Living in its wake
“Coal River, as in days of yore, still wends its placid way ...” — “The Fall of the Whitesville Bridge,” Sylvester Pack, 1926
The waters of the Coal create a constant low roar as they pass over the shoals at Upper Falls.
For the people of Tornado, it’s the soundtrack of their lives. For Eloise Wisman, it’s a sound that eludes her ... until it’s gone.
“When the water rises high enough, the falls disappear,” she said, the river’s brown expanse at her back. “Then I hear the silence.”
Wisman’s grandfather, Roman Pickens, moved to the banks of the Coal at Upper Falls in 1884.
Proof of his time by the water lies at the edge of the falls, where poison ivy vines thick as bull ropes hug the massive stone blocks that once shouldered the Pickens gristmill.
The series of locks and dams built on the Coal around 1847 had already been abandoned by Pickens’ time. He settled in the former lockmaster’s house near the falls.
He used the dam to funnel water into his mill, powering the wheels that crushed the grain into flour.
The dam is still there, as is the house. It sits on a little rise across the two-lane, which would have given the lockmaster a good vantage point over the river.
Wisman rents out the 160-year-old house, along with her parents’ old store building, which has been converted into a residence. “The tenants seem to like them. They like living by the falls,” she said. “They say it always sounds like it’s raining.”
Wisman’s mother was born in 1901, and was raised in the lockmaster’s house.
Later, she and her husband would run their store, and, in effect, run the adjacent beach (actually a sandbar) that formed just below the falls.
Wisman spent many childhood summer days on the sandbar with her friends.
Her parents kept on eye on the beach, but nowadays, with her parents long gone, Wisman looks out on the sandbar not only with nostalgia, but with a hint of bitterness toward what has transpired.
Chain-link fence now blocks access to the river’s edge. A thick tangle of trees and brush hugs the fence, blocking the view of the falls.
During the 1980s, the sandbar became a favorite party place for teens and young adults, who littered the area with trash. They parked their cars in yards and on roadsides.
The fence became the only option.
Still today, beer bottles are scattered on the sandbar’s upriver boundary. Coal waste, repeatedly released from the mining operations far upstream, has stained part of the sand black.
The “beach” is twice the size that it was in Wisman’s childhood. Locals blame the river’s sediment problems on the closure of a sand plant at Alum Creek.
Farther upstream, fingers point toward mountaintop mining and timbering, which can allow sediment to flow off the mountains and into the river during times of heavy rain.
For Wisman, the changes on her piece of the Coal have been like the changes in life — for better and worse, and often unavoidable.
“I have always lived here,” she said. “I don’t know anything else but Tornado.”
Reviving a dormant history
Sitting on his deck on a St. Albans hilltop, Dean Braley can look out over the Coal River as it bends sharply and heads west into the hills.
“The river was essential for the settlers, the early towns and industries. It can be essential again,” he said.
Braley is part of the Coal River Group, a St. Albans-based collective intent on celebrating the history and beauty of the three-river system (the Big Coal and Little Coal meet to form the Coal at Alum Creek).
Braley, a recent retiree who’s lived in the area for 26 years, is also the author of “Coalsmouth,” a recently published history of St. Albans.
“I was curious about some of the buildings on Olde Main Plaza, and it just kind of built from there,” Braley said of his fascination with the history of St. Albans and the Coal.
“Then I read about George Washington and Daniel Boone and their roles here. Famous people we all studied were very involved in the history of this area.
“I travel a lot, and you go to towns with much less history than this, and they make the most of it,” he said. “We haven’t done that.”
Connie Mosteller, who runs a gift shop in St. Albans and a kayaking business on the Coal, is in charge of the Coal River Group’s history committee.
Committee members see the river’s history as a way to promote tourism.
Among their ideas:
s A series of signs, pointing out historical sites.
s An interpretive center/museum, possibly in the lockmaster’s house in Tornado,
s Restoration of one of the early mills, possibly the Pickens mill,
s Restoration of one of the log “booms” that were once prevalent on the river (the booms fenced in floating piles of saw logs, as they waited for their trip downstream).
Mosteller, 47, offers a guided kayaking history tour of the Coal, but because of the lack of put-in and take-out spots on the riverbank, the tour takes eight hours, something not a lot of people are willing to undertake.
