Betty Howard Coal Miner’s Memorial Theater –Harlan County, Kentucky

The Betty Howard Coal Miner’s Memorial Theater is located in the town of Benham, Kentucky in northern Harlan County.  Benham is a former company town built by Wisconsin Steel subsidiary International Harvester in the 1910s and 1920s.
Betty Howard Theater -- Benham, Kentucky//
The theater was built by the coal company in 1921. Over the years as with many coal company towns, the theater and other buildings fell into disrepair. Benham, however is a great success story of preservation and rejuvenation. On July 21, 1983 the theater along with most of the other buildings surviving in Benham were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Betty Howard Theater -- Benham, Kentucky//
That includes the theater. The town sought for private funding to restore the theater. In December of 2006 the theater was re-dedicated.

Wheelright High School Gymnasium — Floyd County, Kentucky

Wheelright High School was located in southern Floyd County near the junction of state route 122 and 306.
Wheelright Gym  -- Wheelright, KY The high school building no longer exists as it was demolished sometime in the mid to late 90s. Wheelright high school was very similar in construction to the high school at Wayland that I covered in this blog in a previous entry. A picture of the Wheelright High School building can be found by clicking  HERE.  All that remains standing is this beautiful art deco inspired gymnasium. Wheelright Gym  -- Wheelright, KY
Wheelright High School’s mascot was the Trojans and the school colors were maroon and white.
Wheelright Gym  -- Wheelright, KY The high school was closed at the end of the 1993 school year when South Floyd High School at neighboring Hi-Hat opened its doors to students that following fall. Wheelright Gym  -- Wheelright, KY

Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church — Gary, West Virginia


As you turn the curve and enter the town of Gary West Virginia from State Route 103 you will notice that the great majority of the “town” that remains is across a bridge on the other side of the Tug Fork River opposite of the main highway.  The most prominent and arguably the most beautiful of these buildings is the Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church building which sits proudly on a hill in a mostly residential neighborhood.

What is interesting to me and will probably be interesting to many people from my immediate area is that Gary was a sister city to Lynch Kentucky in the fact that it was a company town, a very large company town built by US Steel.  Many say that Lynch was the largest coal town in the world at one time.  That point is often argued that Gary had it beat.

Due to the fact that many immigrants and migrants came to the area to work for US Steel in the coal mines there and eventually settled there is a diverse population.  I read that in the 1915 there were an equal number of white and blacks living in the city of Gary.  Where else in central appalachia could you find that?  Naturally this diverse population lead to a diverse offering of churches.  At one time Gary was home to more than 20 churches, 10 company stores, independent retailers, restaurants, tennis courts and even a bowling alley.

Slowly over time US Steel sold off the town and in 1971 US Steel oversaw Gary being incorporated into a town.     In 1982 after US Steel completely pulled out of the town of Gary and shuttered their operations the unemployment rate in the town of Gary rose to 90%.

As of the 2010 census Gary has a population of 983 and the population is still quite diverse for the area with 70% white and 27% black.  The schools here have closed as have most businesses including many churches.  But Our lady of Victory is still going strong…..107 years later.

Peerless Coal & Coke Company — Vivian, West Virginia

When you are driving through McDowell County on US 52 you travel through many small communities.  Some so small, that if you blink you just might miss them completely.  That is the case with Vivan, West Virginia.    Just as you pass out of the town of Kimball, home of the World War Memorial you come into a sharp curve.  Just as you drive out of that sharp curve a road drops off the side of the hill off to the bottom land below.  Below you will see part of what was once a vibrant coal company town.


Above is a shot of the Peerless Coal Company store as I found it on an April morning while randomly driving through McDowell County for the first time in 2008.    This building was built in 1921 and in 1991 was added to the National Register of Historic Places.



Below is an excerpt from the original application material submitted to the United States Department of Interior in their bid to be  listed on the Register.

