Our day started out with a brief stop at a Roadside America spot, the vacant diner when Hank Williams ate his last meal, then we made our way to the New River Gorge Bridge, a steel arch bridge 3,030 feet long over the New River Gorge near Fayetteville, West Virginia.
With an arch 1,700 feet long, the New River Gorge Bridge was for many years the world’s longest single-span arch bridge;it is now the third longest, as well as one of the highest vehicular bridges in the world, 876 feet above the New River.
To say this bridge is impressive is an understatement. While we have seen higher (Royal Gorge), and longer the sight of this bridge from below is stunning. They offer guided tours where you cross a 2′ wide beam underneath the bridge deck attached to cables, but my height phobia prohibited me from trying that.
The New River Gorge National River is a unit of the National Park Service. Established in 1978 the NPS protected area covers over 50 miles of the river.
One of the places we visited within the park was the town of Thurmond. During the heybay of coal mining in the New River Gorge, Thurmond was a prosperous town with a number of business and facilities in town – ironically they don’t have a main street, rather the C & O tracks served as ‘Main Street’. The town was the filming location for the movie Matewan since it still looked like a 1920s coal town. The C & O passenger depot was renovated and serves as the Park Service Visitor Center. The entire town is a designated historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.
Robert Byrd was a U.S Senator from West Virginia, having served longer than anyone else in the history of the United States. Byrd’s seniority and leadership of the Appropriations Committee enabled him to steer a great deal of federal money toward projects in West Virginia.Critics derided his efforts as pork barrel spending, while Byrd argued that the many federal projects he worked to bring to West Virginia represented progress for the people of his state. As a result, there are 4 lane highways in the middle of nowhere, vast amounts of federal lands and buildings, and an Amtrak stop in the little town of Thurmond, because Byrd wouldn’t fund it unless they routed a train through West Virginia. This stop is the least used Amtrak station on the entire network.
Another historic site in the park is the Nuttallburg Coal Mining Complex and Town Historic District, built around the railroad line at the bottom of the gorge, with an array of coke ovens and mining structures, as well as a bridge across the New River to South Nuttall.
At one time Henry Ford bought the mines as “captive mines” to supply coal to Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford updated many of the mines’ facilities at that time. However, Fordson sold the mine to the New River Coal Corporation in 1928, possibly because railroad regulations made coal transport to Michigan too difficult.
The road to Nuttalburg is a narrow, barely more than a lane mostly gravel road down the side of a mountain. Clearly my car wasn’t designed for such a road, but we did indeed make it down and back. Once you are there it feels very remote.
As we were leaving the area we stopped at Babcock State Park, located adjacent to the National Park. Located near the park headquarters, the Glade Creek Grist Mill is among the most photographed tourist sites in the state. Complete in 1976 by combining parts of three other West Virginia mills, it is a replica of the original Cooper’s Mill that was located nearby, as a living, working monument to the more than 500 mills that used to be located throughout the state.
We continued on to White Sulphur Springs, a resort town in far southern West Virginia, near the Virginia border. White Sulphur Springs is the home of the Greenbrier Resort.
A spring of sulphur water is at the center of the resort property, contained in a large white columned springhouse that has been the symbol of the Greenbrier for years. Legend says that the Native followed the tradition of ‘taking the waters’ for pain relief. Numerous famous people, including 26 presidents, have stayed here.
In 1858, a hotel was built on the property. After the second World War the C&O bought the property from the government and reopened the resort, now redecorated by Dorothy Draper. While this is supposed to be something special to me it is the most hideously decorated hotel I have ever seen, and I have stayed in hundreds of hotels. To think people pay an average of $600 a night for this ‘honor’. We stayed at a nearby Courtyard.
To be fair the exterior of the hotel and the grounds are beautiful. We spent an hour walking around, admiring the landscaping and buildings, including the Presidential Cottage, the numerous shops and the golf course clubhouse. The main entrance to the hotel is very dramatic
In the late 1950s, the U.S created a secret emergency relocation center at the Greenbrier to house Congress in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. Although the bunker was kept stocked with supplies for 30 years, it was never actually used as an emergency location. The bunker’s existence was not acknowledged until 1992. It is featured as an attraction in which visitors can tour the now declassified facilities, known as The Bunker. Because it was near closing time when we arrived we were only able to see the entrance doors to the bunker.
Opting for something outside of the pretentious resort for dinner, we made our way to a small café in town, the 50 East. Their food was excellent, and the atmosphere great. The only confusing thing was everyone had New Orleans Saints attire on, which we later found out was due to the fact the Saints train at the Greenbrier.