The (near) Ghost Town of Thurmond, West Virginia
Thurmond, West Virginia is a fascinating town along the New River in Fayette County. With just a population of five, Thurmond served as an important stop for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad (C&O) before the advent of the diesel locomotive era.
The town was not formally incorporated until 1900 as Thurmond, named for Confederate Captain William Thurmond. He had surveyed land in the county and was offered 73 acres of land along the river as payment for just $20. Not long after, the C&O was completed through the valley in 1873, but there was little to no growth and only one house to show for it in the town. But it was not until Thomas G. McKell of Glen Jean who had negotiated with the C&O for a branch up Dunloup Creek in 1892 that Thurmond became a boom town. The Loup Creek line was one of the C&O’s busiest branches in the New River region that served multiple coal mines in the rich Sewell seam.
Thurmond became the center of commerce. A passenger depot, freight station, engine house, water tank, coal and sand towers were constructed and to supplement this surging activity, houses began to line the hillside along New River, followed by the large Dun Glen hotel, New River Banking and Trust Company, Armour Meat Company meat-packing plant, stores, boarding houses and eateries. The growth was so great that during the first two decades of the 1900s, Thurmond handled more freight than Richmond, Virginia and Cincinnati, Ohio combined. 95,000 passengers utilized the depot yearly. Over 150 people worked for the railroad in the town, as laborers, brakemen, dispatchers and so forth, while many others served as tellers for the bank, waitresses and pharmacists.
The town was a dry community, which led McKell to build a small community across the New River and open the 100-room Dun Glen Hotel in 1901. The Dun Glen became infamous for hosting the world’s longest-lasting poker game at 14 years long.
By 1910, Thurmond was producing $4.8 million of freight revenue for the C&O, which was 20% of the entire company’s revenue. It was ten times more than Richmond and 2.5 times more than Cincinnati. There were 18 train crews that operated out of Thurmond.
Prohibition was passed in 1914, curtailing much of the ‘boom town’ rhetoric and effectively ending the “red light” district that was essentially McKell’s community. In 1922, a large fire destroyed parts of Thurmond and eight years later, the Dun Glen Hotel burned. The Thurmond National Bank, a city-owned facility, closed in 1931 and the New River Bank, owned by the McKell family, moved to Oak Hill in 1935. The Armor Meat Company and a telephone district office closed their doors in 1932 and 1938, respectively.
The hustle-and-bustle of the town slowly waned by the 1930s as the Great Depression overtook the country. Thurmond saw a small revival during World War II when coal was in high demand that helped fuel the war effort, but the final nail in the coffin came with the introduction of the diesel locomotive. No longer was coal needed to fuel the massive steam engines, along with water and the associated stops in Thurmond. The C&O was one of the last railroads to convert from steam powered engines to diesels, but once it occurred, Thurmond was no longer an essential stop for the conductors.
In 1978, the National Park Service established the New River Gorge National River for the purpose of conserving and interpreting the outstanding natural, scenic and historic values of the New River Gorge, and to preserve the New River as a free-flowing stream. In 1984, the Thurmond Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1985, the Chessie System agreed to sell the depot to the National Park Service, which was finalized in July 1991. Restoration of the depot began in February 1994 and concluded a year later at a cost of $2.5 million. The wooden foundation had substantially deteriorated due to improper drainage, and the structure was severely leaning towards the railroad tracks. The station required building a new foundation, installing an elevator and constructing sheer walls to provide lateral strength.
In 1992, the National Park Service developed a $35 million plan to develop Thurmond into a tourist site. But funding was only secured for restoration of the depot and stabilization of the commercial buildings and not much else.
The engine house was destroyed by a suspicious fire in August 1993. In mid-1999, the water tower, once used as background in the “Matewan” movie, was razed over concern of its potential collapse. CSX Transportion also refused to sell most of its property and buildings, citing safety concerns.
Today, Thurmond stands at just 5 people strong. Which is why it is a fascinating nearly vacant ghost town. As the remaining residents either move on or pass away, the house and the land it sits on becomes the property of the National Park Service, and the house, if it is a contributing structure to the historic district, is restored to its period appearance.
Armour Meatpacking Plant
The Armour Meatpacking plant was in operation from 1905 to 1932 11/1937.8 The structure housed the meat processing and refrigeration area on the first level and apartments for employees on the second level.11 The building burned in 1963.9
C&O Coaling Tower and Sand House
The C&O’s coaling tower and sand house was designed by Fairbanks, Morse and Company of Chicago and was constructed in 1922 of reinforced concrete.11 A New York construction firm employed 25 to build the structure at a cost of $85,000. The C&O retained use of its steam locomotives more than any other major railroad operator, and the coaling tower and sand house was only abandoned in 1960.
C&O Engine House
The C&O engine house and shop was constructed in 1905 and at its peak, the facility employed 175 mechanists, pipe fitters, boilermakers, electricians and blacksmiths to service and maintain two engines at once.11 A crew office at the eastern end was where train crews were selected to deliver empty coal cars or pick up new, loaded ones. The engine house was enlarged to 245-feet 14 in 1921 to service up to four engines at one time and was in operation until the mid-1980s. The building burned on August 21, 1993.
