July 26, 2015 Travis Dewitz

Historic Elkhorn Inn & Theatre – A Railfan Retreat in Mountainous Coal Country | Guest Post by Elisse Clark

Norfolk Southern Heritage - Landgraff, WV

Norfolk Southern Heritage – Landgraff, WV

The Elkhorn Inn, Landgraff, WV

It was around 2004, I think. I was milling about the Explorer’s Club in NYC, talking to clumps of travel journalists in my native-NYese, and enjoying the sound of their glorious, nasal voices- familiar tones I hadn’t heard in a couple of years. It was an accent I’d always been rather disdainful of, and which I’d done my best to lose, but it was now literally music to my ears. The event I was attending, together with another West Virginia B&B owner, had been held to promote West Virginia tourism, and as the only New Yorker in attendance, my obviously Queens voice (think: “The Nanny”) had drawn me quite a little crowd. Oddly- and fortunately, as it turned out- my years in the rural mountains of West Virginia had apparently strengthened my Noo Yawkese. A journalist moved close to me, notepad in hand. “What”, she said, sidling up and stage-whispering, conspiratorially, in my ear, “possessed you to move to West Virginia?!” I showed her a photo of the Elkhorn Inn, all 90’ x40’ three stories of her Coal Heritage Trail glory, with her two chimneys, front porch, and balcony. “That’s my home”. I said. “It’s got 28 rooms and 66 windows. I finally have enough closet space”. “Oh, my Gawwwd!” she gasped. At which point I burst out laughing, because One: no, I still didn’t have enough closet space, and Two: she’d asked a really good question- what HAD possessed me to move to West Virginia?

The short answer is love.

The Floods of 2001 and 2002

When Dan and I met, we were both FEMA disaster response workers, and what originally brought us to West Virginia was a disaster. My husband and I met while working for FEMA in NYC during the disaster response operation following the 9/11 terrorist attack. I was the NYer, and he had been sent to NYC from FEMA HQ in D.C.  I was Community Relations, and he was Logistics- which, I like to say, always supports Community Relations- sometimes for life! To cut a long, and rather sweet, story short, we met cute in an elevator in October 2001, courted through that very difficult winter (he frankly saved me from losing the last two cans in my 6-pack..), and in the spring of 2002 Dan was sent to southern West Virginia following the floods that devastated the region. Two back-to-back floods had hit McDowell County: one in 2001, and an even worse one 8 months later, in the spring of 2002, in which eight people died. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, it was, I believe, the worst disaster in the USA. Songs were written about these epic floods (Alan Johnston, of the band South 52, wrote one), which literally obliterated entire towns, but the NY Times didn’t bother to cover it. When Dan called to tell me he had been deployed to West Virginia, I asked why. “You’re joking!” he said, incredulous. No, I wasn’t. If you weren’t in the region you really didn’t know about it. There was no looting, no rioting, no burning, raping, or pillaging- nothing to enchant the national media. Hardened journalists often joke that “if it bleeds it leads”, but this one bled and no one cared. People just died, basically no one gave a hoot, and life, however sadly, just went on.

Hotel in the Mountains - West Virginia

McDowell County Terrain Map – Route 52

Dan deployed to southern West Virginia, and in the process of running Logistics he drove Route 52 every day, often in tandem with the coal cars of Pocahontas railroad, as it wound through McDowell County. (The flood waters had been so high, that they actually washed out the train tracks…) And every day he passed this fabulous old shell of a flooded, boarded-up, brick building. And then drove on, not thinking much about it.

We were “wooing” each other, long-distance, and Dan convinced me to use my frequent flier miles to visit him in West Virginia for a week. I flew into Beckley, and we had our fun, but when the week was up he begged me to stay- and I didn’t want to leave him! This was pretty heady stuff for an old babe of 42 who had basically given up on meeting “Mr. Right Now”, not to mention “Mr. Right”, and I called my friends in NYC who’d enabled me to take off for a week in West Virginia, and everyone pitched in to continue to take care of my dog, my apartment, my mail, and my bills, so I could remain in West Virginia with Dan. THAT’S friendship! J  Over the next several months Dan and I did the “tourist things” one does in southern West Virginia: went whitewater rafting, visited wineries, rode horses through the mountains, took the Cass railroad excursion, went ATVing, attended historic reenactments, and picked wild berries on the side of the road in the rain… always with an eye on the possibility of starting a tourism business. Dan’s a US Army Ret. Aviation guy, and I’m an artist- an illustrator by profession, I’m an Official Artist for the USCG with 35 watercolors in their national collection, and I had an art gallery of Israeli contemporary art in Germany and NYC. Yes, we met in FEMA, so we had that in common, but that’s about it! Dan, living in rural Virginia at the time, was not a NYC kinda guy, and he thought my $1,800 a month rent (and no equity! LOL) was absolutely insane. (That apartment is now $5000 a month…) We needed to create something we could build together, and so build a life together, and Dan, G-d help him, was looking for a “Project”. And I was (and am) so hopelessly in love with him, that I would have lived in a tent in the woods if he’d said that seemed like a good idea!

