WEST VIRGINIA (WOWK) — The Mountain State is in the middle of coal country. Hundreds of mines have operated here throughout history. Many of those mines are now closed, and the land is being transformed for other purposes.
7News partner, WOWK 13 News compiled a list of four of those mine lands that were or are being converted into parks, historical exhibits, and mushroom and solar farms.
Kanawha State Forest | Kanawha County
The Kanawha State Forest property was originally an extensive mining and timbering site, according to the West Virginia State Parks website. The Davis Creek Watershed Association says the Kanawha and Coal River Railroad was built in the former town of Chilton, West Virginia. The town had a post office, an iron foundry, churches, sawmills, farms, two stores, three cemeteries and more than 100 homes. Additionally, the Black Band Iron and Coal Company mines “dotted the hillsides for miles up the hollow,” according to the association.
In 1937, the West Virginia Conservation Commission bought a portion of the land that became Camp Kanawha for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC removed coal tipples and other structures to build roads, the superintendent’s residence, picnic shelters, a dam and a small lake, the State Parks website says. The CCC eventually closed Camp Kanawha in 1942, and the state added an additional 2,500 acres of what is now Kanawha State Forest.
The State Parks website says the coal mines at Kanawha State Forest are now abandoned, and one was transformed into a bat habitat. Visitors to the park’s CCC Snipe Trail can see a sealed coal mine. A park sign along the trail says that in 1941, workers found 28 mash barrels abandoned by bootleggers deep inside the mine. The sign also says a man named Calvin White was the last person out of the mine.
The Kanawha State Forest District is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine | Raleigh County
The National Register of Historic Places says the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine is an example of how a family-owned mine evolved into a crucial commercial operation. The New River Park in Beckley, West Virginia, was once the site of the Phillips-Sprauge Mine.
The Phillips family bought their farmland from Alfred F. Beckley in 1850. The family later found a coal seam exposed on a hillside and used picks and shovels to mine for private use. In 1903, the family sold the drift mine to the Cranberry Fuel Company, which opened it for commercial use in 1905. The company shipped the mine’s first commercial coal on Jan. 4, 1906. It was usually sent via the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad to Hampton, Virginia, where it was sold to New England utilities and the United States Navy for fueling ships.
By 1908, 50 men and 15 mules worked in the mine, which was about 4,000 feet and had three entries. Miners often worked on their hands and knees to put the coal in 2,240-pound carts carried out by mules. The mine was a dangerous work environment because the water inside made the fire clay floor slippery. There was a risk of heavy rocks falling on miners and severely injuring or killing them. Such an accident happened when a slate fell and killed a Polish miner in 1908.
Today, Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine visitors can take a tour to see and feel what it was like to be a miner. The land was sold to the City of Beckley and transformed into an exhibition mine and park. The 45-minute tour is led by retired miners and takes visitors via mine car through 1,500 feet of restored tracks. The dampness, darkness, and 50-degree temperature simulate a real mine environment. The city also restored the coal camp’s church, school, and homes to represent life during that period.
The City of Beckley’s website has more information on pricing, hours and tours.
SEVA WV’s SunPark (Former Hobet 21 Mine) | Boone, Lincoln counties
Since the early 1970s, the former Hobet 21 Mine site was used for underground and surface coal mining, according to the West Virginia Office of Energy and Marshall University. The Hobet site was among the largest surface mines in Appalachia and one of the most expansive drag-line operations in the world. The property was once 9,900 acres, according to the National Science Foundation (NSF). Hobet 21 Mine produced up to 1.8 million tons of coal per year, making Boone County one of the highest-producing coal counties in West Virginia.
For decades, environmental activists have criticized the mountain-top removal at Hobet 21 Mine. According to the NSF, the site was originally a deeply forested terrain with streams running between steep mountains. For three decades, workers used explosives to blast off mountain tops and mine the coal beneath. They pushed the leftover rock into nearby valleys, “burying streams under hundreds of feet of rubble,” the NSF says.
In addition, Duke University researchers found mine waste elements in the Mud River watershed’s insects and spiders. Organisms near the mine had selenium concentrations five times higher than in other locations. That equals up to 95 and 26 parts per million, which the NSF says is “too high to be considered safe for birds to eat, and some of the highest levels recorded in animal tissues.” The study concluded that local waterway pollutants were a significant risk to the environment, humans and animals.
The Hobet 21 Mine closed in 2015. After that, the West Virginia National Guard used the property for military training for four years. The National Guard ended its operations at the site and said there was space for other business opportunities. In 2022, SEVA WV announced the former mine will be developed into a 3,000-acre, 250-megawatt solar field — the largest in West Virginia. Some of the property will also be transformed into a place for lodging, recreation and hospitality. The estimated $320 million investment is expected to be constructed by November 2024 and will create 250 to 300 construction jobs with an average $30-per-hour wage.
Hersnshaw Farms | Kanawha County
Hernshaw Farms’ goal is “turning mine land into farmland” with mushroom compost. The property sits at the Pritchard Mine entrance in Hernshaw, West Virginia. Hernshaw Farms CEO George Patterson says the town is named after two men, Robert Herndon and Joseph Renshaw, who operated a coal mine near Lens Creek before 1900.
“I am looking at Lens Creek right now,” Patterson says. “I see it as it is and as it could be. And the holler is home to the history of black gold. The good and the ugly. Hernshaw is just four miles from Marmet. Marmet is the town where in 1921, after years of labor disputes, thousands of union miners organized, sporting red handkerchiefs around their necks and rifles on their shoulders, and then marched to Blair Mountain to oppose the coal company. … The [miners’] insurrection picked up troops along the way. It’s not unlikely that some lived along Lens Creek in Hernshaw. The people here are kind and proud. Black Gold still rolls out the holler.”
Coming from a family with mining ties, Patterson decided to start a mushroom farm on a former strip mine site. After the mushroom blocks “go through their flushes,” Hernshaw Farms uses them to make compost to fix the ground and other environmental hazards. Instead of growing the mushrooms in the wild, the farmers cultivate them in shipping containers with shelves, moisture, lighting, and fans. The process helps turn mine land into farmland, creates jobs, and provides local fresh food.
Visit Hernshaw Farms’ website to learn more about the business or to purchase products.
As mentioned before, there have been hundreds of mines total in West Virginia throughout the years. So, many of those properties, certainly more than four, are now used for other purposes. Keep an eye out for 13 News’ part two of “4 repurposed coal mine lands in West Virginia.”