Living in Bluefield
Explore one of West Virginia’s southernmost cities and witness its incredible transition from booming railroad town to leading arts center.
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Postcard of the Past
Once upon a time, in a not too distant past, when coal was king and the constant rumbling of trains whistled through the mountains, Bluefield was booming. As railroads cut across the landscape of southern West Virginia, the 20th century roared into agrarian communities, and towns quickly sprang from the earth.
Bluefield, located at the base of the East River Mountain that forms the southern border with Virginia, was one such town. Established in the 1780s and incorporated in 1889, legend has it that the blue chicory that blanketed the hillsides gave the town its name. Others say it got its name from the Bluestone River, but one fact that is undisputed is that the Norfolk & Western Railroad put it on the map.
The area surrounding Bluefield was rich with the largest deposit of bituminous coal in the world. The Norfolk & Western Railroad (now Norfolk Southern) opened up the coalfields, based their operations in Bluefield in 1887, and built a bustling train yard. The coal that traveled through this town fueled the country’s industrial revolution and two world wars. Bluefield was so important that Adolf Hitler, reportedly, put it on Nazi Germany’s list of targets for an air strike during WWII.
The city was progressive and grew quickly. Immigrants flocked to the town looking for work in the mines. The Bluefield Colored Institute, now known as Bluefield State College, was chartered in 1895. Hospitals and high-rises—10 and 12 stories tall—were built. Noted for its blossoming skyline, some even called Bluefield “Little New York.”
“Bluefield was once the Camelot of Appalachia,” says Ellen Light, president of the Alliance for the Arts. “We were the railway hub, the financial and medical base, and social center for the region. We were a diverse community. The sidewalks were packed with people. There was a lot of wealth here.”
When mechanization began replacing miners in the 1950s, people left looking for jobs. Businesses closed, railroads gave way to interstates, and coal rush towns like Bluefield began to lose their luster. Today, the Bluefield train yard still runs parallel to Princeton Avenue, cutting a wide swath across the base of the town. It isn’t as busy as it once was, but the coaling tower and the locomotive shop still stand, and cars loaded with ebony chunks of earth still roar and rattle down the tracks.
“During the 1950s and '60s there was a mass exodus. Many talented people grew up in this area, but left and became hugely successful,” Ellen Light says. “We are proud of our people.” Maceo Pinkard, composer of Sweet Georgia Brown; John S. Knight, founder of the Knight Ridder News Agency; celebrated author Denise Giardina; and 1994 Nobel Prize winner John Forbes Nash, whom the movie A Beautiful Mind was based on, were all born in Bluefield.
Given its history, you’d expect the town to now have a certain patina, where black dust has settled into cracks and crevices, giving it the appearance of an antique postcard. In a way, Bluefield does resemble a sepia-toned print from the past. But don’t be mistaken—this is part of the town’s charm and something that the community is capitalizing on.