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Rousing the Ghosts Of Appalachia
In Deserted Md. and W.Va. Towns of Coal-Mining's Past, Historians Work to Save What's Left: Their Memory

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.

Now, many of the old town sites are lost in little hollows, some of them far from any road. Shaw, where the sheriff was called out on those strikers in 1896, might be the most gone of them all.

"Down underneath there was a town," Russell McRobie, 85, said one day this summer. He was looking out at where Shaw used to be and seeing only the smooth surface of Jennings Randolph Lake, which covered the town after a dam was built in 1981. "It had a grocery store, post office, two churches," McRobie said, adding: "I've been there many times."

McRobie, who lives in nearby Westernport, Md., is working to make sure other towns aren't forgotten: He and others have returned to five villages to spruce up their cemeteries, hacking out underbrush and putting new crosses on the graves.

Whetzel, the historian who visited Vindex, has focused his efforts on the living. The social studies teacher at a high school in Cumberland, Md., has interviewed at least 40 people who remember the ghost towns when they were alive. Along with another educator, Mike Lewis, and Whetzel's students, they have videotaped the sites of some of the old towns and mines. Their records are stored at Frostburg State and at the Maryland Historical Trust in Crownsville, near Annapolis.

They've made a record of the mundane, but now fascinating, details of life in these long-gone places. One old resident of Shaw said that the town never got around to naming its streets; people referred only to "upper Shaw" or "lower Shaw." Others talked about an economy built on "flicker," which was coal-company scrip redeemable at the company store. Even prostitutes accepted it, or so the story goes.

Whetzel once visited Vindex with a former resident named Jim Lipscomb, who could look at the old holes and recall whose house stood in each.

"He said, 'Here's where I lived, and here's where so-and-so lived, and they had two daughters, and we used to go dancing,' " Whetzel recalled. He said Lipscomb died within the past three years.

The bulk of this research was done starting in 2000, when Whetzel took two years off from work to research full time. Now, Whetzel said, he and Lewis would like to visit the hardest-to-reach ghost towns, which sit farther upriver, miles from any road. But their research, including interviews of former residents, might have to wait three years or more, until they both retire.

"That could be a problem," Whetzel said, "because these people might not be around three years from now.

One recent day, Whetzel and Lewis went on a tour of ghost-town country with George Brady, 76, who grew up during the end of the coal boom here. After stopping in Vindex, they went to Shallmar, Md. -- not quite a ghost but nearly there, with a few remaining occupied houses and a shut-up company store.

The stories began: Brady remembered how his brother and friends used to sneak over to a neighbor's house after the woman's boyfriend had come over for a tryst. The kids would make noise as if her husband was coming home early.

They'd go over and rattle the washtub hanging on the back of the house, Brady said, "and watch him run out the front door."

In the coal company's old office, there are big blue maps tacked up -- the maps of the Wolf Den mine, left on the wall from decades ago.

Brady looked at the map for a second. "My grandfather was killed in this mine in 1936," he said.

Finally, they got to Dodson, Md., a half-mile or so down a dirt road from Shallmar, behind a locked gate. Many of the old towns are now on private property, one of many reasons the public is not advised to visit them. Visitors can tour parts of the area by following the "Mountain Maryland" scenic byway, a series of local roads mapped out by tourism officials.

Dodson, whose land is used by a hunting club, is literally the end of the road. The ghost towns farther upstream are reachable only via the railroad tracks.

Brady used to go to church in Dodson, a town with two facing rows of houses. On this visit, they found one of those houses, partly collapsed, with its oven and kitchen cabinets spilled out into the back yard.

But just inside the back door, there were traces of its former life: A pair of scissors and a paintbrush still hung from their hooks. A shovel was waiting in the coal shed.

"That's the last house in Dodson," Whetzel said. In a few years, he figured, it will be gone, too.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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