Perhaps no small town in West Virginia has gained the worldwide notoriety that the tiny Town of Thurmond has enjoyed. A ghost town located deep in the heart of the gorge, the community of some seven residents has long captured the imaginations of historians and photographers.
A railroad boomtown of hundreds of residents, its remaining historic structures recall a time when the gorge teemed with saloons—though liquor was prohibited by the town founder, William Dabney Thurmond, a visionary about whom relatively little is known.
Thurmond was born in Amherst County, Virginia, in 1820 and migrated to the region with his father's family in about 1845. During the Civil War, he served as a captain with Thurmond’s Rangers, an irregular Confederate troop commanded by his brother Philip. His own family was burned out by opposing forces, after which he declared himself an ‘‘unreconstructed Rebel’’ and refused to sign an oath of allegiance.
In 1873, he was commissioned to survey the land on the north side of New River, where he determined to build the town that soon prospered with the completion of the mainline of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad and developed a reputation as the place to let off steam in the hard-working coalfields.
While Thurmond enforced laws within the town according to his own strict Baptist beliefs, to his dismay the larger community and the name "Thurmond" became synonymous with exuberant lawlessness.
Though counted among the pioneers of the coal industry in the New River region, Thurmond seems to have been reticent to discuss himself publicly, though in 1901 he sat with the editor of the Fayette Journal to briefly discuss his memories of the region as it had been before the advent of the railroad and the rise of the small town he founded.
"I came to this county 56 years ago. I had faith in the future of this territory and believed that the opportunities of its development would not be long delayed. I believed that it would be a question of only a few years until a railroad would be built and then the property would take on a value and the chances to make money would abound.
"The man who, perhaps, is most responsible for the location of the railroad was Mr. Hugh E. Caperton, of Monroe County, whom I knew well. He made three trips to New York for the purpose of inducing capitalists to investigate the resources of West Virginia. He was finally successful in interesting Mr. C. P. Huntington in the project of building a railroad, and Mr. Huntington designated a gentleman named 'Fisher' to make a personal investigation of the territory and report. Mr. Fisher's report was naturally favorable, and it was followed by a more detailed investigation by Mr. Huntington himself, which took tangible form. Mr. Fisher was sent again and, with my aid, made purchases of a vast amount of land.
"This land was procured at a very small price. One tract that I remember was one in controversy between Wm. G. Mann and John Gwinn. They had been lawing over it for a great many years. Mr. Fisher bought it from both of them, paying in the aggregate $3.50 per acre.
"In 1870 the construction of the Big Bend tunnel was begun. A year later the contract for the entire road was let, and work was begun at both ends.
"Coal companies were projected, and almost immediately coal exportation was begun on a small scale, the first mine to be operated being at Coalburg, on the Kanawha. The first one to be operated in the New River field was at Quinnimont, and I think the next was by the Longdale Company. The first coal exportation that was made was in cars having a capacity of ten tons, and twenty of these cars was the load for the small engines of that day.
"The building of the railroad was hailed with great delight by the people of the county. It was the first important event in its history and was the basis of everything that has followed. There was little of importance preceding it, aside from the presence here of soldiery during the late rebellion.
"Until the constitution of 1852 was formed, the county government was conducted almost entirely by the magistrates. They administered the law and, as I recollect, without compensation. These magistrates were selected by the legislature, and besides performing the functions of the present-day magistrates, formed also the fiscal body of the county. The eldest magistrate in point of service was entitled to be the sheriff of the county for the term of two years. At the expiration of that service, the next oldest magistrate succeeded, and so on. The sheriff was permitted either to serve or sell the office to someone else.
"There was no money in the country in those days. I have no doubt that I might have made a trip about the section of the county in which I lived for ten miles square, and had I been able to get every cent that everybody had, it wouldn't have amounted to ten dollars. Men received for their work a heifer, a hog, a quantity of corn, salt, or whatever else might have been bargained for. Ordinarily, men or families did their own work, and it was not usual, except in rare cases, for one to need help from the other.
"The money that they happened to have was procured from some slight service to the occasional traveler that went along the roads, usually from the stages or their passengers.
"Taxes were paid, not often in money, but usually in hides of one sort or another. The sheriff returning from a collecting trip would be laden down with the hides of foxes and deer. Many of the people living here did not own land, and did not, therefore, pay taxes. They preferred not to own the land. It was almost as free as it was wild, and they would build a cabin, make a clearing, and live there for years without molestation."
Sign up to receive a FREE copy of West Virginia Explorer Magazine in your email twice weekly. Sign me up!