Few traces remain of an old coal town in West Virginia

THURMOND, W.Va. (AP) – In its heyday, the New River Gorge coal town of Claremont contained two schools, two churches, a two-story company store, a train station, a post office and up to 600 residents – about half of whom were black – including a future army general and Medal of Honor recipient.

During the city’s 50-year history, the miners who lived and worked here extracted more than a million tons of low-sulphur, high-carbon coal from the Fire Creek seam, accessible by a pair of portals located high on the canyon wall behind the city.

Thirty large furnaces located next to the mine’s coal dump transformed some of this coal into coke by cooking the impurities to create a burning, low-smoke fuel that was shipped to the blast furnaces and used to convert the ore of pig iron and steel. .

But today, all that remains of Claremont are the scattered remnants of stone foundation walls that once supported homes, roads and driveways, a few piles of moss-covered bricks, and an abandoned cemetery wedged between the shoreline of New River and an active CSX rail line. .

A sign bearing the single word “Claremont” is attached to a small, shiny railway building adjacent to the train tracks in the townsite.

The town originated when the Beechwood Coal and Coke Company opened the first of two mines on the site, about three miles south of Thurmond, in 1887. The company’s president and chief executive was Charles C. Beury, a brother of Joseph L. Beury, who in 1873 became the first mine operator to ship coal from the New River coalfield on the newly completed C&O railroad line through the Gorge.

Like most of the early Gorge coal towns, the company town serving the Beechwood mine was initially accessible only by rail and built beside the C&O line along a narrow strip of flat land between the New River and the steep slope forming a canyon wall. A bridge built over the New River in 1928 a mile downstream made vehicular access to the town possible.

The small railway station built to serve the new town was called Beechwood, but a post office established in 1887 was called Claremont for reasons that remain unclear.

On the application form for the new post office, its proposed name was Claremont, next to the word “Beechwood” with a line drawn through it. The number of residents of the community to be served by the post office was 166. In a file with the postal authorities sent 10 years later, the population of the community was 600.

Census records indicate that black residents of Claremont averaged more than 40% of the city’s population from 1900 to 1920, peaking at 54% in 1910, according to an entry about the city on the website of Clio story.

Like other West Virginia communities of this era, Claremont had separate schools for black and white students. The black elementary school in Claremont also served young African Americans in the nearby Stone Cliff coal camp, who had to walk a mile each way to and from school.

Among the students at the school was Charles Calvin Rogers, the son of a coal miner who was born and raised in Claremont and went on to attend the all-black DuBois High School in Mount Hope, where he became captain of the football team and was elected student council president.

After graduating in 1947, he enrolled at West Virginia State College, joined its Army Reserve Officer Training Corps, and was commissioned a second lieutenant after graduating in 1951. In 1968 , Rogers had reached the rank of lieutenant colonel and commanded a field artillery. battalion near the Cambodian border in Vietnam.

On Halloween night that year, Rogers, though wounded three times, led his troops to successfully repel three “human wave” assaults on their firebase by a larger force of the North Vietnamese army. . He received the Medal of Honor. After retiring from the military as a major general in 1984, he became an ordained Baptist minister, working with American troops stationed in Germany. Roger died in 1990.

CC Beury, president and director of Beechwood Coal and Coke, achieved great notoriety in West Virginia business and political circles during his time at Claremont. In addition to presiding over Beechwood’s two mines in Claremont, he was president of half a dozen other Gorge coal operations, including the Laurel Creek, Coal Run, Turkey Knob and Branch coal companies. He was also elected president of the New River branch of the West Virginia Coal Operators Association.

In 1899 he married Bessie Kate Atkinson, daughter of the Governor at the time. George Atkinson, and in 1908 was a delegate to the Republican National Convention. In 1911, he placed third in a field of seven candidates in a vote by the Legislative Assembly to fill the unexpired U.S. Senate seat of Nathan Bay Scott.

Beechwood Coal and Coke’s coal production was constant over the years, with its two mines producing 51,000 tons of coal in 1905 and 57,000 in 1923, the year of Beury’s death. Meanwhile, technology has apparently changed little, with around half of the company’s miners mining coal using pickaxes while the other half use machines, using two locomotives and 20 mules to pull the mining wagons. charged out of the gates.

In the 1940s, the Beechwood Coal Co. mines went out of business and the Claremont post office closed. Those who lived in the community gradually left to seek work elsewhere.

Although the mines closed, schools in nearby Claremont and Thayer remained open until the early 1960s. In 1962, the United States Department of Agriculture used the two schools to test a new nutrition program in bag to serve students in schools that did not have kitchen facilities with running water.

Later, Pocahontas Coal built a new preparation plant and opened a mine at Claremont, but by the mid-1980s mining had ceased. A pair of massive concrete coal silos from the prep, their undersides spray-painted with graffiti, jut skyward from the lower slopes of a hill at the southern end of the ancient city, now accessible via Thurmond-McKendree Road, also State Secondary Route 25.