Rousing the Ghosts Of Appalachia

Historian Dan Whetzel sits in the center of what used to be the coal-mining town of Vindex, Md. The steps used to lead up to the company store. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 3, 2007

VINDEX, Md. You could say that this old town is just a memory now, but even that might be giving it too much credit.

Actual memories of the place, from back when it had a school, two churches and a row of flimsy houses built by the coal company, are scarce now. The people who saw it that way are almost all gone.

And here, even in the center of Vindex, there are almost no traces of it left. The tallest standing structure is a short flight of concrete steps, which once led up to the company store. They now sit, odd and alone, in the middle of an Appalachian forest.

"This is it," said Dan Whetzel, a local historian, whacking through underbrush to reach them. "This is the heart of town."

Vindex is a Potomac River ghost town, one of about 11 coal-mining villages that sit abandoned near the river's headwaters in Western Maryland and West Virginia. They make for scenes that don't seem to belong within a few hours' drive of Washington: foundation holes, broken-backed bridges, mossy stairs that look like part of a jungle ruin.

Historians have begun trying to record the stories of these lost places while former residents are still around to tell them, holding on to a culture that might otherwise disappear. The researchers' fear is that the towns will soon become something worse than just dead: They'll be forgotten completely.

"People lived here until the '60s," Whetzel said, looking at the woods that have grown up in place of Vindex. "It's unbelievable, isn't it?"

These towns are scattered along the North Branch of the Potomac, which is a clear, shallow stream here, about 155 miles west of Washington. They were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when dozens of coal mines were being bored into the hillsides and immigrants from Scotland, Wales, Italy, Russia and other places were moving in to work them.

For most of their residents, there was just one job, and it was a hard one. The coal seams were so narrow that miners had to work bent over or shuffling along on their knees. In winter, some shifts started before dawn and lasted until after nightfall.

"The only light they saw was on Sunday," said John Wiseman, a professor of history at Frostburg State University in nearby Frostburg, Md. "So it wasn't wonderful."

Still, at the peak of the Potomac mines, there was enough coal to provide miners and their towns with some prosperity. Many places had a post office, baseball teams, stores and their own share of small-town drama. Near Shaw, W.Va., the sheriff had to be called out to protect strikebreakers from other coal miners in 1896. In Vindex, the head of the mine workers union shot up another man's house with a pistol in 1923 and then was killed by a shotgun blast.

Eventually, the towns collapsed, one by one. In some places, the coal had been mined out. In others, companies shut down when coal prices dropped. In Vindex, the coal company destroyed many of the structures.

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