After leaving the New River area, we drove through the dark to the Elkhorn Inn in Landgraff, West Virginia. Landgraff is in McDowell County in the southeast corner of the state. My fascination of coal and railroads made this ideal place for me to visit. McDowell County was once home to over 100,000 residents in the 1950’s that helped set many coal mining production records. Through the 1960’s and 1970’s the demand for the county’s metallurgical coal remained high. McDowell continued to lead the United States in total coal production. Increased mechanization of coal production had reduced the number of laborers employed, but miners enjoyed quality pay under improving conditions negotiated by the United Mine Workers. During the 1980’s the central Appalachian region lost more than 70,000 coal mining jobs. Between 1981 and 1992, according to the U.S. Department of Energy and the United Mine Workers union, coal mining employment in the state of West Virginia decreased by more than 53%. No county in the Appalachian region was more severely distressed by these losses than McDowell County. According to the United States Census Bureau, in 1980, the rate of poverty in McDowell County was 23.5%. By 1990, the poverty rate in McDowell County had climbed to 37.7%, the highest rate of poverty for any county in West Virginia. By 1990, 50.3% of all children in McDowell County were living in families below the poverty level, up from 31.2% in 1980. The major losses in McDowell County during this period were the result of the closing of all mines and facilities operated by the United States Steel Corporation, terminating more than 1,200 jobs. Today the area is still one of the fastest declining populations.
Having arrived to this area in the night, I really did not have a clue what I was to expect to see the next morning. The area was far more depressed than I had expected. All the research I did before my trip did not prepare me for what I was going to see. There are no words to describe the area and my photos can’t even tell the story of abandonment and poverty. The coal is still the heart of the area where monster trains battle steep grades to bring the coal to outside markets. If you can find a way to look past the poverty in the area will allow you to see the beauty that was once there and which still remains. The area probably isn’t very high on many lists of places to travel but I know that there are many like me which would love to visit. For those that find themselves drawn to a place like McDowell County I highly recommend the Elkhorn Inn. The owners of the Elkhorn Inn are known for setting up their guest for great trout fishing and amazing ATVing on the many trails in the area.
About the Author
Travis Dewitz is a professional photographer located out of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He has been published in many books and magazines including many in the railroad industry. He does a lot of photography work and environmental portraitures for many companies and heavy industries in and around Wisconsin. He has grown up with trains and railroads are one of his passions that he pursues. His railroad photography can be seen on his website The Railroad Collection.
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