Stepping Back in Time
The tiny, picturesque town of Thurmond takes us back to a wilder era of trains, coal, and poker games on the New River.
Life in Thurmond is quiet, just the regular passing of trains—their whistles blowing as they travel through Fayette County. What is now West Virginia’s smallest incorporated town used to be the epicenter of East Coast travel and, at times, pure revelry.
During the height of coal mining in the New River Gorge, Thurmond was a flourishing town, thanks largely to the C&O Railway. Fifteen passenger trains a day came through Thurmond; the old depot served as many as 95,000 passengers a year. Some called the town the “Wild West of the East” for its reputation in the early 1900s. Stores and saloons boomed, and hotels were packed with people playing pool and poker around the clock—the latter perhaps literally, as Thurmond is rumored to have been home to a 14-year-long poker game, according to Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
“For years, lots of revenue went through Thurmond,” says Tom Dragan, area resident and a longtime former whitewater rafting guide in the region. “There are photos with 2,000 people walking the streets of this little town.”
Years ago, all of the coal in the area traveled through Thurmond. “There used to be more freight going through Thurmond than Cincinnati, Ohio,” says Cindy Dragan, assistant director of the New River Gorge Convention & Visitors Bureau and Tom’s wife. Today, standing at the historic train depot is like stepping back in time. Hundreds of people used to crowd the train platform, but these days, it’s rare to see more than a handful of people waiting for the train—now an Amtrak flag stop station. “When you’re finally standing in Thurmond, and you’ve come down a two-lane road to get here, it’s amazing to think this was once this thriving town,” Cindy says. “It’s wild.”
Much of Thurmond is now owned by the National Park Service for the New River Gorge National River. The C&O Railway depot was renovated in 1995 and now functions as a Park Service visitor center. The town itself is a designated historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. “People love the beauty of the place. It’s one of the only towns that has a railroad track as its main road,” Cindy says. “We see people all the time who come to watch trains. There are not a lot of places you can go and see that."
Tom and Cindy live across the river in Thurmond and relish the area’s beauty. “I get to sit on my deck every night and have a glass of wine and look out over the river,” Cindy says. “Where else can you live in a town like Thurmond—a town in the gorge?”
Tom and his brothers first went to Thurmond for whitewater rafting back in the late 1960s. At that time, Thurmond was one of few access points to the New River, and more than 100 people lived in town. They started Whitewater Expeditions Unlimited, now under different ownership, and they stayed in Thurmond, Tom says, because the region was so nice.
Reaching Thurmond is half the fun. Driving down narrow, winding roads, a creek runs along the drive and passengers can see waterfalls. Tom says people fall in love with the tiny town when they get there. They want to see the New River, ride mountain bikes, go on hikes, and just spend time in nature. Today, Thurmond remains untouched by much modern technology. You won’t get the Internet there and you’ll have sparse, if any, cell service. “It’s quiet. When you stand up there on the hillside in Thurmond and look over the river, you can just hear the rapids.”
The Dragans own a few old homes they’re restoring in Thurmond, and Tom expects a general store he’s building to be finished in 2012. The family also owns an old church they are continually working to restore. “We don’t want to see the town die,” he says. “I want my kids and grandkids to always be able to experience sitting on a river in Thurmond. I don’t know what will happen generations from now. I just know it was good for me.”
To reach Thurmond, take U.S. Route 19 to the Glen Jean exit, north of Beckley. Follow signs to Thurmond, seven miles down winding, narrow State Route 25.