Boom to Bust and Back Again

Every year, for the past 20, a group of about 30 faithful Christ Church parishioners go into the hills of West Virginia on a trip to renovate, re-roof, re-floor, re-found, re-wire, and add bathrooms where there were none; but mostly they go to restore the hope that people care.  McDowell County in the southeastern hill country of West Virginia, north of Bluefield, was one of the state’s richest coalfields. 

In its heyday, in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, communities along US Highway 52, which parallels Elkhorn Creek, were models of modernity and progress.  Coal was king and there was plenty of it.  Large towns like Northfork, Keyston, and Welch thrived while smaller communities, like Upland, Powhatan, Maitland, Bottom Creek, Switchback, Maybeury, Ennis, and Superior sprang up in every valley and holler.  Many of those communities bore the name of the mining companies that founded them.  The companies provided for practically all of their employees’ needs, including housing.  Life seemed mighty good for coal miners and their families during those times.

However, we know all too well that bust follows booms.  Alternative and cleaner sources of fuel were found and mining in the valley slowed to a crawl.  In the years that flowed, whole communities died out.  Some people moved to other towns with operating mines while others moved away entirely.  Those that remained couldn’t work or couldn’t adapt to the changes.  Coal mining was what fathers and their fathers did before them.  Numerous widows and their families were left behind.  The thriving communities of Northfork and Keystone took on the appearance of ghost towns, mere echoes of the life they once enjoyed.

If economic hard times weren’t enough to extinguish the spirits of those who remain, nature dealt a couple of additional blows.  On July 8, 2001 and on May 2, 2002 devastating floodwaters passed through portions of McDowell County, West Virginia, and surrounding areas.  These waters, mostly along Elkhorn Fork, Tug Fork and their tributaries cut a path of total destruction.  Entire villages were washed away, and several lost their lives.  The first flood left 1,200 residents homeless and damaged or destroyed an estimated 1,500 structures.  The second was worse.  Over 11,000 county residents, a full 50% of the county, have applied for assistance.  Over 300 homes of the 770 condemned have been demolished by the Army Corps of Engineering.  The government has erected both temporary and permanent housing for some, but much remains to be done.

These two quotes from the Bluefield Daily Telegraph put the plight of McDowell county residents into better perspective.

“With all the sadness and frustration that came from the flooding over the last year in McDowell County, there may be a bright side after all. If the “recovery” funds are used to fix the problems faced by McDowell County for years – water and sewage treatment and adequate infrastructure, good roads and bridges – wouldn’t that be a blessing!!!”  Signed: Still Hopeful

“I agree this effort will have to be done with everyone’s help but you are looking at a very exhausted community. People are working so hard just to get their lives back together, and rebuilding homes for their families. I would like to comment on the fact that we are in desperate need of water supplies because of the wells, being contaminated I have had my well tested twice and still it comes back bad. I am now being told that the person over the county is on vacation, Well everyone in these areas would love to take a very well deserved vacation after this disaster, but I would think they would have more than One to do the testing on these water problems we are dealing with. I am amazed at the comments I get from the health department, “quote” well we just don’t know when, meanwhile we are told not to drink, or wash anything in it. I have called many places to find help in getting water to our community, but the only thing I get is (Well we just can’t get anymore) the nightmare of the flood remains in us all but the water problem is becoming a nightmare in itself! The flooding is gone for now but the effort of over worked and exhausted families is still in need of simple items such as WATER.”  Signed: Dedra Blevins

If you want to learn more about this area and are interested in helping, here’s an excellent website to get started:

I leave for this community within a couple of hours knowing there is not much I can do to change things, but I want to do what I can.  I missed the last two years of trips thinking it was more important to be here.  I don’t know which was best, but it is in the past.  For the fifteen years I participated in this mission trip I always received much more than I gave and came back with a clearer perspective on life and priorities.  I look forward to a wonderful week and to returning next Thursday.

I believe our portfolios will hold up reasonably well in the storms of September and October.  More importantly, they are ready for the better markets I know are ahead.  We have enjoyed the boom, suffered the bust, adapted to the changes, and live to grow again.