Coal Camps: Surveyor, West Virginia

Exploring Trap Hill High School in Surveyor, West Virginia.

Acknowledging Mother Nature and the snowy scenes that abound the Mountain State, I opted to spend part of my winter holiday break exploring the coal camp communities of southern West Virginia. Except, instead of cold weather and snow, it was relatively warm and moist, with rain showers moving eastward at a rapid rate. I set off from Cincinnati and drove eastward through the Appalachian heartland of Ohio, picking up a few remnants of the Hocking Valley Railroad before going south to Charleston, West Virginia and taking in the calm night of New Year’s Eve. There were few vehicles on the interstates, and I assumed most were partying it up for the one time of the year when the calendar rolls over.

But not me. Sitting along the banks of the Kanawha River, I looked over to the Patrick Street Bridge. The water was unusually calm, which led me to break out my camera approximately five minutes before the beginning of 2011.

It would be my last photograph of the night and of the year. I counted down the minutes, then seconds, and heard cheers coming from the bar down the street. The church bells began ringing, and there it went. Twenty-ten was gone, and here was the start of a new year. I hopped back in the car, grabbed some coffee, and headed south towards Beckley.

I awoke to find my car that I camped in covered in rain. It was a downpour. I hurried out of my sleeping back and into some clothes, grabbed some coffee from the Starbucks at the service plaza, and drove down West Virginia State Route 3. It was not soon after that I discovered my first coal camp community: Surveyor, zip code 25932, in the Winding Gulf coal field.

Not much was left of Sueveyor. The rows of nearly identical houses that became the trademark of a coal camp community were gone, and I could not find a trace of a company store. With its relative proximity to the Beckley metropolitan region, and sprawling developments to the west and north, much of the integrated coal camp community has been dismantled and demolished. But I did come across a large school on a street corner.

Trap Hill‘s origins date to a special election that was held in 1928, when a bond was approved for a new school. The facility, named after the trapping of animals for their fur in the rich woodlands of the surrounding mountains and wetlands, replaced an earlier school built in 1915 at nearby Eccles.

Construction began in 1929 for a two-story beige brick building that contained ten classrooms, a laboratory, a home-economics room, gymnasium and library, and was finished in 1930. When completed, the school was in remote territory and had no electricity for about a year. Heat was provided from a coal-fired boiler.

Extensions came in 1931 when a vocational-agricultural shop was built, followed by an addition on the western edge in the 1950s. An additional gymnasium was built in 1965 when enrollment peaked. Trap Hill served 1-12 students from 1930 to 1951, and as a 7-12 school until 1961. From then on until 1977, Trap Hill was purely a 9-12 facility, and it became a middle school following that. Trap Hill Middle was relocated in the 2000s when a new school was constructed down the highway.

It is scenes like Trap Hill High are reminders of how fragile social and economic relationships are. Surveyor, like many other coal camp communities, was a source of immense pride. Residents lived modestly – albeit in company owned houses, but they had access to hospitals, theaters, entertainment venues, all linked to vibrant town centers. People once spoke of the good times of the coalfields, when the population was bursting at the seams, and when the area was at the forefront of the nation in many aspects. Today, much of southern West Virginia is home to an abundant source of abject poverty, mirrored in the mechanization of coal mining and processing, in the declining overall production of the coal fields, and the increased usage of mountaintop removal.

Abandoned will take a look throughout the year at several coal camp communities, at their history and what hope remains for the remaining population centers in the coal fields of the Appalachian Mountains. Click through to view the history of Trap Hill and view more photographs!

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