The Peerless Coal and Coke Company store sits in Vivian, a community built on a level area off highway 52. The building was designed in 1921 by A.B. Mahood, a Bluefield architect who was responsible for many of southern West Virginia’s most notable buildings. The store’s distinctive characteristics are its size, modern design, irregular plan, stone foundation, and simple decoration. Although the building has been vacant for several years except for storage, it has deteriorated little and it retains the characteristics that clearly define its role as a coal company store and office bcilding. The store’s plan is basically rectangular, but with a mysterious wing on the west side that may possibly be an addition. The wing is one and two stories and is located toward the building’s rear. The brick work and the stone foundation are the same as the main part of the building suggesting that it was either an after-thought that the architect incorporated into the original design or it is an early addition. – The main block of the brick store building is two-stories with one-story flanking wings. Mahood reserved nearly all of the decoration for the two-story facade. A concrete parapet defines the facade’s roofline on both the two and one-story sections. At the two-story roofline, a narrow concrete fret extends across the facade just below the parapet. The company’s name and date are inscribed boldly in concrete. This panel sits between a group of three multipaned windows on the second floor and the main entrance below. Small concrete brackets join the edges of the two-story section to the one-story wings in a manner reminiscent of some monumental buildings of the Italian Renaissance. Enclosed window and door spaces have slightly altered the building’s original appearance. The lower story window on the east wing’s facade has been partially filled with brick. Originally, the space probably held a group of three sash windows similar to the windows on the other wing. Most of the entry space has also been covered. Its likely 1921 — -. appearance would have-been a typical facade configuration with a center door, flanking display windows, and a wide transom over all. The facade’s west wing includes four bays. Triple windows sit nearest the two-story section. In the next bay stands an arched opening that allowed passage into a short corridor with single door openings on either side. The other two bays contain single sash windows although one has been boarded. The store’s west facade is the irregular section discussed before. The windows in this end are either sash or multipaned.  industrial windows and some have been covered. The stone work on this side is exposed more clearly than on the rest of the building. The perfectly constructed foundation was clearly built by a skilled mason. The store’s east side is the most utilitarian with its service entrance and two secondary doorways. Railroad tracks ran in front of the building instead of the side or rear which was the usual orientation. Goods had to be hauled from the train to the one-story east wing. An overhang and a concrete platform extend in front of the east side’s doors. A projection on the outside of the building between two of the doors may be an elevator shaft. The store is located on a flat area that was easilv accessible from the mine and residential area. Other community buildings, such as the large school building and the clubhouse were located nearby – making – this central part of Vivian a true hub of activity. The Peerless Coal and Coke Company store and office building has been altered little since it was built in 1921. It is in good condition remains an outstanding example of coal company construction.

The Peerless Coal and Coke Company in Vivian is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places under criterion A for its association with southern West Virginia’s coal mining industry and under criterion C for its architectural significance. The building was designed by the well-known Bluefield architect, A.B. Mahood, and it played an important role as a commercial and social center in the mining community (for detailed historical information about the Pocahontas Coalfield and the significance of company stores, see sections E and F in “Coal Company Stores in McDowell County”, multiple property listing). It illustrates the typical characteristics of company store construction with its size, large porch, location, and simple decoration. The building stands as an impressive and representative example of a coal company store and the necessity of its presence in the industrial community. Before the coal industry boomed in southern West Virginia at the end of the nineteenth century, the area consisted of scattered, self-sufficient farms and communities. Because of the absence of railroads and good roads, the southern counties had little interaction with the rest of the – nation. After the Civil War, however, the nation’s industrial market expanded and outsiders began to turn their attention to West Virginia’s vast coal reserve to meet growing demands. The major railroads extended their lines into southern West Virginia allowing the area to be developed. Without a sufficient labor force, however, coal mining could not be productive. Companies recruited thousands of workers first from the older coalfields in Pennsylvania, and then from Eastern Europe and the American South. To accommodate these new arrivals, coal companies built self-sufficient communities to house and provide for their workers. The construction of company towns was absolutely necessary in southern West Virginia. Unlike the northern coalfields of Pennsylvania, where mining operations began in regions that were already settled, southern mines opened in sparsely settled areas with few organized communities. The company town was the most logical solution because it provided efficient and inexpensive housing for a large labor force. – – -. . – – – -. – -. Central to each of these communities was the company store. The store was usually the town’s most prominent building and was typically placed in an easily accessible location. The building often housed not only a store but also the company’s business office, a post office, and sometimes, a doctor’s office. Because of its location and multiple functions, the store provided each community with a center for social gathering.

