As I set out to explore the southwest coalfields of West Virginia, the weather did not seem to be on my side. The forecast called for an all-day downpour, but I was determined not to let that dampen my spirits. Driving along the winding one and two-lane roads that snaked their way through the Flat Top Mountain range, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe at the sheer majesty of the landscape of sprawling farmlands, quaint country churches, woodlands, and reclaimed strip mines.
At the border of Wyoming and Mercer counties was Pilot Knob, a soaring peak that stood over 3,000 feet in elevation. With the fire lookout tower closed to the public, I popped the drone into the overcast skies to glance at the surrounding ridges and narrow valleys laid out like a vast, undulating tapestry. I was greeted by a breathtaking panorama that stretched out in every direction.
As I descended down the mountain along West Virginia Route 10, the beauty of the region unfolded before me. While the coalfields get a poor reputation for being scarred and destitute, there are glimpses of a more wild Appalachia that can still be found.
My first stop of the day was the Garwood Trestle, a spectacular feat of engineering that spans a branch of Gooney Otter Creek and the highway below. This magnificent 16-span curved bridge, stretching 720 feet long, was built by the Virginian Railway in the early 20th century. As I stood there, gazing up at the trestle towering above me, I couldn’t help but marvel at its sheer size.
The Virginian Railway was a marvel of its time, conceived with the goal of transporting high-quality “smokeless” bituminous coal from southern West Virginia to ports on Hampton Roads near Norfolk, Virginia. The railway began as the Loup Creek and Deepwater Railway, which extended from an interchange with the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway (C&O) at Deepwater southward along Loup Creek to reach a sawmill at Robson.
The Deepwater Railway was incorporated in 1898, and from there, plans were made to extend the railway to Mullens, Matoaka, and Princeton to tap the lucrative Pocahontas coalfield. The Deepwater was eventually acquired by the Tidewater Railway to form the Virginian, and work progressed on connecting the Deepwater and Tidewater. The last spike was driven at the site of a massive bridge over the New River at Glen Lyn, Virginia, in January 1909.
Next to the Garwood Trestle is Tunnel No. 9, which the Virginian Railway created by boring through a mountain. While it was completed in 1908, it has a date stamp of 1920 on its face, which may indicate when it was reconstructed or widened.
Nearby is the Covel Trestle, a 17-span curved bridge stretching 738 feet over the Left Fork of Gooney Otter Creek. It was located at the coal camp of Morco and developed in the 1910s by J.T. Morris of the Morris Smokeless Coal Company. In 1921, W.P. Tams, Jr. acquired its operations and changed the company’s name to the Covel Smokeless Coal Company and the town’s name to Covel. The mines later fell under the banner of the Gulf Smokeless Coal Company that Tams had operated elsewhere in Tams and Hotcoal. The mine closed in 1937.
The Virginian faced a formidable challenge when it opened its mainline due to the steep 2.07% grade from Elmore to Clark’s Gap. To overcome this daunting obstacle, the VGN acquired some of the most powerful steam locomotives of its time and developed the “Hill Run” plan, a daring feat that involved transporting up to 6,000 tons of coal up the treacherous grade to Clark’s Gap several times a day.
Although the “Hill Run” plan was impressive, it wasn’t without its risks. The trains traveled at a slow pace of 7 miles per hour, and workers faced health concerns due to poor ventilation in tunnels 9 through 13. In 1923, VGN employees went on strike to demand better working conditions. The railroad responded by making a revolutionary decision to electrify 133.6 miles of the mainline between Mullens and Roanoke.
The electrification project was completed in 1925, and Alco-Westinghouse EL-3As, operated in sets of three, became the main workhorses of the railroad. These powerful electric locomotives could transport a 6,000-ton coal train at 14 miles per hour over Clark’s Gap, a significant improvement over the Hill Run plan.
However, the Norfolk & Western Railway acquired the VGN in December 1959, and by July 1962, the electrified locomotives were replaced with diesel locomotives. Unfortunately, much of the infrastructure invested in the electrification efforts were scrapped or sold, and the once-innovative project was relegated to history.
Today, the last revenue “Hill Run” operated by Norfolk Southern Railway was on October 9, 2015, and the Clark’s Gap yard, which once saw the transportation of thousands of tons of coal, now serves as a poignant reminder of the region’s rich industrial past.
For those seeking to delve deeper into the history of transportation, a trip to West Virginia is an absolute must, offering a fascinating glimpse into the past and the enduring legacy of the VGN’s electrification project.
