Thayer, West Virginia, and the Ephraim Creek Coal and Coke Company
Thayer sprang to life when the Ephraim Creek Coal and Coke Company began mining the Buffalo and Slater mines in 1902. Designed to be a pleasant location for the Ephraim Creek Coal and Coke Company’s home office, the town encompassed most of the bottom land along the New River. The town was designed alongside the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad mainline and was a thriving community until the coal that could be accessed profitably was extracted from the area. As the mining companies abandoned the area, most of the residents moved away in search for new opportunity. The post office closed in 1968 and today only a handful of hearty souls still call Thayer home.
Backstory and Context
Of the many coal mining towns that came and went along the New River Gorge, Thayer offers one of the most interesting and compelling histories. The community has the distinction of being one of the few towns that survived the end of the mining operations that gave rise to its creation.
was the company town for the Ephraim Creek Coal and Coke Company that operated
the Buffalo and Slater mines. The first to open was the Slater mine, upstream
of the community. It was a drift mine working the Fire Creek seam, a three-foot
high seam of coal. The Buffalo mine was located at Ephraim, downriver of the
town. It was also a drift mine working the same coal seam. When the Ephraim Coal and Coke Company
combined operation of the two mine it was anticipated early they would combine
to produce an astounding 1,000 tons of coal daily.
The valuable flatland along the New River was a prime location for a town. The town was built on either side of the mainline of the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad. As the population grew, the town expanded to the mountainside above the town. The town contained a train depot, theater, company store, company offices, and company housing. With the exception of a few houses, all of these buildings have been lost to time. The theater had the capability to seat one thousand people. When the stage was not being utilized, the seats could be removed so the area could be used as a dance hall. The theater must have been an impressive building as it also boasted a billiards area and a bowling alley. Surely, these entertainment opportunities attracted miners and their families from other communities throughout the gorge and surrounding areas.
In addition to the theater, Thayer was once home to three schools and a post office.The state of West Virginia required public schools to separate children by race and in the era prior to desegregation Thayer operated one school for African American children and two schools for white children. Despite the inherent contradiction between segregation and the freedoms guaranteed to all Americans under the Constitution, the existence of a nearby school was an improvement over the conditions faced by African American families that did not have a school in their community that was open to their children. Many black families in Southern West Virginia were required to send their children to live with relatives because there was no school that would admit their children for many miles. Other families in the gorge endured the trials of having their children absent for most of the day as the segregation forced hundreds of black children to walked three or more miles past the nearest school to obtain an education at one of the one-room schoolhouses that operated in coal country.
The houses were not the Jenny Lind buildings typical of company mine towns of the era. The usual home found within a company town consisted of two rooms, the more elaborate having four rooms, without modern the conveniences of the day. The company houses found here were frame construction with clapboard siding comprised of five or six rooms. They were completely modern for their time, complete with running water, indoor bathrooms, and electricity. Three of these houses remain standing today along the railroad tracks.
Above the town along a bench was located the superintendent house, several employee houses and the Methodist Episcopal Church. This make the town sound larger than it truly is. It is simply spread up and along the wall of the gorge. Approximately a quarter mile above the tracks are some of the more impressive structures still standing in this area. The first, and easier to access, is Little Rock Assembly Church. This is a white clapboard structure complete with a steeple that may be the Methodist Episcopal Church. It has the appearance from the outside to be a single room church. It is situated along McKendree Road where the road splits. The right fork is known as Thayer Post Office Road. It winds down the hill to railroad tracks and river. The left fork, McKendree Road, continues to Prince. And quickly becomes impassible for all but four-wheel drive vehicles with substantial ground clearance.
It is unfortunate the road is in such a state of disrepair. It is along this section of road a large two-story structure, probably a boarding house, stands. This structure dwarfs everything else in the immediate area. Not only is it two full stories tall, it is built into the hillside making it appear even larger. Mother Nature and neglect have degraded this building to a state beyond repair. The windows have been broken and there is at least one gaping hole in the roof giving this once grand building a haunted look. In a report for the National Parks Services, it is theorized the building was possibly a boarding house for the community. The adventurous tourist that wants to see this building before it is completely reclaimed by nature is advised to park at Little Rock Assembly Church and walk to the building. The road is impassible to the average vehicle.
The post office ceased operation in 1968. Today, Thayer is inhabited by a handful of hearty souls that call this piece of history home. The company houses in near original condition along the bottom appear to be used as summer cabins today. There are also a number of modern structures that appear to be in use as summer cabins and year-round residents. This area is home to a primitive camping site managed by the National Parks Service.
The community is located slightly more than seven miles upriver from Thurmond on McKendree Road, an improved dirt and gravel road. This road connects Thurmond to Prince fourteen miles upriver. In reality, this road becomes almost impassable just past Thayer. Even daily travel between Thayer and Thurmond would require a four-wheel drive vehicle. Travel to Thayer should be done only under the best of weather conditions.
Bragg, Melody. Thurmond and Ghost Towns of the New River Gorge. Glen Jean, WV. Gem Publications, 1995.
Peters, J. T. Carden, H. B. History of Fayette County West Virginia. Charleston, WV. Jarrett Printing Company, 1926. Reprinted 1972 by McClain Printing Co. Parsons WV
EDAW, Inc.. Riveranna Archaeological Services, LLC.. Jordan, Norman. Traditional Associations of African Americans with New River Gorge National River. 2009. Prepared for National Park Service; New River Gorge National River
Cavalier, John. Panorama of Fayette County. Parsons, WV. McClain Print Company, 1985.
Workman, Michael E. Maddex, Lee R. Bonenberger, Dan J. New River Gorge National River: Historic Resource Study NERI-02-038 HRS. WV. Institute for the History of Technology & Industrial Archaeology, 2005. Report submitted to New River Gorge National River US Dept. of Interior, National Park Service Cooperative Agreement No. H0001010032