Hours southwest by car of Greater Washington lies the old coal town of Grundy, lying at a confluence of the flood-prone Levisa Fork River below steep cliffs of sedimentary rock of sandstone and shale.
Grundy has been a touchstone for my various trips to the Virginia coalfields over the years. I hadn’t been in that part of the woods in a while, and when I drove through on Tuesday, I went into a state of shock.
Utterly gone was the pleasant old town with its rich collection of Depression-era buildings that could have been the subject of a Walker Evans photo study. Vanished was the black statue of the coal miner looking expectantly to heaven. The little movie house was gone. Everything was gone.
In its place around the dynamited sides of mountains was a multi-level Wal-Mart. I had to rub my eyes in the misty rain. An entire town had disappeared to make room for a Big Box.
To be sure, this had been a long time coming. The Levisa Fork is flood prone, in part because ruthless strip mining practices in the Southwest Virginia coalfields have ripped out vegetation that can hold back rainwater. One of the biggest floods came on April 4, 1977.
Grundy became a cause celebre among local economic development officials and U.S. bureaucrats. In 1997, Virginia Rep. Rick Boucher worked out a plan with town leaders, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Virginia Department of Transportation to forever change Grundy. Helped by $96 million in public money, VDOT bought and ripped down the old Lynwood Theater and local hardware stores and fives and dimes. The Army spent $100 million ripping out 2.4 million cubic yards of rock, enough for 68 football fields, and helped relocate rail tracks.
In all, according to a 2007 Post story, Grundy’s makeover ended up costing $196 million or $175,000 for every man, woman and child in town. But all didn’t work out according to plan. Many of the building owners, The Post reported, did not rebuild as planners hoped. They merely pocketed their money and left.
What’s left is a Wal-Mart in perhaps the most dramatic geological setting possible. The utter madness of the scene is commemorated on YouTube with a pictorial.
Even nuttier is that government officials have spent so much money on Grundy when there is still so much oppressive poverty and health-care needs that have infected the coalfields from the day the first coal prospector set foot on the remote and beautiful mountains of Southwest Virginia.