Diamond in the Rough

One day he told me that he’d found something I just Had to see, and drove us up above Elkhorn Creek, into the middle of Nothing, where we he showed me his “find”: an abandoned copy of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, sitting in 5’ of weeds. It was like something out of the Twilight Zone, impossibly cute and heartbreakingly sad at the same time, and as we stood there, half-expecting to hear Dueling Banjos, we immediately decided we needed to buy it- so he could save it, and maybe we could put a campground next to it, and have live music events, and open-mike nights… and do something for tourism that would help the county prosper again…

A railroad bridge- now removed- acted like a dam when a trailer fell into it on the other side during the storm, and a wall of water some 12’ high came crashing through the inn, obliterating approximately 30 homes on the other side.

Over the next several weeks I made tons of phone calls to try to find out who owned it and if we could buy it, and discovered that if we bought the Theatre, we got stuck with the fabulous shell of a flooded, old, boarded-up brick building right below it, on the other side of the creek- the one Dan passed every day in his truck. Up until then we’d been looking at homes “normal people” might buy; we’d seen a couple of real dillies (such as one with “For Sale” spelled out in Dixie Cups on a chain link fence, accessible only via a road that went through someone else’s property, and was so steep and precarious that rocks slipped out from under the tires of Dan’s truck and went cascading down the mountain…), but we’d also found some beauties, including a mansion with fans on the front porch that brought Tara to mind, and a lovely, 1920’s home with all the original woodwork, including a magnificent double staircase, set high up on the hill in Welch with a bedroom balcony overlooking the town that made one think of Heidi in the Alps…  But this news made us rethink everything… and so we turned our entire business plan on its head, and decided to try to buy the property- to save the Theatre from collapse, and restore the clubhouse building, making it both our home (a.k.a. “Dan & Elisse’s Stupidly Large House”), and an historic inn, and creating both a livelihood for ourselves, and tourism lodging for the county. (Why, you may wonder, did we feel safe buying a flood-plain building that had been badly flood-damaged so recently- and twice? Because even with floods periodically inundating McDowell County throughout the years, since it was built in 1922, our building had Never flooded. The only reason it flooded in 2001 & 2002 was because the EPA had refused to allow Elkhorn Creek to be dredged for 20 years, until it had silted up with debris and was only 2 feet deep. A railroad bridge- now removed- acted like a dam when a trailer fell into it on the other side during the storm, and a wall of water some 12’ high came crashing through the inn, obliterating approximately 30 homes on the other side. After the first flood the creek still wasn’t allowed to be dredged, but after 8 people died in the second flood, it finally was, and it has been kept dredged ever since. Assuming that continues, it will prevent our building, and this area along the creek, from flooding again. Dredging has obviously not hurt the trout, by the way, as Elkhorn Creek continues to be known as “the best wild trout stream in the USA”).

