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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: A Railroad Town

Thurmond, West Virginia, was amazingly busy, considering its location in a deep gorge. For 35 years the town could only be reached by train. As the chief railroad center on the C&O Railway, Thurmond served major portions of the mountainous coal fields of southern West Virginia. These coal fields produced more tonnage of coal and more freight revenue than the major national shipping centers of Cincinnati, Ohio, and Richmond, Virginia, combined. In 1910 four million tons of coal were shipped from Thurmond, producing $4,824,911 in freight revenues. The town had no streets or cars until 1921, but did have homes, banks, hotels, and a thriving commercial district.

Thurmond is named for William Dabney Thurmond, who received the 73-acre site in 1873 as payment for a surveying job. That same year, the C&O Railway opened its main line from the Atlantic coast to the Ohio River. Ten years later, a freight station was built at Thurmond, and soon after, a railroad bridge was completed to connect the coal mines across New River with the main line. Land adjacent to Thurmond became an assembly yard for transportation operations in the gorge. As more spur lines reached outlying coal mines, the site grew into a town to meet the needs of the coal companies and their workers.

Geography has greatly influenced the layout of Thurmond. It is located in the middle of the New River Gorge, a steep, 80-mile-long valley cut by the New River. The floodplain--a narrow, flat strip of land--was broad enough at Thurmond for a railroad assembly yard, but the town had to be built up the towering steep slope behind. No street lies between the tracks and the commercial buildings facing the river. The rocky mountain behind Thurmond rises more than 700 feet above the river.

The first Thurmond passenger station burned in 1899. The depot was rebuilt in 1904 and still stands today. A sloped roof extends from the first story and partially shelters the station platform. An extended portion of the upper story has eight windows and serves as an observation and signal tower. The ground floor held a baggage room, Railway Express (delivery service), lunch and news counter, ticket agent booth, waiting rooms and rest rooms. The second floor was divided into offices for the yard master, conductors, train operator (in the signal tower), track supervisor, car distributor, chief clerk, train master, and coal buyer. In order to keep the steam engines and their cars moving 24 hours a day, these positions had to be manned around the clock.

During its heyday, 150 to 200 men worked for the rail operations at Thurmond, keeping coal supplied to the growing industries of the nation. Coal from southern West Virginia heated cities, forged steel, and powered the steam engines of ships, trains and factories. Just as the railroad shipped coal out of the gorge to the rest of the nation, it also brought goods from the outside world into Thurmond. The Hudson Wholesale Fruit and Produce Company received carload shipments several times a week and made daily deliveries to area stores. The Armour Company distribution center shipped wholesale meats up and down the rail line. An orchestra came from Cincinnati to play at the opening of a new hotel across the river. The train also brought traveling men, businessmen, gamblers, adventurers, and soon-to-be brides to the town. For New River miners seeking escape from a drab coal town, Thurmond was a short train ride away. According to local resident Herman Monk, "The sidewalk looked like Broadway there on a Saturday night."¹

Questions for Reading 1

1. What was the town’s main industry?

2. Would you consider Thurmond to have been well located? Justify your answer.

3. Who used the Thurmond train depot, and how did they use it?

4. If the town of Thurmond had not been established, do you think the lives of the people of that area would have been richer? poorer? Why?

5. If the railroad employees of Thurmond had not performed their jobs properly, how would it have affected people living on the Atlantic coast? the rest of the nation? Justify your answer.

Reading 1 was compiled and adapted from R. Eugene Harper, "Thurmond Historic District" (Fayette County, West Virginia) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1983; and Ken Sullivan, Thurmond, A New River Community (Fort Washington, Pa.: Eastern National, 1989).

¹Ken Sullivan, Thurmond, A New River Community (Fort Washington, Pa.: Eastern National, 1989), 31.

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