Further over along WV Route 97 in Baileysville is a long-abandoned open-spandrel arch crossing of the Guyandotte River. It was built in 1917 by the Concrete Steel Bridge Company of Clarksburg. It has a length of about 227 feet and consists of two open spandrel concrete arch main spans measuring 88 feet and 68 feet, along with four reinforced concrete slab spans. In 1987, the 1917 structure was bypassed by a continuous steel plate girder structure built 30 feet upstream.
Traveling northward along US Route 52, I turned onto the newest segment of the King Coal Highway to open at Horsepen Mountain. The King Coal Highway is a planned 95-mile four-lane highway running between the future Tolsia Highway at US Route 119 near Williamson to I-77 in Bluefield. While Congress designated the route as part of the high-priority Interstate 73/Interstate 74 North-South Corridor, it is being built to typical corridor standards for the state, with grade-separated interchanges at major junctions and at-grade intersections elsewhere. But unlike other corridor routes, it is being mostly built with two lanes because of low projected traffic counts, with room to build an additional carriageway in the future if warranted.
I have long followed the project’s progress from its earliest iterations to this most recent drive. The 12-mile Horsepen Mountain to Low Gap segment was completed in 2017 through a private-public partnership with Alpha Natural Resources. The company was allowed to surface mine for coal along the proposed highway’s route. In return, the state received a graded roadbed, saving taxpayers millions in construction costs.
The new route is signed for US Route 52 and includes connectors from WV Routes 44 and 65 and County Routes 8 and 8/1. Generally, the new King Coal Highway is holding up well with a few settling issues, but the WV Route 44 connector is in atrocious condition. For a new highway with low traffic, it has considerable dips and cracks that make it difficult to drive at the posted speed limit.
Although inadequate highway subgrades may partly explain the issues faced by the King Coal Highway and its connectors at Horsepen Mountain, it is also worth considering the impact of the reclamation process for strip mine lands. Once the coal is extracted via surface mining, crushed rock is typically used to refill the site. However, this material tends to settle significantly over time. Some states have addressed this issue by applying surcharges, or loadings on the ground surface exceeding those of long-term development conditions, to accelerate soil consolidation. This approach involves placing crushed rock on a prepared roadway grading for a few years to compact the soil, which could have been an effective strategy for mitigating the settling problems experienced by the King Coal Highway and its connectors.
For now, the casual application of asphalt to smooth over the cracks and dips is the most cost-effective solution until those segments can be re-graded and reconstructed.
South of Horsepen Mountain, design work is commencing on an 11-mile segment towards Isaban, and from WV Route 123 closer to Bluefield. The work being done on a 2.5-mile section of highway near Horsepen Mountain is being conducted by mining companies that will save taxpayers over $20 million in construction costs. And further north, CONSOL Energy is beginning work on a five-mile stretch of highway from Delbarton to US Route 119 at Belo.
It is slow but steady progress on a project that is well over 20 years old. When complete, the route will traverse some of the poorest regions of the United States, opening up vast swaths of mined land for potential industrial and commercial development. While I am skeptical about the lofty goals by local and state boosters that the King Coal Highway will bring about economic revitalization to an area that has been declining for 70 years, it will at the least provide a fast north-south highway in an area where the pace of travel is frustratingly slow.
Concluding this trip was a re-visit to the Elk Creek Road Bridge, a reinforced concrete through arch or bowstring arch along Elk Creek Road that was built by the Luten Bridge Company of York, Pennsylvania, in 1926. It was bypassed in 1990.
As an addendum, visual documentation from June 2021 has been appended to this Journal entry, depicting a portion of the King Coal Highway currently under construction in the vicinity of Bluefield. The proposed four- and two-lane route will facilitate connectivity between the unfinished US Route 460 interchange and WV Route 123 (Airport Road) built in 2002, two bridges constructed in 2009 spanning US Route 19, WV Route 112, Norfolk Southern Railway, and Old Princeton Road, and WV Route 123 with an anticipated completion date of 2023.
In February 2023, I visited the 2-mile bypass of Crum along the future US Route 52 (Tolsia Highway) alignment, which was completed in 2003. The Tolsia Highway, an acronym of the Tug-Ohio-Levisa-Sandy Improvement Association, is relatively new in the state.
The original US Route 52 followed today’s WV Route 527 and 152 in Wayne and Mingo counties but was replaced by the Tolsia Highway, a modern two-lane alignment along the Big Sandy River that was built between 1966 and 1979. The Tolsia Highway opened in phases, with significant lengthy segments remaining open for local traffic for many years before other portions were finished.
The current four-lane replacement of the Tolsia Highway began construction in 1995, with the Prichard bypass opening in 1997 and the incomplete WV Route 75 interchange near Ceredo opening around 2000. No other segments are currently under environmental review or planning.