Troubles in McDowell County

Elisse Elkhorn Inn Clean UpThe inn and theatre property had been tangled up in the Keystone Bank Collapse Scandal (you can Google it), an $800,000 000 fiasco in which miners lost their entire life’s savings, and which brought international media attention to Welch, but not for a good reason… That mess was basically the coup de grace to a country which had suffered, not only from repeated flooding, but by US Steel pulling out in the 1970s and sending 100,000 residents elsewhere, in the span of five years, seeking jobs. Basically everyone with “get up and go” got up and went, and McDowell County really hadn’t recovered from what became known as the largest, fastest population drop in US history. While the county still had- and has- a tremendous resource in natural gas and coal- those 100-car long trains of West Virginia coal that chug past the Elkhorn Inn 30 times a day are what still keeps the lights on, here as well as in China- it no longer takes 100,000 people to mine it. Long gone are the days when a thriving Jewish community existed in Welch, and when O. Winston Link photographed the drive-in movie theatre, when John F. Kennedy came to meet the students of Coalwood, Cab Calloway played in Kimball, and Satchmo tinkled the ivories in the nationally-famous whorehouses of Keystone’s Cinder Bottom- you can Google the 1912 book “Keystone- the Sodom and Gomorrah of West Virginia” for more information on that! By 2002 the county had only 18,000 people left, down from a high of 125,000 in its hey-day, and was already pitifully littered with thousands of abandoned, destroyed buildings- houses, schools, churches- and the two back-to-back floods basically made the situation even worse, if that’s possible- essentially as bad as it could possibly be. But McDowell County had several great- world-class- things to offer tourists: incredible railfanning, with the double-track Pocahontas line of the Norfolk Southern Railroad running through it, and wonderful old signals that made black-and-white photographs look like they were taken in 1900; excellent trout fishing for browns and rainbows on Elkhorn Creek, known to Trout Unlimited members as “the best wild trout stream in the USA”; great bird-watching, tons of historic places to visit, such as Welch, where Sid Hatfield was shot on the steps of the Courthouse during the infamous “Mine Wars”, and Coalwood of Homer Hickam’s “Rocket Boys” book and “October Sky” movie fame, a fun mountain golf course, excellent hunting, the winding, mountain roads beloved by motorcyclists, nearby places of note, such as Bramwell, with its “Coal Baron Mansions”, restored train station, and Oktoberfest festival; extraordinarily beautiful leaf-peeping all the way through the end of October, wild blackberries free for the picking all summer, garlicy ramps in the spring, and THE best ATV trails in the eastern USA. And tourists Were coming- we met a number of them as the months went by- they just weren’t staying in the country, because there was simply no place nice to stay. Even FEMA put everyone they deployed to the operation in Beckley and Beaver- a 2-hour drive each way!  Dan and I spent 6 months in a room at the Sleep Inn in Beaver- with my Labrador Retriever- my ears popping every time we drove winding Route 52 into the mountains of McDowell County!

Property remains ridiculously inexpensive in McDowell County, with some 97 pages of for-sale properties on the “tax sale” list, some as cheap as $1 a lot.

In 2002, when we arrived in West Virginia, Billie Cherry and Terry Church, the two living protagonists of the Keystone Bank Collapse scandal (the other, J. Knox McConnell, Keystone Bank financier, & author of “The Boxer and the Banker”, being, conveniently, dead), were both in the Federal Penitentiary, serving, I believe, 16 year terms. (Billie Cherry died in prison a few years ago; Terry Church is, I believe, still in prison). A vast array of properties they had bought on their epic shopping spree were being sold and auctioned off to try to recoup at least some of the $800,000,000. We attended one rather bizarre auction of Cherry’s belongings, including things looted from our Inn and boxes of tarnished Christmas ornaments that engendered a bidding war, and looked at- and bid on- several of the properties, none of which we got, thank goodness! The first place we looked at- the beautiful, Victorian “Jenkin-Jones House” with its magnificent stained glass windows, swimming pool, and gardener’s cottage- turned out to have just been sold back to the woman who’d sold it to Cherry for $50K. (She’d sold it to Cherry for $150K). She’d bought it back for a bargain, yes, but minus all the antique furniture she originally sold it with- which had all mysteriously “disappeared”, as had the contents of our building. (For years we got calls asking about the many “antiques” people had ‘loaned’ or given to Billie Cherry for the Inn- all were gone by the time we took possession of the building). There was the 100-acre “C & H Ranch” on the top of the mountain, with a house, 6 trailers, a bunch of “out buildings” in various states of disrepair, and a cracked swimming pool, accessible only by a semi-passible road; our bid on that doozy (we visualized it as ATV lodging) was summarily rejected, thank goodness. There was the property I called “60 Acres Up and Down” because it had two trailers divided by a giant gorge that Dan was going to have to fill in with an earth-mover.  There was an entire block of buildings in downtown Keystone, several of which were flood-damaged and filled with moldy garbage- another bid of ours that fortunately went south. A Harley-Davidson dealership. A hardware store. A marina in the Carolinas. A Lot of stuff… And then there was the Theatre, and the big, sad, old brick building on Route 52, which Mrs. Cherry had named the Cherry-Key Inn… (We found her professionally-made flag, boasting two cherries and a key, in the building. And still have it, in a box somewhere. LOL) It had no doors and was boarded up, but the back door had been kicked in, and, at the urging of the Trustee (no key needed! LOL), we went inside to have a look. There was a water line 4’ high inside, eye-level with me, and 6’ of mold. It was filled with refuse, as (we later learned) many people had ridden out the flood on the second and third floors, this building being the only high, dry space for many miles around. Rusty file cabinets filled with moldy paperwork (including the 1929 archival, sepia photo of the building, which we have framed, and Senator Rockefeller’s receipt for an event in the building, with a bill from Billie Cherry for a cheese platter) filled the entire dining room. The third floor was water-damaged, as well, as the repeatedly-patched 1922 shingle roof was shot. There was 5’ of mud in the basement (which Dan took out with a shovel, together with a great, hard-working local guy named Stickman), and every pipe in the building was busted. The wonky, non-functional wiring was exposed, stapled on top of wood paneling- obviously this building had Not been done to code! A flimsy, jerry-rigged wall bisected the dining room- when we finally took possession of the building and Dan removed it, being held up literally by two pins, the entire, moldy, dropped ceiling collapsed! (Fortunately no one was hurt, but it certainly gave us a start! And that’s how we got back our dining room’s original high, shaped ceiling, which Dan had to learn to plaster, as everyone who knew how to do a crow’s-foot plaster ceiling turned out to be either retired or dead). The only thing in the building that actually functioned was one fireplace, and when we stupidly shoved in the wood paneling, thinking to burn it rather than toss it, the entire plywood mantle burst into a ball of flames- Mrs. Cherry having painted it with lacquer before adorning it with glued-on kitchen trivets. But built in 1922 as the Empire Coal and Coke Company’s “Miner’s Clubhouse”, at a time when coal mining companies were competing with each other to create the most opulent Clubhouse for miner’s celebrations and funerals, our building was a winner: an Italianate beauty, still, masterfully built of solid brick, and with a charming little balcony, to boot- and we both agreed it had “potential”. The sort of a building about which my artist mom and I would have said “someone ought to do something with that!”, but then, without the skill-set or money to turn it into an art center or a hotel, would have simply driven past… But although we didn’t have the money, we had credit, and Dan had the skill-set and arms of steel… And he looked at me and said “I’ll just gut the first floor!” and made it sound so easy! (What did I know? I’m a freakin’ illustrator!) McDowell County desperately needed tourist lodging, we needed a home, and Dan believed he could save and restore the building, and that we could help to kick-start the post-flood tourism economy of the county by opening our new home as an historic inn. What we knew about the hotel business had been gleaned by our stays in 1000s of hotels, motels, tents, boats, and other lodging during our combined 70 years of business and military travel! And so we stood in what would become the inn’s dining room, with our hands cupped into make-shift mold masks over our mouths and noses, and said to each other, at the same time, “I guess we’re in the hotel business”! It seemed like a good idea at the time! LOL

