While we were in West Virginia for our By-gosh-we-actually-pulled-this-off Thanksgiving weekend, the whole family visited the New River Gorge Bridge Visitors’ Center, run by the National Park Service. We had driven across the bridge to get to our destination, but to really appreciate the marvel of engineering, the bridge has to be seen from below. For instance, here is the view when we were crossing the bridge. It didn’t feel or sound like a bridge, so as long as I kept my eyes shut or straight ahead (after making sure Dearly Beloved had both hands on the steering wheel) I didn’t get bridge-o-phobia.
…where I took this picture. To clarify, cars ride atop the bridge. That ^^^^ section just underneath it is open for walking (it’s even handicapped accessible) should strolling on an two-ft. wide, 876-ft. high catwalk for 1/4 mile strike your fancy. My fancy remained unstruck. It’s the fifth highest vehicular bridge in the world. The Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial could be stacked atop each other and pass underneath with enough clearance to spare for you to hop aboard.
The hardier members of our group took a second hike, this one on Kaymoor Miners Trail. which took them down to the New River and the ghost town of Kaymoor, one of about 60 towns built along the New River after the (1873) completion of the Chesapeake & Ohio railroad opened the area to coal mining. Everything in the towns was owned by the coal companies– schools, churches, saloons, pool halls, stores, scrip*, theaters, houses, as well as the coke ovens, tipples, and other structures used in mining. In reality, there were four Kaymoors- two in the gorge, one on the rim of the canyon, and one where the south pier of the arch bridge is located.
The coal camp towns were so remote that when coal became scarce in a vein, that town was simply abandoned. The ruins of the ghost town my family visited are now owned by the National Park Service and were reached by a strenuous trail which ended in a 821- stairstep descent. (And what goes down, DEFINITELY wants to get back up!)
In 1978, the National Park Service took over about 53 miles along the river to protect and maintain the area. The cleanup and management efforts have made it a popular site for whitewater rafting. The ruins of the towns are barely visible now, having been reclaimed by the forests.
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the supermarket cashier who overheard my conversation about our pending trip to “Nowhere, West Virginia” and how she told me that she was from that area. A few days ago, I was in her checkout line again. She remembered me and asked how our weekend had gone. She particularly wanted to know if we’d seen the New River Gorge Bridge. I said that we had and were very impressed with it.
“I was in high school in 1977 when they opened that bridge,” she said, smiling broadly. “I marched across it on opening day, twirling my baton.”
I know nothing about this woman’s life other than what is etched on her face. I hope that one day she will tell her grandchildren of that day. She can show them the West Virginia quarter, which has a rendering of that bridge. The next time my own grandchildren visit, I want to take them to the supermarket and introduce them to the lady who marched across the bridge on the very first day it opened. Her story and her smile deserve an encore.
We build too many walls and not enough bridges.
More about coal mining along the New River Gorge:
Photo website showing some of the towns and buildings.
Kaymoor site with photos of ruins.
*Scrip was the term for the “truck system” whereby non-transferable vouchers were used to pay the workers. The vouchers could be used only at the company-owned stores. It was this system which inspired the song, Sixteen Tons, believed to have been written by former coal miner and folk singer George S. Davis.
You load sixteen tons what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store.