TAMS, W.Va. — Most folks who come across the New Salem Baptist Church in southern West Virginia believe it to be abandoned. In cosmetic disrepair and seemingly far from any habitation, it routinely evokes strong feelings among the visitors who happen across it and share their fascination on social media.
However, the church has not been abandoned: it has been added to the National Register of Historic Places, though its congregation has dwindled to a literal handful of members, and services are held there only a few times a year.
In addition to its strange remoteness is the remarkable fact that the church building is all that's left of a Black community that had once numbered in the hundreds and whose home once lined streets in a mining town that's long since disappeared.
Historian and West Virginia business leader David Sibray, who's been working with several groups towards preserving the structure over the last decade, says better days are ahead for the church, which is among the most important historical landmarks in the region.
"I get an uncanny feeling whenever I'm at the church alone," Sibray said after a visit to the site. "For one thing, there's the charm of the country church in the wildwood, but then there's the lamentable fact that it's the only thing that remains of an entire town."
According to Sibray, the neighborhood that once surrounded the church was demolished in the 1980s by the coal mining company that owned the land.
Most of its residents had already moved out of the neighborhood, which had been a Black mining community established in 1909 when mine workers and their families were housed in segregated living areas.
The land for the church was provided by the owner of the mining company, William Purviance Tams, Jr., who loaned the church organization funds for its construction. The building was built in the Gothic style, which featured large window areas with pointed arches.
"There are a few other old structures left in the white mining camp, yet nothing remains here but this fantastic old church, and that's part of why this landmark was deemed eligible for the national register," he said.
"It speaks to me because it recalls a time when institutions segregated people in the U.S. and because the boom-and-bust economy of mining saw the creation and demise of places in which people lived out much of their lives."
With the increase in tourism in the area, however, Sibray says he expects the landmark's profile to increase, and its inclusion on the national register has increased funding available for maintenance and development.
"Tens of thousands of ATV riders visit the church annually, I'm sure, and thousands of those share photographs on social media," he said.
"That's a sizeable audience; more than enough than is needed to help the congregation and the church as a historic landmark."
Sibray said the church will unveil a website in 2024, and historical information will be provided at the site to help illustrate its importance.
New Salem Baptist Church is located at 2197 McAlpin Road, Rhodell, WV 25915 and at Google coordinates 37.67422102473812, -81.3004526196257.
A contributions account has been established for the landmark here.
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