Ever since the movie came out way back in 1999 I have had a slight obsession with the town of Coalwood and a deep admiration for Homer Hickam and the rest of the Rocket Boys. For the longest time, as I went through the haze that was my late teens and early twenties I didnt even realize that Coalwood was a real place and Homer Hickam was a real person.
Finally in 2008 strictly by chance I ended up in McDowell County, where the county welcome sign proudly says “Home of The Rocket Boys” On that trip, which was before GPS and me with no map, I didnt make it to Coalwood or War as I stuck strictly to US 52.
Finally on a trip to McDowell County in 2013 I made it to the infamous Coalwood and the first and most vivid memory of that trip that comes to mind is my shock and awe when I saw the ruins of the Coalwood High School standing on the hill as you enter “town”.
Coalwood High School was built-in the 1920’s and was closed as a high school in the early 1950s and Coalwood Elementary School was moved to this building.
In 1985, Caretta Elementary was merged with Coalwood, only for Coalwood to be closed in 1986. Students were then bussed to War Elementary beginning in 1987.
Both times that I have been to Coalwood, brush and weeds have been over grown at the old high school almost to the point that you cant barely see the building. I would love to go back in early spring or late fall and explore the remains of this building.
As you travel to the heart of Coalwood down Frog Level Road you come to a set of historical information markers. These markers tell the tale of Olga Coal Company and the town of Coalwood.
Coalwood was the proud product of George LaFayette Carter, one of the few natives of Appalachia to strike it rich when industrialization came to the mountains shortly after the Civil War. Carter was born in 1857 in Hillsville, Carroll County, Virginia, the eldest of nine children of a disabled Confederate veteran. Young Carter learned the bookkeepers’ trade. He married well, as they say, wedding his storekeeper boss’ daughter. A shrewd, natural businessman, Carter invested wisely and became a conduit for New York capital eager to develop the booming turn-of-the-century Appalachian industrial economy. Holdings in timber, coal, iron, and railroad stock soon made Carter a key player in the evolving industrial development of the rugged and remote mountains. From his Johnson City, Tennessee, base, the private and unpretentious entrepreneur expanded into Kentucky and southwest Virginia, purchasing banks, newspapers, mills, and factories
On September 20, 1869 a post office was established on the present-day site of Coalwood called Snake Root. In 1902 the community would change its name officially to Coalwood and the post office would follow suit.
In 1905, Carter bought some 20,000 acres in McDowell County’s “smokeless” coalfields, and began constructing an industrial community out of the wilderness. He named it Coalwood. The low-volatile, low-sulphur #4 Pocahontas coal seam there was the world standard for metallurgical and steam fuel. The seam stood some six feet high, but required a heroic, 600-foot deep shaft to reach the heart of the mineable reserves. Carter built a wooden tipple, company houses, offices, and a store to supply the needs of his workers; the nearest community of size was Welch, an arduous and circuitous 10 miles away across several devilish ridges.
The first coal came up the shaft in 1905, and by 1907, Coalwood mined some 200,000 tons annually. By 1915, nearly one million tons ran out along the Norfolk & Western rails each year from Coalwood, through Bluefield, to Lambert’s Point at Norfolk, Virginia. There, the N&W maintained a huge dockside port facility for shipping Coalwood’s product — what the railroad proudly termed “fuel satisfaction” — around the world. The abundant and economical energy from the southern West Virginia coalfields helped transform America from a rural, agricultural country into the urban industrial giant of the 20th century. Carter Coal & Coke Company, as the Coalwood operation was called at the time, trailed only the huge conglomerates of the Pocahontas Fuel Company and United States Coal & Coke in southern West Virginia in terms of productivity and employment. Soon, Carter opened a second operation at Caretta, across the mountain from Coalwood proper.
Today many of the company town buildings are still standing such as the Clubhouse.
and the Apartments
The post office however has been demolished. It was located to the left of the Clubhouse. The Coalwood post office closed sometime in the 1990s. The zipcode for Coalwood was 24284.
The original Coalwood Elementary has since been demolished.
The school sat where the gazebo is in this picture, the sidewalk leading to the school is still there and in use in the Coalwood Community Park.
The Coalwood Community Church is still standing and in operation next door to the clubhouse.
Reverend Richard’s church is also still standing and in use in Coalwood.
As is the Machine Shop….damaged and vandalized as it may be….its still standing.
Right behind the town pool, which has now been drained and fenced off.
And the Olga Coal Mine Office building is still standing. Next door to this building was the big company store…..That building was demolished in 2008.
The clubhouse is boarded up and unused…sadly its deteriorating at a rapid pace.
Many of the company houses are still standing in Coalwood and being used today as residence.
As is Homer Hickam’s childhood home…..albeit the white picket fence has been replaced with chain link fence.
You can also drive down Homer Hickam Lane.