I’ve wrapped up my work in West Virginia and VentureSum is transitioning me back to North Carolina for pole counting. Unfortunately, my work leaves me no time for photography or writing so I haven’t been as active here as I’d like to be.
However, on my way back to Charlotte, I passed through the small mountain town of Welch, WV, population 1,740 as of 2017, down from 2,406 in 2010. This part of WV has tons of small towns nestled in the nooks and crannies of the Appalachians. The entire area has the flavor of faded industry – brightly colored billboards and coal chutes slowly rusting and being smothered in kudzu on the outskirts of brick towns that have as many empty buildings as occupied ones. Every now and again you’ll come to a “hub” town where you see more businesses and homes being kept up – Welch is such a town.
Welch is the county seat of McDowell County, which was #1 in coal production in the nation during the 1950’s and 60’s. It’s easy to see how so many WV’ers want to see a coal revival – the loss of steel and coal industry has his the region hard.
As I was leaving Welch towards I-77 I saw a man sitting in his car on the side of the road. Roadside “yard” sales are pretty common in this part of the country; I’d seen plenty yet never found the time to stop and chat much. He was enjoying a smoke and I enjoyed the layout of his gear so much I simply had to stop, find out what he was about, and ask for a picture.
As I made my way over, he ambled out of his car, eager for a potential sale. We made small talk and I looked over some of his gear. I wasn’t in need of the mining clothes but his boots actually looked like they might fit and were a good deal. $10 a pair is pretty good so I tried on a couple pairs. But the neck of the boots were too narrow for my extra-long feet, so no sale there.
Shaking hands, he told me his name is Johnny Bishop, and that he was a coal miner for over 16 years before going on disability for lung issues. Not just the coal dust; he wore a mask most of the time. Rather, he blames the smoking, giving the cigarette pack in his shirt a rueful pat.
Having a coal miner on hand gave me a good chance to ask all of the questions I had on coal – I’m not joking – I had a few that have been simmering in my mind over the past few weeks. Winding along the narrow and quite treacherous roads going through the “hollers” in this part of the country you see black seams streaking the rocks. Johnny explained that coal seams are everywhere but only seams 28 inches or greater are worth the time to extract them. According to Johnny, the machine he ran could excavate 100 tons of material in just over 10 seconds! Since he was a machine operator, he rarely had to crawl through seams like some of the other miners did.
While his children and grandchildren live and work in Logan, Johnny has only left WV to live in PA briefly before eventually came back to Welch. “It’s always been my home,” he says simply. The photographs he has for sale are a pair of hospitals – the one on the left being the Stevens Clinic where his grandfather was born – now Stevens Correctional Center. The one on the right is Grace Hospital – built as a segregated black hospital by a black physician in the 1930’s. Interestingly, Stevens Clinic is considered a paranormal hotspot, having been a sanitarium in its earliest days.
Johnny was absolutely up for a few photos, thankfully. I didn’t ask him to pose or stand in any certain way. I simply shot as we talked and tried to capture views that helped outline the story. I do wish I’d had a notepad to better tell the story he shared and capture some real quotes but this was a pretty impromptu interview.
Now I owe him a couple of photos! I asked if he wanted me to send them to him – he said “sure, I’ll get them framed,” and then proceeded to give me his address. I had been thinking text copies, so I asked if he had a smartphone. He took out his flip phone and shook his head.
Oh well, prints are cheap! I hope Johnny loves the work; I certainly enjoyed my last few minutes in West Virginia with him, mosquito bites and all.