The History

Empire Coal & Coke Company Miner's Clubhouse

Empire Coal & Coke Company “Miner’s Clubhouse”

The historic “Coal Heritage Trail” building that is now the Elkhorn Inn was built by Empire Coal & Coke Company as their “Miner’s Clubhouse” in 1922. Our brick and concrete building replaced two wooden buildings which had burned down, and it survived the devastating floods of 2001 and 2002 which destroyed 30 houses next to the Inn and killed 8 people. Over the years the building changed hands many times and was used for a variety of purposes. In the 1940s it was a rooming house for coal miner’s families, it was privately owned in the 1950s, in 1957 it was the office and residence of mining company supervisor and his family, and was later a State Police barracks. In the 1960s-1970s it was the offices of Hawley Coal, and in 1988 it was Data Services, Inc.

The $10,000 28-Room Mansion

We bid the minimum acceptable bid- $10,000. It was accepted by the Trustee, and we FedExed him $1000 in Earnest Money. So, yes, we bought an historic Coal Heritage Trail 28-room mansion in southern West Virginia, along with the only copy of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in the state, for less than 6 months of rent in NYC. It was what’s called a “fixer upper”- writ large. LOL  And yes, you can do it, too! Property remains ridiculously inexpensive in McDowell County, with some 97 pages of for-sale properties on the “tax sale” list, some as cheap as $1 a lot! (We bought 3 of them- the three lots adjoining the Inn- so I know from whence I speak). Taxes are low, as well, and we actively encourage railfans, history buffs, fly fishing fanatics, motorcyclists, ATVers, and others to check out the available properties here and join us! With some elbow-grease, determination, and imagination, McDowell County offers “normal people” the opportunity to own what is only a fantasy for the very rich in most places… Shortly after we opened, friends of ours from NJ came down for a visit, and, tired of their drug-dealing neighbors, on impulse gave up their little clapboard house with a basement jacked-up to keep the house from imploding, and bought 60 acres in Mercer County for $66K. They built a lovely house on it, and can literally run cattle on their land, and shoot deer for dinner from their bedroom window! Our running joke with them is that now that they have their 60 acres, all they need is a mule. LOL (They gave us the entire first season of Green Acres on DVD as a housewarming present, because I so remind them of Lisa. I Do have a penchant for gardening in high heels, and yes, I own marabu mules. AND I can sing the entire theme song to that show in a seriously authentic Hungarian accent. That song was my “party piece” when I was 6 (1965), and I AM a NYC gal, after all, dahlink! LOL)

