On a cold early spring morning in 2008 I somehow found myself in McDowell County, West Virginia on one of my random drives. At this time in my life I was just beginning to develop a love and interest in photography and documenting communities and disappearing parts of those communities. I felt as though I had found a treasure trove of goodies as I traveled through McDowell County. One of the most striking and memorable structures that I found on that day was the old Switchback Elementary School located on the eastern end of McDowell County.
At that point in my life I hadnt developed a huge interest in exploring abandoned buildings or documenting abandoned buildings, but I credit McDowell County and especially this school in nurturing and helping me discover this passion which has now developed into one of my favorite pastimes. Some people like to go to the ocean on vacation, I like to explore dilapidated and abandoned buildings.
This building has stuck with me over the past 7 years. I keep coming back to it and everytime I travel through this part of the country I have to travel down US 52 and see if the building is still standing. I had to research and find out more about Switchback and the school that had intrigued me so much.
In 2013 a guy by the name of Travis Dewitz, who much like me is an outsider, someone who isnt from McDowell County or West Virginia posted a blog entry on his photography website of his adventures exploring an abandoned school by the name of Elkhorn High School. Just so happened Elkhorn HIgh School looked exactly like Switchback Elementary, and it is a very unique building. Could Elkhorn High and Switchback Elemenrary be one in the same? Turns out yes, this was and is a practice commonly done when school districts are faced with consolidation, schools are often re purposed for other uses within the district. This just added fuel to my fire. His pictures were amazing and the story he shared about the school really had me amped up to know more.
That following summer I made a special side trip while on a trip to Philadelphia for the sole purpose of trying to get inside the old school at Switchback and it was a success.
the school was still largely intact and still in fairly sound shape.
The detached gymnasium was another story. The roof had fallen in by that point in time
Flashforward to October of 2015 and McDowell County has a new initiative to clear the land of abandoned and blighted structures. The old school at Switchback definitely fits that bill and I am about 90% sure the school’s days are numbered. The schools at War have already fallen to the wrecking ball. I just had to see the building one more time.
Before I go any further I guess its best for me to share the history of this building as it is listed on the alumni association website.
n 1922, local citizens passed a bond issue for the construction of a separate Elkhorn District High School at Switchback. Although the building program was launched in early spring, the school was not finished in time for the opening of school September 18, 1922. Students met in crowded quarters at Elkhorn Grade School. After the Christmas Holidays, January 8, 1923,
168 students enrolled in the new Elkhorn District High School (EDHS).
At its opening, EDHS was well equipped in all departments including the library, music and home economics departments, manual training, chemistry and in sports, baseball and football.
The following year, the campus was landscaped by Elkhorn students from funds donated by James Elwood Jones.
Under the direction of Principal L. B Graybeal, the first EHS commencement was held Friday, June 8, 1923. Seven students were graduated, five girls and two boys.
In 1924, EDHS saw the construction of its gymnasium, tennis courts and indoor swimming pool. A teachers club and boarding house were also on the grounds. It is believed that Elkhorn had the first and maybe only such board-club house for their teachers.
Although Elkhorn High School was a small school, its students won many honors in competitions, often winning first place.
At the end of the 1953 school year, Elkhorn High School was closed and was co-joined with Northfork High School, again becoming Northfork-Elkhorn High School.
The building would continue serving the students of Eastern McDowell County as an Elementary School for the next 50 plus years, until the end of the 2003-04 school year.
Today the Switchback Elementary sign still hangs on the side of the building, but the letters are faded and the paint is peeling.
The windows and doors are broken out and the building is left unsecured.
….and weeds and shrubs have taken over a great part of the massive three story structure.