All across the country are towns that expanded and detracted with the coming and going of methods of transportation. The railroad was one such method and the town of Thurmond, West Virginia, one such town.
Today Thurmond is just a ghost town, though a well-maintained and protected one at that, as it is largely owned by the National Park Service and sees trains rumble through on a regular basis. Part of an area named the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, it is located in southern section of West Virginia, 60 miles southeast of the Charleston, the state capitol.
Thurmond’s origin story starts in the early 1870s. Captain William D. Thurmond, who served as a Confederate leader in the Civil War, moved to the town of Minden and took a job as a surveyor. He was paid with land, receiving 73 acres on the north side of New River. Thurmond knew trains would meet at a junction on the property that, combined with the burgeoning coal industry, could result in a thriving community. He was right.
The C&O Railroad completed its line through the area in 1873. Within two years the property had two general stores, two coal company offices, and a population of 75. (Commercial district, right). Thurmond applied for a post office, choosing the name “Arbuckle.” That name was rejected, and “Thurmond” chosen instead.
Thurmond soon constructed a hotel which forbade alcohol and gambling due to his religious convictions. In 1901 a man named Thomas G. McKell opened the 3-story Dunglen (or alternatively Dun Glen) Hotel (left) nearby which allowed these vices, contained numerous businesses, and permitted prostitution. Thurmond incorporated his town and attempted to extend his ordinance to the property, but McKell quickly expanded the limits of his own town, Glen Jean, to include the Dunglen. The world’s longest poker game, lasting 14 years, occurred at this hotel.
In Thurmond’s heyday 150-200 men worked for the railroad (C & O workers, 1917, right). The town’s decline began with competition from another rail company and the installation of roads in the 1910s. Then in 1922 a major fire destroyed a portion of the town. Eight years later, arsonists destroyed the Dunglen, and it was never rebuilt.
Time was just not on Thurmond’s side: the Great Depression hit it hard like so many other communities across the nation, and in the 1930s multiple businesses, including the National Bank of Thurmond, a meat company, and a telephone district office all vacated. In 1949, the C&O purchased a diesel engine and use of steam engines soon came to an end, meaning trains no longer needed to stop at the town for coal and water. Finally, in the 1950s, the coal industry in Appalachia sank as industrialization drove down mining employment.
Thurmond received a boost about 20 years later as Wildwater Expeditions Unlimited established business in the area. Another two decades after that the National Park Service gave the area protection. Fun fact: it served as the filming location of the 1987 film Matewan.
Today Thurmond’s population is a miniscule five people, but the town is proud to showcase its history through a series of plaques and retains some original buildings like the coaling tower (right). Amtrak operates a station there on its Cardinal route. One can still see a train rumble over the bridge, as I did, and soak up the beautiful scenery that surrounds Thurmond.
West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly (archive.org)
History | Town of Thurmond (thurmondwv.org)
The Dunglen Hotel: The Historic Hotspot for Trouble – New River Gorge CVB : New River Gorge CVB
Thurmond: A Town Born from Coal Mines and Railroads (Teaching with Historic Places) (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov)
Coal mining: West Virginia’s coal industry has a dark past (explorepartsunknown.com)
All black and white photos and photo of Thurmond Depot 1982 are from the National Park Service website and are public domain. All other photos by the author.