The store and office building served as the most important building in Vivian, a community built by the innovative Peerless Coal and Coke Company. Northern businessmen established the company in 1892 on land leased from the Crozer Coal Land Association. It would have immediately constructed houses for miners and probably a simple wooden company store. The company mined in the Pocahontas #3 seam that produced some of the world’s highest quality coal. The operation soon proved successful and wealthy enough to construct its permanent buildings. Once the company established itself as a leading coal producer, it hired A. B. Mahood to design its important community buildings. Mahood (1888-1970), a native of Bluefield, West Virginia, studied architecture in the United States and then at the famed Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France. When he returned home, Mahood was quick to seize upon the opportunity to design buildings in the wealthy coalfields. Although Mahood is best known for his magnificent classical revival houses and commercial buildings, he proved adept in a variety of styles including Moderne and Art Deco. Mahood was already well-known in the area because – of his work in Bluefield, Welch, and the coal communities in McDowell and Mercer counties. In Vivian, he had designed the clubhouse prior to designing the store and office building. Mahood can probably be credited for the two-story brick school building also. With the Peerless Coal and Coke Company store, Mahood departed significantly from his standard two-story, box planned stores designed several years earlier in Pageton, Switchback, and Jenkinjones. Mahood proved again that he could be flexible and design whatever arrangement a company wanted. The Peerless Coal and Coke Company needed a large building to serve its purposes but it seemed less interested in a perfect monumental box in favor of a solely functional plan. All of Mahood’s other buildings were functional too and he proved clever enough to pack all functions neatly into a box. The Peerless company may have specified a different kind of arrangement that permitted an irregular plan. The end product was a monumental, efficient design with just enough decoration to indicate its importance to the community. The asymmetrical facade is unlike Mahood’s other coal company buildings but its difference makes it quite distinguished and shows the architect’s skill in varying the designs for buildings of the same property type. Company stores were typically the center of commercial and social activity in the busy mining community and the Vivian store was no exception. Miners and their families typically visited the store daily.

to shop and to handle business matters. Because of its various functions and its location near the mine and residential areas, the company store was the center of commercial, business, and social activity in the industrial community. The store’s importance in the community decreased as automobiles and good roads allowed miners access to other commercial centers. The store and office closed after mining ceased at Vivian leaving the building vacant. Unlike so many stores that were simply abandoned, the Peerless Coal and Coke Company store has been maintained, retains its original fabric and is structurally sound. Although this store is less ornate and more functional looking than some of the county’s other stores, it reflects yet another coal company’s image and another coal operator’s individual taste. It stands as an impressive and representative example of a coal company store and its significance in the industrial community.

Today the building has been damaged by fire and vandalized almost beyond repair.




The basic outside walls and shape of the building remains in tact but the windows are busted out, the doors are knocked down and the walls are in decay.



And as you can tell from the photos posted from 2008, the last 5 years have been especially rough on the historic building.


The roof is beginning to give and cave in in many areas.


And already has in several areas.


Apparently this building has hosted a few parties recently.


Too bad people have took it upon themselves to decorate this beautiful building with graffiti.


in 2021 the Company Store at Vivian will celebrate its 100th year standing….. I hope its still standing so I can return and document that occasion.


The other significant building still standing in the remains of Vivian, West Virginia is the old Vivian Grade School.  Just like so many other abandoned schools in McDowell County, this building has fallen to the state of being a danger to the community.    Peerlessschool

And just like the other schools in McDowell County from this era at Jolo, Gary and Northfork, the school building has the name of the school etched in concrete in this almost art deco like font.


Of interesting note on this specific exploration is the fact that this day was the first time my friend Donny had been exploring abandoned buildings.  As we were inside the old Company Store we hear a truck pull up.  As we are leaving a guy from Appalachian Power is inspecting a downed power line nearby.

