By Ruth A. Ringelstetter
In the spring of 2010, as Joann and I were returning from North Carolina, I took the opportunity to plan the route past a couple of the highlights in West Virginia. Don’t get me wrong, we do want to spend a lot more time there, but I’ll need to do a lot more research before then.
One of the places that we did manage to visit was the historic town of Thurmond. Thurmond is in the New River Gorge, which is one of the most important natural areas in West Virginia.
Thurmond was a flourishing town, mostly due to the C&O Railway. At its height in the 1930s, the population of Thurmond was nearly 500. In 2013, the population was 5. It is the smallest incorporated town in West Virginia.
We laughed about how small the town hall was, but now, knowing that the town only has 5 residents, we know that little building is big enough.
Thurmond has a small row of remaining main street buildings, but it never had a main street. The railroad tracks ran just a couple of feet outside those buildings. At that point, the gorge is very narrow, and there was no room for tracks and a road. Just the tracks.
To enter Thurmond, you must cross a one-lane bridge. This one-lane vehicle bridge and the railroad bridge are side by side. Joann was a little reluctant to cross, wondering what might be happening on the other side. I wasn’t driving so I, of course, was telling her to just drive over it.
The first building you see is the restored depot. Today, it is a Park Service visitor center for the New River Gorge National River. It was built in 1904 to replace an earlier building that burned in 1903. It was enlarged in 1914, and was restored in 1995 by the park service.
The depot is also an Amtrak flag stop. Amtrak passes through three times per week, but only stops if there are passengers ticketed to or from the station. In the early years, 15 passenger trains per day passed through Thurmond, and it served 95,000 passengers per year.
The depot originally had three waiting rooms. One for white women, one for white men, and one for African Americans. It also housed a clerk’s office, trainmaster’s office, yardmaster’s office, car distributor’s office, and telegrapher’s cabin. The projecting bay served as a signal tower.
Many of the railroad buildings are gone now, but the coaling tower and sand house still stands as a testament to the coal that travelled through town. More freight used to pass through Thurmond than through Cincinnati, Ohio.
A few of the other main street buildings have been stabilized by the National Park Service and display signs about historic Thurman in the windows. One of those buildings is the former National Bank of Thurmond. It was built in 1917 and housed a jewelry company until 1922.
The National Bank of Thurmond acquired the building and renovated the front into what you see today. Originally, the building had cast iron storefronts, but the bank remodeled their half into a limestone façade.
The original plan was to renovate the buildings to be used for tourists, but no money was available, so only the depot was completely remodeled. The other buildings were stabilized or removed if they were past stabilizing or didn’t contribute to the historic district.
We hope to return to West Virginia, and if we do, we will probably return to the Thurmond area. If you find yourself in West Virginia, be sure to enjoy the natural beauty and small historic towns.