Thurmond, West Virginia (Part 1)

Welcome to Historic Thurmond

A Rough and Tumble Town

Is it a Ghost Town? Some think so! Back then, people weren’t surprised to step off the train onto a dead body laying next to the tracks! It was a wild town!

A Beautiful State

West Virginia! It’s the home of the Coal Miner’s Daughter, Harper’s Ferry, the Shenandoah Mountains and the inspiration for that John Denver song.

Gorges carved through the mountains

Completely embedded in the Appalachian Mountains, the state’s steep and rocky terrain offer magnificent views. Rainfall and melting snow from high elevations stream downwards to form rapidly flowing rivers carving their sharp paths around the jagged mountains.

NPS Map to Thurmond

An Abandoned Town to Explore?

Our map indicated that we were close an abandoned, historic town. Of course I had to go explore it.

Thurmond, West Virginia. This forgotten town used to be one of the most profitable places in the state in the early 1900’s. A look at its location and you can see why. Right along the bend of the New River with railroad tracks intersecting it, Thurmond was a hub of activity and commerce.

Captain Thurmond was an Honorable Man

Captain William Thurmond (NPS photo)

A man of modest means, Captain William Dabney Thurmond, after serving honorably in the Civil War, took land surveying jobs to help with finances. Since many were cash strapped after the war, Captain Thurmond often took payment using bartering instead of cash. In 1873, as compensation for surveying work, he accepted 73 acres of land located along the New River.

The land didn’t appear very desirable. (ShineyVisions Photography)

For most, the terrain didn’t seem desirable to own since it was just a narrow strip adjacent to the rapidly flowing river, rendering it not useful for farming nor ranching. But Captain Thurmond had other dreams for his property. From his recent land surveying experience, he noticed how the burgeoning railroad company laid their tracks alongside rivers and streams. He held great hopes for his town to someday be added as a stop on their route.

But this dream required patience. For the next 20 years, Captain Thurmond waited while earning a simple living ferrying passengers to nearby towns along the river.

That Ruthless Businessman Thomas McKell!

Thomas McKell changed both their lives

It wasn’t until aggressive businessman Thomas McKell, who owned rich coal mines and timber just across the water…

McKell’s Bridge across New River

….built a bridge, thus enabling a branch line to join to the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad’s mainline located on the other side of New River.

Thurmond Town Along New River (NPS Photo)

Both Men’s Lives Changed Overnight

This connection changed the fortunes of both men, almost overnight. All the coal removed from the rich mines on McKell’s land as well as other nearby areas could now be transported by train. In addition, surrounding towns were built to support the industry, with each new settlement requiring supplies for their residents and workers. Every train, whether it carried furniture, vegetables, passengers or coal had to now pass through Thurmond, making it a boomtown. It became the biggest center on the C+O Railroad, providing the company their largest freight revenue of any other center.

Crowded Thurmond Train Station

During the first two decades of the 1900’s, Thurmond thrived. Each year, trains brought 75,000 visitors to the town for business, recreation, and high-end shopping and dining. As many as fifteen passenger and freight trains arrived each day, 24 hours a day.

Thurmond Train Depot 1910 (NPS Photo)

This was taken in 1910, Thurmond’s most prosperous year. Though it appears to have been a rugged destination, it was very popular!!

Coaling Tower to refuel locomotives (NPS Photo)

Thurmond was More Than Just a Railroad Town

Thurmond wasn’t a mining town like other nearby towns. It was a railroad town that serviced the trains. It refueled the steam locomotive tenders with crushed coal from its coaling tower.  Inside the tower, coal was pushed through roll crushers, then an elevator raised the crushed coal high enough to drop through pulley-controlled chutes down to awaiting tenders below.

The Coaling Tower also loaded tenders with sand, that was used to spread on tracks to create greater traction when needed.

Thurmond’s Massive Water Towers (NPS Photo)

Across the tracks, two massive towers supplied water and a nearby engine house serviced the locomotives.

A Thin Town

City on the River (NPS Photo)

Take a look at how this prosperous city was laid out. Thurmond was just a narrow strip of land along the river, with hardly any flat area to build on.

There was a sharp drop-off into the New River on one side and the steep hillsides on the other, its business district was built on a narrow strip of level land only feet from the railroad tracks.

Note to your right off the photo is the Train Station, then going left you see the water tanks, then the business district, the Mankin Drug Store, some dry goods shops and restaurants, two banks, and the Thurmond Hotel, which we will discuss later.

A Rich Business District

The Mankin and Cox building was the oldest in the district, built in 1904.  It housed a drugstore on one

Mankin Cox Building

side and a bank on the other.  Next was a dry goods store with apartments and offices occupying the two top floors. Farther down, adorned with stone pillars and mosaic flooring, was another bank.

A Bustling Business District (NPS Photo)

Though seemingly odd for a small town to have banks within yards of each other, it made sense for Thurmond. Hundreds of thousands of dollars passed through these establishments every month! That was an unimaginable amount of money back then!!

Many Visitors But a Small Population

Schoolhouse (NPS Photo)

Though visitors flocked to the town by the thousands, its highest population was only  462. Most residents lived in homes built in the hillside while railroad employees rented small homes close to the tracks. Thurmond also had a schoolhouse.

State of the Art Thurmond Hotel

Thurmond Hotel (NPS Photo)

To help accommodate its numerous visitors who were ready to spend their paychecks and coal mine windfalls, Captain Thurmond built the Hotel Thurmond in 1901.

This state-of-the-art hotel boasted 35 rooms, 7 bathrooms, 400 electric lights, steam heat, a dining hall, ballroom, poolroom, bank and a dry goods store. It’s jutting front balcony came so close to the tracks that it was said guests could reach out and touch the passing trains.

A Bigger Hotel That Offered More Fun

Dun Glen Hotel (NPS Photo)

However, his arch nemesis, Thomas McKell, saw great money-making potential in the visitors to the area. Among other projects, he built the Dun Glen Hotel, just down the river and across the tracks. This massive hotel offered practically everything that Captain Thurmond banned; gambling, free flowing liquor, dance girls and call girls. There, fights broke out, revenge killings took place and fortunes were lost and won at the poker table. Though Dun Glen wasn’t actually in the town of Thurmond, it was Thurmond that got the wild reputation.

Captain Thurmond Died Rich, But Maybe Not Happy About His Namesake

Though not the idyllic and moral settlement Captain Thurmond had dreamed of, he nevertheless died a very rich man.

Thurmond is Abandoned Today (NPS Photo)

But today, Thurmond is abandoned, and some even call it a GHOST TOWN, claiming that murmuring voices of past Thurmond residents still waft through its desolate structures.  Why is this once bustling town desolate today?

Find out in my next post, Thurmond Part II!

For more information on Historic Thurmond, go to the National Park Service site at:

Want to see another one of my posts of historic locations? Check out the Magnificent Biltmore Estate at:

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