Every entrepreneur always hears about the need for a “Plan B”- what to do if your dream doesn’t work out.  What if, all paved, good intentions aside, the road truly turns out to be one going straight to hell? By the time we bought it, the building literally had nothing in it save 6, antique, claw-foot bathtubs on the second and third stories, which were, quite frankly, too heavy to be stolen- those suckers weigh 2000 lbs.! (The 3000 lb. radiators, however, were on the front porch, waiting to go bye-bye; Dan, with the help pf several other guys, dragged them back inside and re-installed them for show). At that time, antique claw-foot bathtubs were selling for about $2000 apiece in NYC. Our “Plan B”, should the restoration have proved impossible, even for “Workaholic, Can-Do Dan”, was to load up the tubs, one at a time, in the bed of Dan’s F-150, shelp them up to NYC, and try to sell them. 6 X $2000 = $12,000; we figured we just might break even. LOL

Elkhorn Inn Hallway

Bobbie Sue Baker

After our bid was accepted by the Trustee, we foolishly thought we could move in and start making repairs, as we had written permission to do so, and, having given up our jobs to undertake this gargantuan project, we knew we had to somehow have the inn open by May, the beginning of Tourist Season. Wrong! “Creepy”, one of Mrs. Cherry’s “workers”, broke the lock on our back door- the rest of the inn being still boarded-up and having no doors- and stole the last 17 pieces of old furniture and $10 lighting fixtures (and Billie’s memorabilia, including a lovely plaque from Senator Al D’Amato…) that remained in the building. To be honest, for me, that was the last, damn straw. As Dan watched, I called the State Police- 6 times. When they finally deigned to respond, they made it clear they thought our being robbed was stupendously funny, and wouldn’t even come to take a statement. At that point I was more than ready to throw in the towel, but US Army Ret. Dan dug his heels into the rock-hard McDowell County soil, and convinced me to stick it out, and so I- we- did. We then spent several months fighting for the building in court, as Mrs. Cherry’s pro-bono lawyer thought we hadn’t bid high enough. Our attorney, the amazing, brilliant, & hilarious State Supreme Court Justice Richard Neely (NEVER underestimate the power and connections of your bar-fly NYC gal pals…), finally stood up in court, (in the presence of the Judge, David Faber, the only other WV lawyer to have gone to Yale…), and pronounced: “A star will rise in the east before anyone will pay more for That property than these two!” Bang went Faber’s gavel, and that was it: we got the clubhouse and the theatre! We had a drink at a bar across the street, and then reality set in: We had just committed ourselves to one heck of a project!  And then Dan finally asked me to marry him. LOL

Intensive Care

Dan spent the month of December 2002 gutting the building and repeatedly power-washing it out with bleach to make it “safe, sanitary, and secure”, as we say in FEMA, while I sat in a motel room in Bluefield and built a website and a marketing plan for a business that didn’t yet exist. Knowing basically nothing about the history of what we had just bought, and having to come up with a name to meet 2003 tourism advertising deadlines, we named our soon-to-open inn the Elkhorn Inn, after Elkhorn Creek which runs behind her. (And yes, had we know all about Empire, we probably would have named her the “Coal Miner’s Clubhouse Inn”!)

We went to the WV Tourism Division event at The Greenbrier that winter, me in a strapless, fuchsia pink fishtail gown, and Dan looking snazzy in a leather motorcycle jacket, tux slacks, and cufflinks, danced up a storm in the Bunker, and networked the WV Tourism peeps like crazy. As we were later to learn, everyone basically thought we’d totally lost out minds, must be nutty millionaires, and would be bankrupt and back in NYC within 6 months. We actually got phone calls from our lovely elected and appointed WV officials assuring us we’d “go belly up in 6 months” and wondering why we hadn’t, yet, “gone back to New York”. That didn’t happen for one basic reason: we had no place to go back to. I’d given up my NYC apt. to create the Elkhorn Inn with Dan, & he’d given up his home in Virginia. We were 1000% in it to win it.

