West Virginia, Coal, New River


Cantrell’s Ultimate Rafting, Fayetteville, WV

Life has a way of changing our plans…

Plan was to go to Babcock State Park in Clifftop, WV for a few days. From that base we could explore the New River and it’s surroundings.


iPhone + map navigation took us the most direct route to Babcock. It was another of those semi-harrowing drives on narrow, windy, steep (up and down), narrow two-lane roads. Can a route be harrowing and lovely at the same time?

The woods were beautifully greening from canopy to earth, dogwoods lifting their planes of blooms like clouds through the grey of densely growing tree trunks. The rhododendron thickets weeped down the mountain sides, not yet in bloom, their leaves, stars points from the bloom, glistening with the misty rain.

Babcock SP was deserted. We left the RV in front of the check-in station and went back to Park HQ. We talked to the ranger and learned the springtime policy for the campground was “we might get up that way sometime…” We decided against staying at the park.  For some odd reason, neither of us felt safe there. There was a 300 year old Grist Mill at HQ that was worth a photo or hundreds (it’s one of the most photographed sites in Appalachia).


Consulting Campendium and Allstays apps pompted a call to Cantrell’s Rafting outfit. Cantrell’s advertised 11 sites, accommodations for big rigs (not us, but still…), laundry and bathhouse, restaurant, bar and clubhouse. Mom and Pop, Nancy and Richie Cantrell were waiting for us and got us all settled in our little site.


Cantrell’s hilly-meadow sport’s a bunch of little cabins, a bandstand, several school busses (rafter transport) and a really nice lodge. The hosts were very friendly and knowledgable about the area and shared some good hikes and drives with us.

New River Gorge National River. Do those words trigger thoughts of the largest arch-span bridge in the Western hemisphere? No? How about the river that runs, strangely, north? How about three canyons, three rivers and all running at least five Class V rapids each? I know, you have it now.

Coal country. Railroad country.

Once the rails opened the New River canyon, rich investors followed and created mining camps that eventually turned into small towns – 60 of them in all. Most have all but disappeared, some are still habited and four stand out. Nuttleburg, Kaymore Sewell, and Thurmond are explorable and often offer trailheads for hikes.

We visited Nuttleburg, built in 1870 boasted two churches, two schools and a bevy of small houses. The Company provided housing, a company store and jobs. Black and white workers were housed separately but worked together.

Henry Ford bought the mine in 1920, part of his plan to own everything from the ground to the final purchase of his vehicles. Ford needed the coal to fuel the railroad which would bring coal and coke to his steel manufacturing pant that then created the metal to make cars. The plan failed when Ford was unable to buy the C&O Railroad. Ford built a huge conveyor belt from the mine – high above the town – to the tippet. The tippet had coal sorters that deposited sized coal lumps directly into railroad cars.

The coal from this area of West Virginia was of the highest quality. When ignited inside a coke oven and left to ‘cook’ for a couple of days, the coal produced burned the hottest and was smokeless. Newer, less labor intensive, methods of turning coal to coke prevailed and coal mining was changed forever.

Look at youtube.com for “Working Man” (the Miners Song) or “Coal Mining Man” by The Men of the Deeps and you’ll see photos of mining camps and miners lives. The music is haunting as was Nuttleberg.

New River Gorge Bridge was built from 1974 to 1977. It is the third highest bridge in the US and at 3,030 ft, long is the fourth longest arch span bridge in the world. The four lane roadway is 879 ft. above the New River and 16,000 plus vehicles cross it daily. Unusual in long arch span bridges, the New River Bridge’s span is below the roadway.

The construction of the bridge is an engineering marvel. We saw movies of the construction while we visited the National Park visitors center. They built huge towers that spewed gigantic cables, the cables held bridge parts while builders screwed together two-inch thick, seven-inch long bolts that held the segments together. Sections were floated out over the gorge on the cables and lowered into place one at a time.

Base jumpers, bungee cord boingers jump off the bridge on “Bridge Day” the third Saturday of October, when the bridge is closed to all vehicular traffic. In these parts, Bridge Day is a huge festival.

Today it takes seconds to cross the bridge but back when Nuttleberg was thriving, it took 45 minutes to get over the old bridge and climb out of the canyon – not counting the time it took to reach the old bridge.

There is still a low bridge to cross, just not the original which was washed away in a flood. The present bridge escaped being unmoored during another huge flood when the railroad stopped a train of fully loaded coal cars across to hold the bridge to it’s pylons.

From here we drive a short distance to Ohiopyle State Park in Pennsylvania.