SOPHIA, W.Va. -- Early in the last century, nearly 15,000 people lived along a 15-mile stretch of Winding Gulf Creek, where an army of miners toiled in the surrounding hillsides, producing up to 20 million tons of high-quality coal a year from five major seams.
Some of the world's best coal for steelmaking is still being produced here, along the Raleigh-Wyoming County border, in a few large mines. But only a handful of the nearly 50 coal camps that once lined the creek remain standing and occupied.
Moss-covered foundation stones, solitary chimneys, and the crumbling remnants of churches and company stores are all that remain of some of the once-thriving coal communities. Powerhouses and ventilation units that made mining possible in miles of underground shafts are being eaten by rust and swallowed by brush.
The 8,000-acre Burning Rock Outdoor Adventure Park, with 90 miles of trails for ATV and off-road motorcycle riders, is situated in the heart of the Winding Gulf Coalfield.
To put visitors in touch with the coal-mining heritage found within and adjacent to Burning Rock's boundaries, the park is offering guided coal heritage ATV tours.
Burning Rock's trail system takes riders past the once-bustling coal towns of Stotesbury and Tams, where Walter P. Tams Jr. leased a tract of land from Burning Rock's parent company, Beaver Coal Co., in 1908 to open his Gulf Smokeless mine, one of the first in the Winding Gulf.
"The town of Tams was once bigger than Beckley," said Woody Duba, general manager of Beaver Coal, and the man responsible for developing, and sometimes guiding, Burning Rock's coal heritage ATV tours. "It had a theater, a swimming pool, and monthly competitions for the best-kept company homes.
Unlike its coalfield counterparts, the town of Tams had electricity and running water in every company house prior to the 1920s, and had a community bowling alley, gym and café.
Tams, known as "Major Tams" because of the rank he attained when he left the coalfield to serve in the Army during World War I, governed his namesake town "with an iron fist," Duba said. "But he was also known for being fair and generous. For example, he was the first coal operator to reduce the hours in a workday from 10 to nine, without reducing pay."
A recent tour led by Duba began at the Burning Rock headquarters, which, along with a campground and a row of guest cabins, is built on a reclaimed coal refuse pile that was converted into 60 acres of flat land.
"More than 95 percent of the trails we use were here already," Duba said. "They were either mine roads or roads used in oil and gas development or timbering."
An active surface mine on an adjacent tract of land is developing trails to add to the Burning Rock system as part of its reclamation plan. "We're thinking about possibly adding a motocross trail," Duba said. "They are able to custom build the trails we'd like to have."