Elkhorn Inn FireplaceFor a good six months that first winter one drove from Bluefield all the way to Welch without seeing a light- it was pitch blackness from dusk on, for 18 slow, solid miles, all night, every night. Welch remained a sea of empty storefronts and broken glass for years. Dan electrified our building, bringing it up to code, and when he turned the lights on in late December it was truly something wonderful to behold- literally a light in the darkness, as the Jewish expression goes, and a sign, we hoped, to prove conclusively that something good was finally going to happen in McDowell County. Dan plumbed the building, bringing it up to code, and spent a week crawling under it, through an ice storm, to get all three lines of plumbing working properly, so we could stop swabbing ourselves with Clorox Wipes each night, and finally enjoy our plethora of antique, claw-foot bathtubs! A girlfriend and I drove a U-Haul truck and trailer down from NYC with all my belongings during that ice storm (that’s an article in itself…), and Dan & I then used his F-150 truck to bring down all the fine art from my gallery storerooms, and we moved into the building in January 2003- and that’s when the fun Really started! It was cold that winter- “wicked cold”, as the expression goes. Following the epic floods, McDowell County got hit with an epic ice storm, and it was truly as cold “as a well-digger’s fundament”, cold enough to freeze solid a gallon of milk sitting on the sink! We layered on the sweaters and piled on the blankets, and while Dan worked on the downstairs, hitting the walls with a power washer and watching them implode, and scraping off the dark green, bargain-basement assortment of mismatched vinyl floor tiles with a blow torch, so he could power-wash the concrete floor with bleach before laying marble, we ensconced ourselves in a big, dark green room up on the third floor, and cuddled together to create body heat. LOL Between the dark green flooring and the brown walls, the building was so depressingly dark that I literally bumped into things during the day! On our first night in our new home we were standing in the middle of The Big Green Room, when the train came by. How I had never noticed the train running right past the building is beyond me, but “situational awareness” was never my strong suit, even in the military (I am truly lucky to be alive…), and I simply hadn’t. The building had no doors or flooring or drywall, no carpeting or drapes, and thus absolutely no insulation. When the train came around the curve it looked like it was going to come right through the room, and it was so loud I honestly couldn’t hear myself think! I grabbed Dan by the shirt and slammed myself against him, weeping, and screaming at the top of my lungs: “We’re done! Finished! No one in their right mind is going to pay to stay here! We’re finished!! We have to find people who Love trains! I mean LOVE trains!”

And so we did. J

The next morning I got on the internet- a dial-up connection so slow that you could go take a bath and come back to find a page half-opened- and typed in “people who love trains”, and a whole WORLD came up! We were saved!!!!

Trains, Trout, and Trails

Shortly after we opened the Inn, James D. Porterfield, the railroad historian and author of “From the Dining Car” and “Dining By Rail” (who left Penn State to become the Director of the Center for Railroad Tourism at Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia, and who has been the guest host of our “Dinner in the Dining Car” events at the Elkhorn Inn for many years),  wrote a glowing review of the Inn for Railfan & Railroad magazine, in which he lauded Chef Dan’s dinners, and pronounced the Elkhorn Inn “the best legal train watching location in the USA”. And that, coupled with the world-class trout fishing right behind the Inn, and the hundreds of miles of free ATV trails- and it being legal to ride on the roads here, meaning you can ride right from the Inn to the trails- gave us a real, and viable business! We opened the inn May of 2003- before we were truly ready, as people were knocking on the door begging to stay- and began welcoming guests Elkhorn Creek Trout Fishingnot only from across the USA, but also from overseas. In the last 13 years, we’ve had railfan and other guests hailing from Maine to Alaska, and from Canada, Germany, Austria, Japan, Israel, Australia, and the UK, too!  After about two years of not having any place to send our guests for a fine meal, Dan then reinvented himself as a Chef, (Renaissance Man that he is!), we got a restaurant license, and began offering fine dining at the Inn by reservation. Dan saved and stabilized the Theatre, and although we have put the restoration and development of the theatre on hold, due to a lack of funds, we were able to have two private music events there, including our wedding in 2005. We expanded from 8 to 14 guest rooms, so we could host groups, and added a Gift Shop/Gallery, as well as three lots next to the Inn, where we have our (DIY Dan-created) veggie garden, and a garage for our ATV guests, some of whom fly their private planes into Bluefield, and store their vehicles with us, so when they arrive, they can just jump on ‘em and ride! (Dan and I Love ATVing; it is one of the main reasons we wanted to live in this area!) In 2004 HGTV made the first of two programs on the Inn- “Building Character”- which was followed by an episode of “ReZoned”, and in 2008 Dan was deservedly awarded the Coal Heritage Trail Preservation Award by America’s ByWays for his restoration of what is the last, surviving historic building in Landgraff. We have been on numerous television and radio programs, and written up in a variety of travel guidebooks, cookbooks, such as “Great Country Inns of America”, and national and regional publications, including the NY Daily News, Preservation, Cabela’s, Eastern Fly Fisherman, WV Fish and Game, ATV Illustrated, and Trains. We even made CNN Travel! From what we know, the Elkhorn Inn is the only Coal Heritage Trail property in the entire state of West Virginia offering lodging and dining, which, we think, is pretty extraordinary!  Last year Dan planted the sunflower meadow of my dreams across from the Inn, and this year we were joined in that endeavor by organic farmers, who tilled up other weedy, refuse-filled, flood-plain lots along the creek and planted crops! Through it all I continued to take- and still take- periodic FEMA assignments, deploying to disaster response operations around the country; I once gave up my per diem and hotel stipend to run a FEMA Community Relations operation in McDowell County from our dining room at the Inn- because yes, the country still gets flooded… I’m on the internet about 18 hours a day for our business, and I thus like to call the Elkhorn Inn “the little business the internet built”, for without the web and social media, I sincerely doubt we would have made it, much less prospered, as we have. Our inn’s website, Facebook, and Twitter have given the world access to us and what McDowell County has to offer, and enabled us to successfully run a “destination inn” in the Extremely Rural mountains of southern West Virginia- an area that is seriously “off the beaten tourism path”!

