Travel to Williamson
Williamson is reinventing itself with the help of its history.
Photographed by Nikki Bowman
Williamson is a spirited little place. It’s a town with a legacy of feuding families and booming coal mines, situated on the banks of a fitful river deep in the Appalachian Mountains in the heart of the southern coalfields.
It’s a place where perseverance is worn like a badge of honor—it’s not that people don’t flourish there, too, it’s just that in Williamson they understand the order of things: First you deal with adversity, then you move on to prosperity. Take the Mountaineer Hotel downtown and its experience after the flood of 1977, when the river reached heights of 52 feet, more than 25 feet above flood level. “The hotel has operated as a hotel every single day since it opened in 1925,” says Manager Edna Thompson. “Through the flood, through everything, it’s always been open. It’s crazy for a little tiny town like us.” When the Mountaineer’s current owner bought the hotel, employees were still shoveling mud left by the flood out of the basement—and that was in 1996, more than 20 years later. But in true Williamson spirit, the Mountaineer stayed open—and kept shoveling—all those years. Once the mud was finally gone, they set to work remodeling, beautifying, and restoring the building. “We’re pretty proud of it now,” Edna says. “It’s really come back to life.” It was in that same spirit that the town spent years rebuilding itself and, in 1991, built a floodwall to protect the city from the river. Now it’s time for Williamson to thrive.
In 2010 the population of Williamson was nearly 3,200. That’s a far cry from its heyday, when 12,000 people lived in the town with its bustling train station and coal mines, but today the city is re-imagining itself as the center of a tourism region based around a world-class system of ATV trails, southern West Virginia’s rich coal mining history, and the escapades of a couple clans of 19th-century mountaineers.
Past Made Modern
Today the Mountaineer Hotel is a stately old hotel. The lobby exudes a warm kind of grandeur that feels distinctly southern and distinctly of a bygone era: room keys are stored in pigeonholes and a mighty chandelier glitters overhead. Each of the hotel’s 116 rooms is named for a person who once stayed there, so each hallway is lined with a row of rooms and placards labeled with famous names like Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Newman, and John F. Kennedy.
The Coal House, home of the Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce and the town’s gift shop, is made from 65 tons of local coal—it was built as a publicity stunt in 1933. “They built this whole thing just as an advertisement for coal,” says Cecil Hatfield, the Coal House’s resident historian. “Back then, not enough people knew about it, not like today.” A fire in 2010 gutted the interior of the building, prompting an extensive remodel. Now the inside is airy and modern, filled with West Virginia arts, crafts, and memorabilia. The application submitted in 1980 to place the Coal House on the National Register of Historic Places may best sum up its stature in the community. “Located on Courthouse Square, the Coal House occupies one of Williamson’s most prominent places,” it reads. “Both in physical setting and in the minds of this community.”
Williamson is also home to a growing web of eateries that cater to both locals and tourists. A favorite among locals is Starters Sports Bar & Grill, which has been in business in downtown Williamson for 20 years. It’s the kind of place that has a steady stream of regular customers, but owner Kathe Whitt says newcomers feel at home there, too. “We know an out-of-towner when they walk in the door, but we treat them just like they’re an everyday customer,” she says. “We make them feel like they belong.” There’s also a new coffee shop downtown, Righteous Brew, that caters to the lunch crowd with a light menu and daily specials. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner, try the soda shop at Hurley Drug Store. “We’re just what you’d expect out of a soda counter,” says the pharmacy’s owner, Nicole McNamee. “We’ve got a long bar with little round stools, and ice cream in the summer months.” Locals have been eating ice cream at that counter since the 1930s, and Nicole has experienced much of the shop’s history firsthand—she bought it in 1998, but her father owned the store in the 1960s.
After the Feud
Williamson sits smack dab in the middle of Hatfield and McCoy country, where these two families dueled for years in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, inspiring fascination in generations of Americans to come. “The question I get most often is, ‘Why are people still talking about the Hatfield and McCoy feud 100 years later?’” says Bill Richardson, a local Hatfield and McCoy expert and promoter of feud-related tourism. “These are extremely interesting characters who have great human flaws, who are overtaken by their passions, which results in these sort of bigger-than-life events. What it takes to make a great story is great characters and actions that are on the human scale that we can understand but go on to become something larger and more dramatic—and these stories do that.” There’s been a resurgence in interest in the Hatfield and McCoy story lately, spawned by a History Channel mini-series featuring Kevin Costner, and Williamson intends to take advantage of the publicity.
Walking the streets of downtown, it feels like the entire town is in on it: Pigs—like the one at the center of one of the most epic arguments between the families—are everywhere. Not live pigs, but painted pig statues, about 2 feet tall, peer up at you from sidewalks or peek out from storefronts. “We did those last summer,” says Natalie Young, executive director of the Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce. “Local businesses bought the pigs, and they were painted by local high schoolers. They’re fun to have around. They keep the Hatfields and McCoys on your mind.”
If you need a guide through feud country, Hatfield McCoy Guided Tours can show you the way. The company gives driving tours of Mingo County and Pike County, Kentucky, stopping at sites that are significant in the story of the feud. If you prefer to tour the area without a guide, you can try the Hatfield-McCoy Trails, one of the longest professionally maintained trail systems for off-road vehicles in the world. It winds through several counties in southern West Virginia, but the Buffalo Mountain Trail System is the stretch that starts in Williamson. It’s a relatively low-key section of the trail and takes riders through more territory relevant to the feud than any of the other trails in this sprawling system.
For a more whimsical kind of feud immersion, try the Hatfield McCoy House, a new bed-and-breakfast in downtown Williamson. It’s owned by Wendy Hackney, a descendant of both the Hatfields and the McCoys. “I have it on both sides, so it’s perfect,” she says. The historic house—the second oldest in Williamson—is outfitted as though the feuding families are still living there: She gave each of her favorite characters a bedroom and decorated it as though they are living there today. Roseanne—a McCoy who loved a Hatfield—has a wedding dress hanging in her bedroom, the dress she never got to wear. A journal on the nightstand tells the story of the two families through the eyes of the young girl. “It’s so fun for guests,” Wendy says. “I know this is one of the most fun things I’ve ever done. Today I was underneath a potty cleaning, and I thought, I am just so blessed to be here. I can’t even say how much I love this story and what we’re doing here in town.”