Thurmond Depot and Ghost Town
The mainline of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway was completed in 1873. This same year, Captain W.D. Thurmond procured 73 acres along the mainline, which was a strategic purchase given the importance of the railroad, resulting in the ideal place to develop a town. Thurmond, WV quickly became one of the leading depots in the state, and from 1900 until the 1920s, the town prospered immensely; the depot saw fifteen passenger trains a day and 95,000 passengers a year. As the coal and timber industry accelerated, Thurmond became one of the boom cities within West Virginia, served as the “heart” of the New River valley, and became the chief railroad center of the C&O Railway mainline by 1910. Thurmond was home to two hotels, two banks, restaurants, clothing stores, a jewelry store, movie theater, dry-goods stores and business offices. During the town’s era of prosperity, coal barons contributed to the success of Thurmond’s banks which, at one time, were the richest in the state of West Virginia. Unfortunately, the town began to decline after diesel locomotives were invented and less coal came from the local mines. This decline caused many of the local businesses to close resulting in the migration of many residents. Moreover, the Great Depression produced yet another economic strain on the community, causing several other businesses and the National Bank of Thurmond to close. Two major fires in the town took out several prominent businesses causing even more difficulty and hardship for the community.
Backstory and Context
Thurmond, also known as "The Heart of the New River Gorge" is a small town located along the New River in Fayette County, West Virginia. The town was incorporated in 1903 by William Dabney Thurmond who established the town as an important railroad center for the New River coal industry. In 1904, the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Company built a freight station in Thurmond, and soon after, a railroad bridge was completed across the river to connect the local coal mines. Known as the Thurmond Depot, the two-story building had board and batten siding, a bracketed shed roof, and a signal tower. The ground floor served as a waiting area and news center for passengers, but the upper section of the building was reserved for railway operators and their offices. The Depot was the heart of the community as it welcomed railroad workers, coal operators, and tourists into the booming coal town.
Due to its massive output of coal, Thurmond became the center of commerce along the C & O Railway. To supplement the town’s surging activity, houses, hotels, banks, businesses, and eateries began to line the hillside along the New River. According to Sherman Cahall, “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 and over 150 people worked for the railroad in town as laborers, brakemen, or dispatchers” (Cahall, “The (Near) Ghost Town of Thurmond West Virginia,” abandonedonline.net). Upwards to eighteen train crews operated within Thurmond, along with supervising personnel, to make sure the trains operated efficiently and that coal was transported safely. The National Register of Historic Places states that “by 1910, Thurmond produced $4.8 million of freight revenue for the C & O, which was almost 20% of C&O’s revenue” (National Register of Historic Places, wvculture.org). Thurmond was one of the richest coal producing areas of the state with many coal operators for patrons, including Henry Ford and his Fordson Coal Company.
Thurmond’s heyday, during the early twentieth century, came to a halt with the onset of the Great Depression. The town’s economy waned after several businesses closed, including the National Bank of Thurmond, and two large fires wiped out multiple buildings. By the 1940s, the C & O Railway changed from steam to diesel locomotives. The National Park Service states that, “Thurmond had been a steam town, its rail yard and crews geared toward the short service intervals of steam locomotives. The switch to diesels left many of the railyard structures and jobs obsolete” (“Thurmond,” nps.gov). This switch resulted in the end of Thurmond’s prosperity in 1984, as the railroad offices in the town had closed. However, the entire town was included in a historical district that year and placed on the National Register of Historical Places. The station still functions as a working stop on Amtrak's Cardinal Line. This route runs from Chicago to New York, right through the heart of the New River Gorge. It takes a reservation to get the train to stop in Thurmond, otherwise it travels 13 miles upstream to the station at Prince, West Virginia.
Thurmond is but an echo of the past but still offers a rare experience. Tourism within the New River Gorge Park continues to attract people to the historic town. Thurmond has hosted the Guiness Book of World Record's longest poker game and was voted as one of Travel & Leisure's coolest ghost towns in America. In 1995, the Thurmond Depot was restored by the National Park Service and now serves as a visitor center and museum for people interested in learning about more the yesteryear of the New River Gorge region. Thurmond is truly a place where "the River meets History" (http://thurmondwv.org/).