“We’re hoping that the [Division of Natural Resources] will help create some new put-ins,” she said. “It would shorten the trip, and if people don’t want to go over the shoals in a kayak, it would give them a place to get out of the river.”
And if more people want to kayak the Coal, it will not only help Mosteller’s business, but also give her another reason to spend a day on the water.
“I just love the river,” she said, sitting behind the counter of her Olde Main Plaza shop. “There’s so much there.”
‘Dog Patch,’ then and now
“... We found great plenty of coals, for which we name it Coal River,” reads a 1741 account of John Peter Salley’s westward trip, retold in Braley’s book, “Coalsmouth.”
While the membership of the Coal River Group, which is largely based in and around St. Albans, works to celebrate an age when steamers full of cannel coal navigated the locks, farther upstream, where the Big Coal cuts and weaves through Boone County, residents still live the coal era every day — often to their chagrin.
“It’s been a black hell to live in,” said Pauline Canterberry, 74, describing the last six years in Sylvester, a time that coincides with the expansion of Elk Run Coal Co.’s nearby processing plant.
Coal dust from the plant led to a lawsuit by residents such as Canterberry, who paid $47,000 for her house in 1981 and did $20,000 worth of work, only to see its value fall to $10,000 in a recent appraisal.
She recouped about 4 percent of her loss through the lawsuit.
But the dust hasn’t stopped. Canterberry keeps blackened paper towels in a Ziploc bag marked “overnight, reunion, 7/3/04.”
The latest installment of the annual Sylvester “Dog Patch” reunion took place over the Fourth of July holiday.
“This is what we had to clean off the chairs and tables for people to have a clean place to sit,” she said, pointing to the paper towels.
This is a far cry from the early days of Sylvester, which was known as Dog Patch because of a local postmistress’ love for the “Li’l Abner” comic of the day.
In the late 1940s, the site of present-day Sylvester held a golf course and landing strip for small planes. Then the owners started selling the land as housing lots.
“This little town was a wonderful place to raise a family,” Canterberry said. “This was not a coal camp. It was a clean place built by the people.”
Named for Boone County educator Sylvester Pack, the town was incorporated in 1952.
“When a house would become vacant here, it would be sold immediately,” recalled resident Mary Miller, 74. “Everybody wanted to live here then. We tried to move here in 1951, but had to wait until 1955 to find a place.”
For the children who grew up on the Big Coal, cooling off in one of the swimming holes that dotted its curvy path was the height of summertime recreation.
But the deep pools are gone. Massive floods, sedimentation, the absence of dredging and the burial of feeder streams with mine waste have eliminated them, locals say.
“And nobody would go in that river anymore, anyway,” Canterberry said. “A few of the boys fish, but they don’t eat them.”
A different outlook
The Coal’s history of mining related degradation, including siltation, blackwater spills and related heavy-metal pollutants, earned it a spot on the American Rivers organization’s most endangered waterways list in 1999.
The harsh treatment of the Coal, and of the mountain ridges that line its valley, has bred a resolve in some longtime residents.
Judy Bonds, the director of the activist group Coal River Mountain Watch, is a good example.
She had to leave the land where she was raised, along a tributary of the Big Coal, after a mining operation crept closer and closer.
She was named the North American winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2003.
“Judy and I both share a common ancestor who was a Revolutionary War soldier who settled here,” said Patty Sebok, 49, who works for Coal River Mountain Watch. “The early people here had to be the hardiest of the hardy, and I think it’s kind of carried on.
“It’s just something you have in your blood. We’re stubborn people, and we have a different outlook on life than most other people in the U.S.
“We live simple so the others can simply live.”
Part 3 of this series will focus more extensively on the environmental problems facing the Coal River system.
To contact staff writer Robert J. Byers, use e-mail or call 348-1236.
This is Part 2 of an occasional series of articles.
Things to see
The Coal River Group has identified numerous sites along the Coal River system that may be of interest to history lovers. They include:
s Eight foundations of locks and dams built in the mid-1850s.
s Three pedestrian bridges spanning the river, built in the early 1900s.
s Twenty-six log boom foundations built in the late 1800s.
s Three foundations for 1800s grist and flax mills.
s Two potential sites (underwater) for sunken riverboats or barges, circa 1850s.
s Fifteen historic structures located on the riverbanks, built prior to the 1870s.
s Many railroad-related sites dating to the early 1870s.