MINGO COUNTY — Jamie Cantrell was lucky: for 20 years, she was one of a dwindling number of Mingo County natives to hold a steady job in the coal industry. But in 2020, the sale of raw coal was terminated.
“I was devastated,” Cantrell said. “So I said to my husband, ‘Let’s do something with the trail system.'”
Cantrell had watched tourism bring more and more money to Mingo County, largely due to the opening of the Hatfield-McCoy ATV trails. Like many residents who stayed when the coal industry’s decline took its toll on their communities and neighbors, she felt the shift toward tourism offered hope that the town she grew up in could get back on its feet could come.
Because Cantrell also worked as a manager at a nearby campground, she knew she had an appetite for somewhere to get a drink and some hearty food. So she and her husband bought and renovated a space in downtown Matewan. In March, the Trailhead Bar and Grill opened. And so far, business has been good.
Mingo County is undergoing a slow transformation. It was once the heart of a thriving coal industry that provided middle-class jobs and supported local businesses, but the industry’s decline led to decades of severe economic and population losses. Now, residents and officials are pinning their hopes on tourism, although hesitant to create another one-industry economy.
Longtime residents of Mingo County can point to specific moments like markers on a graph to illustrate the decline of their city’s economy. There was the 1977 flood that drowned parts of the county seat of Williamson in over 50 feet of water, killing 22 people and destroying many homes and businesses in the greater Tug Valley area.
In 1984, Williamson was flooded again, although not as badly. This led to a small exodus.
In the early 1990s, the US Army Corps of Engineers built flood walls around Williamson and Matewan. While these likely staved off further disasters, residents also say the flood walls diverted traffic around towns, particularly Matewan, and further strained an economy already crippled by job losses in the coal industry.
In 2011, Delbarton, Gilbert, Matewan, and Williamson high schools closed and students were sent to a consolidated high school.
All the while, coal production and coal jobs were disappearing. Severance taxes paid by coal companies also fell, dashed hopes of a local government-funded revival. Today, the county’s population is about half what it was in 1950.
Jim Pajarillo, 49, is a criminal defense attorney in Williamson. He recently smoked American Spirit cigarettes on a bench behind his office and reminisced about what old Williamson High School meant to his childhood and to the community at large.
Many who were there look back with pride on the school and remember the football team or the marching band. It was once quite diverse. Pajarillo was one of several students from Asian immigrant families, and he said he never felt out of place. At its peak, the area also had a relatively sizable Jewish population, but the only synagogue closed in 2009.
The school was also a source of income for Williamson’s businesses. At the end of the school day, the children flocked to the local shops and restaurants.
Now the high school is about 30 minutes drive from the city center. Children who ride the bus get up early and come home late.
“We know what we had when we were young,” Pajarillo said. “Now we have even less.”
Since returning to Williamson after a young adulthood in California, Pajarillo has dedicated himself to reviving some of the opportunities that the city he grew up in gave him. In addition to his practice as an attorney, Pajarillo serves on the board of directors of the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts, a West Virginia nonprofit dedicated to promoting local arts.
He’s launched an open mic event, launched art classes for kids and created a local comics convention called WillCon, which drew nearly 3,000 people before the pandemic.
He hopes tourism will build a bigger audience for some of these events and bring money into the local arts scene. Pajarillo hopes to use this platform to restate Williamson’s narrative, so dictated by the coal demise and the opioid crisis.
“There are no pie charts that show what an art or music class will do for the community, but you just have to take the leap of faith,” he said.
Signs of a revival are springing up around Williamson. Whether it’s the opening of several new restaurants, the restoration of the historic Mountaineer Hotel, or just the sound of four wheelers on the streets – a sign that tourists are taking the Hatfield-McCoy trails.
Just as the coal industry puts money in people’s pockets to spend at local shops, tourism brings in customers and distributes the wealth to those who can afford to invest. And though cautious, residents are hoping they will begin to chart the reversal of the economic meltdown of recent decades.
Some point to the opening of the Hatfield-McCoy Trails in 2000 as the beginning of a turnaround. More recently, the pandemic has attracted more tourists to the type of close-to-nature vacations the region offers.
