Years ago, when I first started to explore the coalfields of Appalachia, I would venture down the Tolsia and King Coal highways toward Williamson, West Virginia. The gem in the rough rapidly developed at the turn of the 20th century after the Norfolk & Western Railway was pushed through the area. Serving as the center of Mingo County, the city’s fortunes were closely aligned with the rapid growth and slow decline of the coal industry.
Williamson Memorial Hospital was established in Williamson in 1918, followed by a nursing school in 1920 on a hilltop site that was later nicknamed College Hill after the academy.
On the night of January 12, 1927, a massive fire engulfed the hospital. Miraculously, all 33 patients escaped with their lives. It was believed that the inferno started after X-ray films ignited after being stored near a gas stove.
In one of the more dramatic stories from the fire, Mrs. Leonard Chafin, on the third floor of the hospital, grabbed her recently birthed infant and threw it out the window in order to save its life. Raymond Edwards, standing in the street below, anticipated her intentions and held out his arms and caught the baby.
Dr. G.D. Conley, one of the owners of the hospital, and several of the nurses who were trapped on the third floor, escaped by leaping onto a pile of mattresses.
A new hospital was erected next to the nursing school on College Hill and opened to patients on March 3, 1928. The four-story fireproof complex boasted 72 beds, 32 private patient rooms, and seven wards to provide segregation between African-American and white patients. The second floor contained a maternity ward which included a delivery room, a nursery, and two private rooms for mothers, while the fourth floor included two operating rooms oriented to the northern exposures.
A new medical center was completed in 1988 and the c. 1928 hospital building was repurposed as a medical office complex until 2014. It was principally used for storage thereafter.
Whenever I would visit Williamson, I would drive up to College Hill, dreaming one day of being able to explore the insides of the old hospital and nursing school. Years later, after moving all across the United States for work, I was ecstatic to find that tours were being offered of the Old Hospital on College Hill.
In 2018 and 2019, Williamson Memorial Hospital partnered with the Tug Valley Area Convention and Visitors Bureau to host paranormal tours through the hospital complex during the Halloween Season. The events proved popular and routinely sold out and in late 2020, the hospital complex was acquired by local residents Tonya Webb and Sabrina Hatfield with the goal to open the historic structure to the public year-round.
The first events hosted at the old hospital included Bloody Valentine’s Dinner and Flashlight Tours that featured dinner options from local restaurants. Historic daytime tours, guided flashlight tours, evening paranormal tours, and photography events were later added.
On April 11, I was part of a small group that was allowed access into the c. 1928 hospital building as part of the first photography event held at the Old Hospital on College Hill. Greeting us was Tonya Webb and the Mayor of Williamson, Charles Hatfield. After brief introductions, we were allowed to walk around the grounds and poke our heads (and cameras) into the basement of the nurse’s school which was otherwise closed to the public because of a failing roof. The basement, which had been disused for decades, still contained vintage laundry equipment.
We were then led into the old hospital building and allowed access to much of the complex with the exception of a few rooms that were stuffed to the gills with beds and equipment from the hospital. Items from the hospital’s past were scattered throughout: audiometric testing equipment, discarded X-rays, infant beds, books, and some personal belongings.
After a solid three hours of climbing up and down stairs and poking around every nook and cranny, I was exhausted—partly my own fault for hauling around nearly 30 pounds of camera equipment. But it had also been a long drive to get to Williamson and in general, it had been a protracted week of exploring across the Mid-Atlantic. In the end, expending a nominal fee to finally observe and photograph the inside of the old Williamson Memorial Hospital after all these years was worth it. The experience was also exceptional and friendships that were strengthened or gained made this photography event at the Old Hospital on College Hill memorable.
Legal access is required to venture inside the Old Hospital on College Hill in Williamson. Historic daytime tours, guided flashlight tours, evening paranormal tours, and photography events are offered, along with special “escape from” adventures.
Learn more about the Old Hospital on College Hill and book your tour today at collegehillhospital.com.
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