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History-rich Nuttallburg tells story of coal mining in New River Gorge

By Akron Beacon Journal

WINONA, W.Va. -- Nuttallburg is more than a little isolated. It is, quite literally, at the end of a long and winding road.

Nuttallburg is a ghost town, what remains of an old coal camp deep in the heavily wooded New River Gorge National River in south-central West Virginia.

The mine, tapping the 3 1/2-foot-thick Sewell coal seam, was once owned by Detroit industrialist Henry Ford.

New River Gorge stretches 53 miles and covers 73,000 acres. It is widely known for its whitewater rafting outfitters. It is also a playground for climbers, hikers and mountain bikers.

Visitors don't pass through Nuttallburg. It's a remote destination that may not appeal to everyone, but what you will find at the end of the road is a pretty special historic place.

It is a historic showpiece for the National Park Service that manages New River Gorge, as the hamlet slowly emerges from the greenery that has buried much of the town.

It offers visitors willing to make the drive a look at coal mining in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It is the most intact example of a coal-mining complex in West Virginia and is one of the most complete coal-related industrial sites in the United States, the park service says.

Nuttallburg was in existence from 1870 to 1958. The bustling mining community was one of 50 towns that sprang up along the New River after a rail line was built into the gorge to access the coal in 1873. By 1880, the Nuttallburg mine was the No. 1 coal producer in Fayette County.

In 1890, Nuttallburg had 342 residents in 110 company-owned houses stretching a half-mile along the New River and up the sides of the gorge. In 1900, it had a doctor, a blacksmith and a company store, plus clubs and athletic teams.

Today, Nuttallburg features a tipple where coal was sorted before being loaded onto rail cars, and a 1,385-foot conveyor belt that was used to haul coal from the mine 600 feet above.

The conveyor belt, built in 1926, could handle 125 tons of coal per hour. It operated by gravity and was the longest coal conveyor in the world when it was built.

There's not much in Nuttallburg: Park service kiosks, parking for eight vehicles, a restroom, interpretive signs and three trails: the 0.6-mile Tipple Trail; the 1.3-mile Town Loop Trail; and the rugged 3-mile Conveyor Trail, an uphill climb to the top of the conveyor and the mine opening.

But just getting to Nuttallburg is an adventure. Visitors must descend from off-the-beaten-path Winona for 4.1 miles on narrow, winding and steep Keeney Creek Road. At its best, it is a 1 1/2-vehicle road that narrows to a one-lane road. You pray no one is coming in the other direction because spots to pull over are rare. The road dead-ends into the tiny parking lot at Nuttallburg.

The coal camp was developed by John Nuttall, an Englishman who came to the United States in 1849. He started mines in western Pennsylvania before being attracted to West Virginia.

In 1870, Nuttall began buying land in the New River Gorge along Keeney Creek about four miles south of Fayetteville. He acquired 1,500 acres and started two mines.

He started his coal camp with 17 two-family and 80 one-family dwellings, plus other necessary features.

When the Chesapeake & Ohio was completed in 1873, Nuttallburg was the second town in the gorge to ship bituminous coal by rail. It was highly desirable coal, called smokeless because it was high in carbon with very little waste. It is easily broken, so handling it became a major concern.

Nuttall directed the two mines and their operations from 1873 to his death in 1897. He once controlled 3.5 miles along the New River. He allowed some miners to purchase land for houses above the mine, in something of a social experiment. His family controlled the mines until 1920 when Henry Ford purchased the mines. He visited Nuttallburg once and even shut down the mines in 1921-1922. They were modernized with new steel structures and reopened by the Fordson Coal Co., supervised by Ford's son, Edsel.

The new tipple was built in 1923-1924, the third tipple in the hamlet.

The improvements at Nuttallburg doubled production. It was part of Ford's goal of creating "vertical integration" or controlling all aspects of production. Ford's effort failed because he could not control the railroad that transported his coal.

He sold his interests in the Nuttallburg mines in 1928. The mines had three additional owners before they closed in 1958, unable to compete. The post office closed in 1955 and the rail depot on the CSX line was shut down in 1962.

In 1998, the Nuttall family transferred ownership of Nuttallburg to the park service.

The site was inventoried and documented. A long-range plan for stabilizing the historic structures and getting rid of vegetation including kudzu, Japanese knotweed, Japanese jointgrass, wingstem and jewelweed that had overrun the town was completed by the park service in 2005. Restoration work got underway in 2006.

A new bridge was built on the Keeney Creek Road to allow visitors to reach Nuttallburg. It opened for visitation about two years ago. The park service has invested $2 million to stabilize the badly rusted tipple and the conveyor, and to fight the invasive vegetation.

The stone outline of the company store sits at the north end of a long line of abandoned coke ovens. Little is known about the store itself, where trees now grow inside the roofless structure.

Nuttall built 80 of the beehive ovens where coal was turned into high-quality coke for making steel. Each oven had a capacity of five tons. Nuttall's coke ovens may not have been used after 1920.

Shorts Creek, the town's drinking water supply, divided Nuttallburg into an African-American community on its east side and a white community on its west side. Each had its own school, church and worker clubhouse.

Masonry bridge supports still stand by the railroad tracks. The 340-foot-long bridge stretched across the New River to the town of South Nuttall (also known as Brown). It was built in 1889. The pedestrian-only bridge was finally removed in the early 1960s after Nuttallburg was abandoned.

It is difficult to get a good picture of what Nuttallburg was really like because of the thick greenery that overtakes everything in late summer.

There are the cut-stone building foundations of the Taylor House, a large boarding house, and a few other buildings that visitors can explore on do-it-yourself tours.

The Taylor House was built by Nuttall's daughter and son-in-law, Martha and Jackson Taylor. It later served as a clubhouse for white miners.

You can also access Nuttallburg via the 3.5-mile Keeney's Creek Rail Trail, an old railroad bed that once ran up Keeney Creek to Winona. There are two access spots off Keeney Creek Road.

But there is another way to access the mine opening: from the top, via the Headhouse Trail off Beauty Mountain Road. The park service advises against using GPS systems to get to Nuttallburg.

The park service also has two other sites with strong coal history in New River Gorge: the town of Thurmond and the Kaymoor mine.

For information, contact New River Gorge National River, 304-465-0508, www.nps.gov/neri.

Bob Downing: bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com


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