Dun Glen Hotel
The Dun Glen Hotel was constructed in 1900 on the south side of the New River, and was a large 4.5-story wood-framed building with a wrap-around first floor veranda. It housed not only 100 rooms, but an ice plant, barber shop, laundry, post office and bar.11 The hotel burned in 1930 under suspicious circumstances.
A frame structure hotel with 25 rooms was completed in 1891,17 and was replaced with the 3-story, 35-room Lafayette Hotel in 1901.8 11 The hotel was originally named the Thurmond, and then the La Fayette. The structure burned in 1963.9
The Goodman-Kincaid Building is a three-story structure, constructed in 1905 8/1906 11 with two stores and two floors of apartments.8 The Standard Dry Goods Company purchased the lot and constructed the stone-facaded building in 1907.9 It was built as two separate sections which shared a common front. Standard operated out of the building until 1918.
The second floor hosted Dr. C.F. Ridge’s office and the telephone exchange.8 9 Residents lived in the building until 1959, when the roof started to collapse.9
In a 2002 assessment of the building’s integrity, the roof and flooring systems were noted as having failed with interior elements exposed.11 The Goodman-Kincaid Building has since been stabilized.
The Mankin-Cox Building is a three-story structure, constructed by Dr. J.W. Mankin in 1904 with two stores and two floors of apartments.8 11 Mankin, who paid $4,000 for the 150-by-40-foot lot,9 had offices on the second floor for the Mankin Drug Company, while his wife, a pharmacist, operated a drug store in the right-most storefront. The New River Banking and Trust Company moved from the Dun Glen Hotel in 1911 and occupied the other half of the first floor. The second floor also hosted Dr. Young, Thurmond’s dentist.
The New River Banking and Trust Company relocated to the National Bank of Thurmond Building until it relocated out of the valley entirely when it moved to Oak Hill on September 21, 1935.17
The Cox Building Company took over the building in the 1920s.8 The structure was recently stabilized.11
National Bank of Thurmond Building
The National Bank of Thurmond Building is a four-story structure, and was host to the National Bank of Thurmond and storefronts on the first level and apartments above.8 It was constructed in 1917 by the Bullock Realty Company and housed a jewelry company until 1922.9 The National Bank of Thurmond acquired the building for $24,000 and immediately began renovations. The first level was originally cast-iron storefronts, but the bank remodeled their half into a limestone classical revival facade.
The National Bank of Thurmond closed in 1931.8 A clothing store later operated out of the bank space, and residents lived in the building until 1959.9 In 1975, the building owners connected it to an adjoining building and formed The Bankers Club, a hotel and restaurant that closed in 1988.
The structure was recently stabilized.11
D.D. Fitzgerald constructed the Commissary in 1929 under and agreement with the C&O.11 Fitzgerald owned the building and leased the property from the railroad. After the Lafayette Hotel was destroyed by fire in 1963, taking with it the post office, the commissary was converted into the town’s post office. It was closed in 1995.10
The Thurmond C&O Station was constructed in 1888, and is a two-story wood-framed structure.8 The land for which it was built upon was donated by Captain Thurmond in 1887.11 The original depot burned in 1903 and was replaced a year later, and enlarged by 15 feet on its eastern front in 1914. Inside, the two-story building housed not only a passenger depot, but clerk’s offices, a trainmaster’s office, yardmater’s office, car distributor’s office and telegrapher’s cabin.
The Thurmond depot was rehabilitated in 1995 11 and is still in use today as an Amtrak station and visitors center for the New River Gorge National River.
James Humphrey Jr. House
The James Humphrey Jr. House was constructed around 1920 and it is believed that this was the train master’s house.11
James Humphrey Sr. House
The James Humphrey Sr. house was constructed prior to 1920.11
John Bullock/Roger Armandtrout House
Also known as Fatty Lipcomb’s, this structure was constructed around 1900 and was used historically as a boarding house.11 It was owned by the Littlepage family who lived on the first level and rented the second, and then as a hostelry for whitewater rafters. It was filmed in the 1986 movie “Matewan.”
John Dragan Houses
The John Dragan House is in the background and the John Dragan Staff House is in the foreground. Both were constructed around 1900 and are typical for railroad workers.11
Margaret Dalton House
The Margaret Dalton House is one of three similar structures, including the Vivian Kelley and Drema Robertson houses, and was constructed in 1920 as worker housing.11
Marilyn Brown House
The Marilyn Brown House was constructed around 1900.
Philip McClung Residences
The Philip McClung Home Place and adjacent Philip McClung Rental House were constructed post-1920.
Sid Childers/Margie Richmond House
The building was constructed in 1900 as the power house for Thurmond, and was originally a three-story stone structure.11 The building burned in the 1930s and the two upper floors were removed and replaced with a new brick second floor around 1940. Sid Childers later lived in the eastern half of the building, while Margie Richmond resided in the western half. The two owners occupied the second floor.