Still, the trail system has yet to bring the number of visitors promised by early supporters, and other businesses that can attract tourists’ attention are slow to develop.
Williamson Mayor Charles Hatfield says economic diversification is key to the city’s future.
“We need to break the shackles of industry dependency,” he said. But there are significant obstacles: the area’s topography is not ideal for the kind of infrastructure that can attract industry, broadband and cellphone problems persist, and the population is older and fewer.
“I’m not a fool,” Hatfield said. “Tourism will not replace the well-paying jobs in coal mining and the railroad industry, which was a minor part.”
However, he hopes tourism will strengthen other local businesses and force new business owners to get serious about things like beautification and making the area attractive to young people and families.
Crystal Little, 35, is the kind of local business owner Hatfield hopes will benefit from a larger tourism economy.
When she was a kid in Delbarton, Little was allergic to cats and dogs, so her grandparents bought her a gecko. That was the beginning of her fascination with exotic pets.
For years, Little bred them—mainly reptiles—and sold them to enthusiasts over the internet and at exotic animal shows.
In March 2021, Little opened a pet shop in Williamson, Sky High Geckos. It was hard to stand up for an untried deal in a contested city.
“I’ve honestly been laughed at by a lot of the male shopkeepers here,” Little said.
But Little eventually found support from a landlord who was excited about what the company could bring to Williamson’s culture. He worked with her to keep her bail affordable. Now the local chamber of commerce and the mayor are praising Little.
“I never thought local politicians would support the crazy gecko lady,” Little said. “But here we are.”
Little mainly sells pet supplies. But one June afternoon, a family was considering which rabbit hutch to adopt, and Little showed off their newest pets to another regular who was just there to see them.
But empty storefronts surround their store. Years ago there were two operating rooms within blocks. Now both are closed.
Mingo County residents looking to start businesses and help revitalize the area face significant upfront investment costs. Outside investors can buy up properties to operate bed and breakfasts or simply keep vacation homes.
According to Leigh Ann Ray, grants coordinator at the Mingo County Commission, the county’s residents are disadvantaged. Many don’t have much money, have poor credit, or are simply wary of investments after decades of decline. For years, residents say, it was a truism that residents had to leave Mingo County to find an opportunity.
Ray, who grew up just across the Tug Fork River in Kentucky, sees no problem with outside investment.
“Money is money and investment is investment,” Ray said. “If someone invests in your area, what does it matter, geography?”
But not everyone agrees.
Dave Wesley Hatfield, 63, runs an Airbnb and Appalachian Lost and Found, a gift shop-cum-convenience store in Matewan. After 30 years as a locomotive engineer, Hatfield decided to stay in his hometown and invest in the growing tourist economy, which he felt was a duty of sorts.
Hatfield, who worked at the railroad, said: “I’ve seen whole neighborhoods and businesses just disappear over 30 years. Just total decimation… I didn’t want this to happen.”
While the prospect of tourism has given him the opportunity to start a business in his hometown, something he’s not sure would have been possible 10 years ago, he’s not convinced the industry can handle the economic woes of the region will solve.
“[We] There are a lot of people from outside investing here,” he said. “So you create the same thing you had before. It’s extraction.”
But for Wilson Chafin, 74, who lives down the same block from Hatfield’s store, some things about the area will never change. He sits on a bench in front of his home and across from the Mine Wars Museum, which commemorates the bloody labor disputes in the area in the early 20th century.
Despite the ebb and flow of the economy since childhood — and decades of his adult life outside of West Virginia — Matewan is at home and Chafin has no intention of leaving.
“I left home when I was 18 and came back when I was an adult, but it’s the same old mountains,” he said. “I never get tired of looking at the mountains.”
Chafin doesn’t think the coal and oil industries are coming back. He blames environmental regulations and regulatory bureaucracy.
But he hopes the mountains can be reused by future generations and become the lifeblood of his hometown again.
“It’s hard to imagine what it would look like,” he said. “But I’m really optimistic.”
Reach reporter Ian Karbal at firstname.lastname@example.org.