Uncovering Coal Heritage History

Elkhorn Inn Entry Room

Bobbie Sue Baker

In the process of restoring the building, we discovered a lot of interesting and historic things. Removing damaged walls, Dan found fascinatingly archaic infrastructure, and was able to take the floor plan back to its original design. He removed a plethora of extra toilets, as well, as Mrs. Cherry had oddly installed several in each bathroom, often knee-touching close! We discovered the “Pay Window”, where miners went to get their salaries (and supposedly a man was shot), and the divided, segregated men’s room that the miners used. Dan found the niche where Empire’s money vault had once stood, uncovered the original hemlock banister on our staircase buried under layers of gold paint, and discovered the original, 1922 gold-flecked, white tile floor, in what was the first bathroom in the building, which still boasts two antique claw-foot tubs. We had a new, green, shingle roof put on, removing and replacing umpteen layers of 90 year old shingles and black coal soot, but keeping to the original style. Thirsting to uncover the history of both the building and of our area, we began to collect historic memorabilia, both via donations from our guests, many of whom are professional photographers, and eBay, including Empire Coal & Coke Company scrip, Norfolk Western “Pocahontas” menus, dishes, and memorabilia, books, photos, artwork, and postcards, and opened a small Museum Room at the Inn to showcase the building’s- and the area’s- illustrious history of railroading and coal mining. Dan found Hawley Coal’s “Squire Jim Seam” coal mine core samples, and the original front doors of the building up in the attic, and while one door was destroyed beyond repair, the other became a picture frame for antique postcards in our Museum Room. Throughout the last 13 years we’ve hosted a number of guests who lived or worked in the building during its hey-day, and they provided us with a lot of information, as well. From our guests we learned about the segregated men’s room, and that the original bathroom, with its two claw-foot tubs, was used to bathe the kids, ca. 1943!  Several of our guests have written memoirs of the building and the area, which we have in our library, for our guests to enjoy, and we have books by authors who have been guests of the Inn for sale in our Gift Shop. We learned that our building was built by Empire in 1922 to replace two wooden structures which had burned down, and was constructed of brick and concrete to withstand fire. The building goes down to bedrock, with a full basement/crawl-space underneath it, and there is no wood in her, save the 1922 windows and trim- which is why she, alone, survived the 2001 and 2002 floods, even with 4’ of standing water in her. We learned that our building changed hands many times over the decades, and served many purposes: by WWII it was a rooming house for miner’s families, and privately owned in the 1950s; in the late 1950s it was a coal mining office, and in the 1960s and 1970s it was owned and used by Hawley Coal. From photos we know that in 1988 it was a document storage company, that it was once a State Police barracks, and that in the 1990s, Mrs. Cherry bought it and renamed it the “Cherry-Key Inn”.  It was Cherry, we learned, who used the Keystone Bank’s funds to have the Theatre built- for performances of “Terror of the Tug”, a play about the Mine Wars by Jean Battlo, a local authoress.

Grand Opening

Elkhorn Inn along the old NW Pocohontas Mainline.

Elkhorn Inn along the old NW Pocahontas Mainline.

