Living in Bramwell
Stroll down the opulent Main Street of yesteryear in southern West Virginia’s hidden gem.
Photographed by Steve Brightwell
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Situated along the horseshoe bend of the Bluestone River, teetering on West Virginia’s southern border with Virginia sits Bramwell, a tiny town founded on coal riches that boasts the nickname “A Town of Millionaires.” But don’t let its current obscurity deter you from making the trip deep into the heart of southern West Virginia’s coal country. Just one visit will leave you rushing to tell everyone that at the turn of the twentieth century, this enclave once touted more millionaires per capita than any other town in the United States.
After the discovery of the Pocahontas coal field, the town of Bramwell seemed to spring up almost overnight. Coal seams ten feet high stretched for nearly 50 miles along the West Virginia and Virginia border and the mines employed around 100,000 men. During its heyday, the Norfolk and Western Railway had up to 14 trains per day stopping in the town. Bramwell, which was incorporated in 1888, quickly became home to wealthy coal barons, officials, and other affluent citizens.
Although the exact number of millionaires once living within the town’s original four square blocks is up for debate—accounts differ on whether there were fourteen or nineteen—the evidence of their presence is preserved in the form of Victorian and Tudor style mansions that, for the most part, can all be seen lining the perfectly pristine Main Street. And even though Bramwell’s manors are breathtaking and certainly worth the initial visit, it’s the town’s charming residents that will have you vowing to return.
The draw for most visitors is Bramwell’s public home tours. Twice annually, on the second Saturdays in May and December, the town opens its historic doors and invites visitors to experience how the well-to-do once lived. Each tour begins at the Bramwell Presbyterian Church—patterned after a Welsh cathedral—where visitors may purchase tickets for $15 while admiring the church’s breathtaking architecture. Take the time to appreciate the locally quarried bluestone that imparts an unusual aesthetic—coal dust provides the stone’s blue coloring. Visitors are free to meander in and out of the homes and buildings included on the tour and are greeted by residents dressed in period clothes. Because many of the homes are private residences, the lineup is always evolving, guaranteeing that even if you’ve seen it once, you’ve certainly not seen it all.
Be sure to visit the Cooper House—the first home in the country to have a roof fashioned entirely of copper. The structure is built of golden bricks imported from England. Just ahead, on the brick-paved portion of Main Street sits Doctor’s Row where the four major coal camp physicians made their homes. The Row’s houses showcase original gingerbread trim, stained glass windows, and vibrantly painted exteriors—more than enough to make any Victorian-era enthusiast proud. With hitching posts standing at attention outside nearly every house, it’s easy to imagine the clickety-clack of horse-drawn carriages and a life devoid of modern conveniences. “Just take away the cars and the paved portions of the streets, and you really know what it would have been like to have lived here,” says resident and tour guide Betty Goins. But the early townspeople were also interested in keeping up with the latest trends. Bramwell is said to have had the first electric streetlamps in the country, and the originals are still there, showing little signs of age.
Across from Doctor’s Row stands the Bank of Bramwell. Also constructed of native bluestone, the insitution was once the financial center of southern West Virginia, and the wealthiest bank per capita in the country. The residents still love to tell the story of Henry Wade, the bank’s janitor, who would push a wheelbarrow full of cash through Main Street to the train depot at the other end of town to ultimately be delivered to each coal camp on payday. There was never an attempted robbery. Even today, it feels as though Mr. Wade would still be able to deliver a cash-loaded wheelbarrow to the depot unharmed today.
Also across from Doctor’s Row is the Hewitt House. On the outside, the property is guarded not only by a wrought iron fence, but also an energetic English bulldog named Molly who happily greets friends and strangers alike. Inside, its owners, Mr. and Mrs. Harold Brown, have amassed a wonderful collection of antiques. The dining room furniture is that of the original owner, Katharine Hewitt, who became a coal baroness following her husband’s death. The floors throughout are a light hardwood with a rich cherry border—they’re so perfectly polished that it may be possible to see your own reflection. The house also boasts a conservatory and a modern yet vintage skylight above the stairwell leading to the second floor.
If you are unable to make one of the designated public tours, don’t be discouraged from visiting. Private tours can be organized by contacting Bramwell’s Town Hall, tour guide Betty Goins, or you can go it alone by simply picking up a brochure at the Coal Heritage Trail Interpretive Center—more affectionately referred to as the depot—to use on a self-guided walking or driving tour. Many residents consider the new depot—which replicates the original train depot—to be the centerpiece of the town. “I won my only bicycle by saving ‘Lucky Stars’ from school, and it was delivered by train to the old Bramwell station— now, that is a fond childhood memory,” remembers former resident Bill Petty, who created and maintains a website detailing Bramwell’s history and offering a virtual visit to folks who love the town.
Apart from serving as the area’s welcome center, the depot is also a museum, offering insight into the area’s rich coal history. While there, you will find a variety of books, magazines, and gifts, all related to the state and West Virginia’s southern coal fields. The shopkeepers at the Depot are more than willing to point visitors in the right direction, and once they have sent you on your way, there is a decent chance that a resident will take you under their wing for an impromptu tour. “What impressed me so much about Bramwell,” says recent visitor Emily Castleberry, “is that the people are so willing to show you around. Bramwell stands as a reminder of how connected, hospitable, and friendly the people of West Virginia really are.”