In W.Va., Unexpected Riches
Sunday, August 24, 2008
Quick quiz: At the turn of the 20th century, what town boasted more millionaires per capita than any other in the United States?
Newport, R.I.? No.
Palm Beach, Fla.? No.
Bramwell, W.Va.? Yes, that would be the one.
"No way," you say. At least that's what I said when the statistic first came to my attention. Not a town in West Virginia, the state of my birth, the butt of so many tired jokes involving poverty, obesity and lack of dental hygiene.
But apparently it's true. Even a hundred years after its heyday, Bramwell, in Mercer County at the bottom of the state near the Virginia border, remains a tiny Victorian testament to a time when coal was king and the geological riches of the state provided wealth to a collection of mine owners, men who built grand, beautiful homes, many of which remain today to be toured and appreciated by visitors.
At the end of the 1800s, there were 14 or 19 millionaires (accounts differ) living in Bramwell, whose population then was about 4,000. Today it's about 400. Fourteen passenger trains per day stopped there. Other than Paris and New York, it was the only place in the world where Chanel No. 5 perfume was sold, and, according to one account, the Bryant Pharmacy, now known as the Corner Shop, sold about $25,000 worth of the perfume per year. That's about $300,000 in today's dollars. There's nothing like the smell of success.
Bramwell is believed to be the first U.S. town with electric streetlamps (the originals are still there). It had its own water company, electric company and phone company and a weekly newspaper.
The Corner Shop, though closed and waiting for its new owner to complete restoration, stands at Main and Bloch streets. A peek through the window offers a glimpse of the long soda counter, the chicken-wire-pattern tile floor and the cherry cabinetry made on site by Welsh carpenters. It isn't difficult to find nostalgic old photos of the interior when the building served as ice cream parlor, pharmacy and perfumery to the town.
The store is a block from the rebuilt train station, the best place to begin a walking tour. Townspeople think the depot is the prettiest of its kind, and they might well be right. It is, in a word, adorable. It also serves as a museum and provides an overview of the area's coal history. Relics and mementos bring to life the era when 100,000 miners worked the rich and dangerous local coal seams without benefit of modern machinery and safeguards. They were, in large part, immigrants recruited right from the gates of Ellis Island. Others were descendants of slaves who crossed into the free territory of West Virginia when it became a state in 1863 at the height of the Civil War. But the miners didn't live in Bramwell. Their town was about three miles up the road and bore no resemblance to Bramwell's affluent beauty.
You'll want to tour that town, too. Pocahontas, Va., the miners' town, is only minutes away, but it's economically miles apart.
It was Bramwell's houses, though, that had me captivated. Those of us who are suckers for house tours can find nirvana in Bramwell. Twice yearly, on the second Saturday of May and December, the town's mansions open their doors. But you'd be surprised by how many houses you can find yourself unexpectedly touring on just any old Saturday.