment had changed from a landscape dominated by traditional log farmsteads to one in which company towns were the norm.
In 1920, as the coal industry continued to burgeon, McDowell, with a population of 68,571, ranked as West Virginia's third most populous county. During this heady period, McDowell claimed to produce more coal than any other county, not merely in West Virginia but in the nation. Prosperity ended with the Great Depression. By 1933 thirty of the county's ninety coal mines had closed and 5,000 miners found themselves out of work. The other 14,000 were employed only sporadically.
World War II brought a temporary resurgence in the county's economy, and McDowell's population peaked in 1950 at 98,887. The 2000 population of 27,329, a 22 percent decline from the 1990 figure of 35,233, was the steepest drop in any county in the state in that decade. With the decline in population, many coal company camps have disappeared from the map and from the landscape. In camps and towns that remain, abandoned houses, churches, and stores linger in hollows alongside remnants of tipples and other mining structures on the hillsides above. In many instances, trailers parked in front yards have taken the place of abandoned houses.
Some architectural surprises emerge, including two Eastern Orthodox churches, complete with onion domes. These churches are visual evidence of the native origins of their parishioners, as well as the conscientious paternalism of some coal companies. Welch is home to one of West Virginia's most imposing county courthouses, testifying to the energy, enthusiasm, and optimism of the coalfields in their infancy. Towns such as Gary and Coalwood tell later chapters in the saga of coal and provide poignant evidence of having once been model company towns.
In recent years, efforts to develop tourism in McDowell County have centered on the Coal Heritage Trail, part of the Federal Scenic Byways program. The trail links Bluefield and Beckley via U.S. 52 and West Virginia 16, which intersect at Welch, and has markers pointing out places of interest. Listings below follow the Coal Heritage Trail from Maybeury to Welch, along U.S. 52 and Elkhorn Creek, where the county's earliest mining activity occurred. Entries after those for Welch depart from the trail to cover places of interest in the southern and western portions of the county.
If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.
SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.