When we opened the Inn in May of 2003, “conventional wisdom” among the so-called tourism professionals was that ATVers would be the backbone of our business. We’d mention “railfans” and they’d sarcastically roll their eyes as if we were fantasizing- and (crazy as it sounds), they often still do! Knowing about the great fishing, hiking, history, birdwatching, golf, hiking, and other things our area offered, as well as the excellent ATVing, I created a diversified marketing plan, but from the very beginning we chose to market the Inn primarily to railfans- and how right we were to do so! Thanks to our wonderful railfan guests, who comprise at least 60% of our guests year-round, we were able to install a railroad scanner and externally-maintained monitor, and when we finally got DSL high-speed internet, and Dan was able to wire the building for Wi-Fi, we did the Snoopy happy internet dance! (Now we are trying to get a rail-cam on the balcony!) The NS railroad traffic on the line that runs past the Inn has (happily and) steadily increased over the years, with an average of 30 trains a day and night now passing the Inn! (And in addition to our “rail-view” guest rooms, we actually have “quieter” creek-side rooms to offer our less railroad-enraptured guests!) The nearby railroad tunnels were deepened to accommodate “double stacks”, and we have been blessed, as well, by countless, gorgeous “Heritage Locomotives” passing the inn, as well as lots of cool maintenance machinery, and other interesting trains, such as historic steam, cabooses, the “Santa Train”, and the Ringling Bros. Circus Train! (I “tweet” and Facebook with Norfork Southern; I knew I was finally a “real” railfan when NS tweeted “Happy Birthday, Elisse!”. LOL) Living here, and constantly photographing and waving to the engineers (who often wave back and toot their horn for us and our guests), we became die-hard railfans, ourselves, with Dan chasing cool trains up and down Route 52 to get “that perfect photo”! We even finally bought a decent camera! LOL We’d both always enjoyed train travel- I basically lived on trains during the 5 car-less years I spent in Germany in the 1980s- but owning the Elkhorn Inn, and having so many railfan guests and friends, definitely turned us into real “foamers”- as railfans sarcastically often refer to each other! When we travel now, we Always make it a point to ride and photograph the trains, and visit railroad museums and historic stations wherever we go- which has been from Illinois to Canada, and from Israel to Japan to Vietnam!

We have now had the Elkhorn Inn for 13 years, and it while it is quite a handful- anyone with “This Old House” dreams should note that the maintenance and continual restoration needed by an historic building NEVER ends!- it is truly wonderful to not only be able to live in an historic building, but to have given it a new life, not simply as a home, or a static museum or monument, but as an inn,  restaurant, and gift shop- a place that we can share with people, who can lodge and dine in it, and watch trains all night from our balcony and front porch, or from the hot tub in the moonlight!  While we are not getting any younger, and so are looking for a buyer who will continue to love it as much as we do, we do still get great joy from it, as our blood, sweat, tears, and laughter are literally in the walls and floors, as well buried with our veggies and flowers in the garden, which we often call “the money pit”! We have watched McDowell County’s population increase to over 23,000, and the county begin to prosper again, with the restoration of Kimball’s monument building built to honor the Black Soldiers of WWI- the first, and only surviving, one in the nation- and the opening of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System trails, several organic farms, ATV lodgings, and other businesses- and even a Wal-Mart Super Center in Kimball! (Don’t laugh- that was Huge! The K-Mart closed its doors after the 2002 flood, and until Wally World came in, there was basically no place to shop; if you lived in Iaeger, you had to drive 2 hours to Bluefield to buy groceries. We honestly never thought a Wal-Mart would open here, as this area did not meet their criteria, and it was truly a blessing when they did. I know it’s the store many love to hate, but here in McDowell County, WM created jobs, provided a sorely-needed shopping venue, and supports the local economy- they have done only good).  As I write this, another NS “Pokey” train is chugging past the Inn; the sound of her horn, the rhythmic rumble of her coal cars, and the screeching of her brakes is the music of southern West Virginia… Over the years, thousands of guests have enjoyed the Inn, the trains, and the other fun things McDowell County has to offer, and many have become our personal friends; we hope many more will come and enjoy it, as well!

Elkhorn Inn - Landgraff, WV

Elkhorn Inn – Landgraff, WV

30767 Coal Heritage Road, Landgraff
Eckman, West Virginia, 24829, United States
toll free (800) 708-2040 | (304) 862-2031

Visit them on Facebook | www.elkhorninnwv.com

Email – elisse@elkhorninnwv.com

Dan and Elisse

About the Author
Elisse & Dan Clark are the founders and owners of the Elkhorn Inn & Theatre in Landgraff, WV, a 14-guest room historic inn providing lodging, fine dining, and a terrific view of the NS Pocahontas railroad! Dan is US Army Retired, with a professional background in military and corporate aviation, and Emergency Management. Elisse is a watercolor illustrator, an Official Artist for the USCG, with 35 paintings in their national collection, and a former gallery owner, as well as an Emergency Management professional with FEMA. They met and fell in love during a disaster response operation, and when another disaster response operation brought them to West Virginia, they combined their skill-sets and their lives to save the last historic building in Landgraff, make it their home, and open it as the Elkhorn Inn.

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