This old coal town is in the middle of the damnedest depression you ever saw.

The old Keystone mine has all but shut down. So have the Eckman-Page mine in nearby Eureka Hollow and the U.S. Steel mine over the mountain in Gary Hollow.

Altogether, 2,130 coal miners are out of work in McDowell County, giving it the highest rate of joblessness--30.5 percent--in West Virginia, which in turn has the highest rate--19 percent--in the nation.

"The only people that they are hiring in McDowell County are security guards to chase off the unemployed when they come looking for work," Myle Hughes, state director of unemployment claims, said recently. "They're hiring people to keep the job hunters away."

Yet there are strange and confusing economic signs here.

Deposits at the First National Bank of Keystone ("Time Tried, Panic Tested," a sign boasts) and every other bank in the county have gone up dramatically during the last two years. The Keystone bank reports that it has taken in $5 million in deposits at a branch it opened last September in Gary, a community with about 60 percent unemployment.

A Catholic priest, who asked to remain nameless, said: "Unemployment is about 100 percent in my parish, but collections haven't dropped during the last 12 months . . . . I don't know if it's dedication, devotion, sacrifice or what."

And many storekeepers here and in the county seat of Welch claim their businesses haven't been hurt by the hard times. "I'm having one of the best years I've ever had," said Bryan Cochran, manager of H&M Shoes and president of the Welch Chamber of Commerce. "When they give free butter and cheese out, I have days you wouldn't believe."

"None of the merchants in town are on the verge of folding," he added. "We're holding our own."

The reason is that McDowell County has become almost a welfare state. This year an estimated $96 million in transfer payments will flow into the county, according to various officials. In part, this is because the county has an unusually large population of retired and disabled people.

Welfare payments account for about $8 million of the $96 million. In addition, 5,000 retired coal miners receive United Mine Workers pensions, 12,000 persons receive Social Security checks, 8,500 get federal black-lung disability checks and 1,400 receive supplementary Social Security benefits.

"If we didn't have all these support systems, this would be an area of total despair. It would be 'Katie bar the door' around here," said J. Knox McConnell, president of the First National Bank of Keystone.

As it is, some businesses have had a rough time.

Car sales at the county's only Pontiac dealership are down 35 percent from three years ago, and several other dealerships have given up their franchises.

"Things always could be worse, but they sure could be a lot better," said C.P. Rivers, owner of the Smart Men Shop in Welch. "We're not satisfied with the situation in the coal fields."

Clothing business "went to hell" last year, before bouncing back somewhat during the last five months, he said. "We're losing the impulse buyer. Everyone is thinking before they buy anything now."

Poverty and prosperity long have lived almost side by side in McDowell County, which used to call itself "the nation's coal bin." The county's economy has been largely tied to coal ever since the first carloads of "black gold" were shipped from the Pocahontas coal field in the late 1880s.

Its entire history has been one of boom and bust. The booms brought thousands of Italian, Hungarian and black miners, swelling the county's 1940s population to 100,000, double its current size.

They also left a handful of rich businessmen, professionals and coal executives in the county seat and larger coal towns, like Keystone, War and Iaeger.

The busts threw thousands of miners out of work, creating some of the worst poverty in America. John F. Kennedy found McDowell County at the bottom of one such bust when he campaigned here against Hubert H. Humphrey in the make-or-break Democratic primary of 1960.

The millionaire's son was shocked by what he saw. His aide and biographer, Theodore Sorensen, later wrote: "He more deeply understood, as the depressed areas of Massachusetts had never made him understand, the unemployed worker, the pensioner, the relief recipient and the ghost town, and he more fervently endorsed their pleas for more help."

Getting an 84,000-vote majority over Humphrey, Kennedy won the West Virginia primary with the help of an 11,626-vote margin in McDowell County, and became front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. But the hard times in the West Virginia coal fields left a lasting impression.

After the election Kennedy created a special "depressed area commission" that became the forerunner of a host of economic development and anti-poverty efforts in the '60s. McDowell County was the first in the nation to test the federal food stamp program; Sidney Christie, boss of the county's Democratic machine, was given a federal judgeship.

Ten years later, this reporter spent almost a month in the county, interviewing dozens of jobless and disabled miners and their widows in coal camps and back hollows with names like Big Four, Langraff, Switchback, Bottom Creek and Skygutsy. Many of them lived in some of the most deplorable, ramshackle shanties in America.

Today some of these same shacks remain little changed. Twenty-seven percent of the county's residents live below the federal poverty line; the unemployment rate of 30.5 percent compares with 23.5 percent in 1960 and 8 percent in 1972.

But the camps at the mouths of the hollows look more prosperous; so do the larger coal towns. Fast food franchises have moved in with their chicken, pizza and fish and chips. Welch has an Atari sales and service shop.

A new generation of young men and women has gone to work in the mines. This work force is far smaller than the last one, but they've been more prosperous, getting as much as $100 a day when they work. They've painted and remodeled scores of houses; they've bought house trailers, big cars and pickups.

Now they're learning to live with the bust.

Jerry England went to work in the mines only months after he was graduated from Northfork High School in 1972. "I really didn't want to, but around here it was the biggest money around," he said one morning in Eureka Hollow.

England hasn't worked since last November. He is a big brute of a man with a bushy beard, but he grows uneasy discussing his joblessness. His palms sweat; he speaks hesitantly.

"It gets rough at times," he said. "For myself, I get depressed. You want your children to have better than you had, and then you can't give it to them. You can imagine what runs through a man's mind."

England, like most miners, has been receiving unemployment benefits of $211 a week. This has been enough for him to support his wife and two children, but his benefits and those of about 1,400 other McDowell County miners expire at the end of the month.

Traditionally, the miners and businessmen have accepted boom and bust cycles in the coal industry as part of life. "Coal is our product," said Luke Gianato of Gianato Pontiac in Welch. "When coal is good, we're in high cotton. When it's down, we're in the cellar."

Some, however, now question whether the coal industry will ever bounce back. The bituminous coal mined here is some of the highest-grade coal found in the world, and is used almost exclusively in the production of steel.

T.J. Scott, a county commissioner, is one of the pessimists. A former state legislator, he recently retired from U.S. Steel, which owns some of the biggest mines in McDowell County.

"I can tell you it is bad. The metallurgical coal market is a very depressed industry, and I don't see any signs of it getting better any time soon. Our production costs have almost run us out of the market."

"The coal industry is in worse shape than I've ever seen it going back to 1930-31," he added. "In those days, the mines were always working one to three days a week. Now they're completely shut down. Our people have no place to go now. It tears my guts out to see what's happening."