Caretta, West Virginia


Continuing with my focus on McDowell County In this entry I will cover the community of Caretta.  In the film “October Sky”  Caretta is frequently mentioned as it is the main community between Coalwood and War on state route 16.  In its time Caretta was a major coal camp in McDowell County.  The Post Office opened in 1905, followed by a school in 1907.  In 1922 the operations at Caretta were sold to Consolidated Coal Company and the first mine shaft was constructed in 1924.  At least 200 houses were constructed at Caretta along with a 22 room boarding house.  The Caretta school seen in pictures below was constructed in 1925, at the time it was only for white children.   In 1947 the company and town was sold to a group of industrialists from Youngstown, Ohio that would become the Olga Coal Company.


Pictured above is the Carter Coal Company Store, also known as Consolidation Coal Company Store. It was built about 1912, and is a one-story brick commercial building on a stone foundation. It has a gable roof. The building was originally “T”-shaped, but wood frame additions built in 1922, spread the plan to an “L.” . It ceased operating as a post office in August 2005.  Caretta’s zip code was 24982.



Next door to the Company Store is the Caretta United Methodist Church.


and across the street is the old Caretta school. Caretta Elementary closed in 1985.  Students were sent to Coalwood, only to have Coalwood close in 1986.  The school is now home to a local community group known as Big Creek People in Action.


Gary District High School — Gary, West Virginia


Sherman Cahal, the guy who runs has really been a huge inspiration to me in my exploration and honestly I have spent hours upon hours studying his work and his explorations.  The man truly has opened me up to a whole new side of who I am and helped me discovered a  big passion I never even knew i had.


His entry from 2013 covering the remains of Gary District High School in McDowell, West Virginia is one such piece that inspired me.  Not just the photographs, but the story.  The building and entire community is really such an icon of the history and way of life in central Appalachia.


As you drive up to Gary District Grade and High School you notice the attention to detail the original architects paid to this building and it’s design.


Located on what I would call a back street in what is now a back neighborhood, the only close neighbor is a church next door leaving the building vulnerable to vandals.


Much of the history of Gary District Grade and High School is what I learned from Sherman’s blog so I must give credit where credit is due, so much of what you read in the coming paragraphs is information I learned from him and I am simply passing on.

The first Gary District High School, which was the high school for black children was constructed in 1913 ina  wooden framed building.  In 1925 that building burned and this new brick building was constructed at a cost of $36,000.  The new 2 story brick building had 10 classrooms a gymnasium and a Library.   At the time there were 437 black children enrolled at the school and that population was climbing rapidly.  In 1927/28 a new elementary / grade school was constructed adjacent to the high school as seen in the photo below.


By September 1938 enrollment had increased to 650 students.



In 1954 Gary District Schools had an enrollment of 716.


In the fall of 1954 the waves of de-segregation began to make their way to the hills of McDowell County and southern West Virginia.  At the beginning of the school year Gary District students were given the option to remain at Gary District or transfer to a neighboring school such as Gary High School.  Most students remained at Gary District Graded and High School.   Gary7 In September of 1965 due to falling enrollment all of the high school students at Gary District High was transferred to Gary High School and Gary District High ceased to exist.




The High School was then converted into an elementary school which would remain in operation until 1981 when the entire complex was closed.



And although I cant find factual data or a reference to it being used after the early 1980s I do have proof that there were computers in the building after 1991 because there are several ,monitors manufactured in 1991 in one of the classrooms.

Gary22 Gary17





At one time in history Gary, West Virginia was the largest coal camp in the world according to some (Others would argue that Lynch, Kentucky was the largest)   Both of which were owned by US Steel.  At its peak Gary was home to nearly 15,000 residents.


Today Gary is home to around 900 residents.

Lynch, Kentucky [Part I: The old Elementary School]

For the past 5 or 6 years I have wanted to get in this building so bad I couldnt stand it.  The situation never presented itself to me where I thought I could safely and quickly without notice get in, get out and get some quality shots.   That is until today.   This morning I was out driving around,  just wanting to enjoy the blue skies and semi-warm-ish weather.  Some how I ended up in Lynch and in the old Elementary School.  I hope you enjoy these photos and I hope my facts are correct that I present with them.

This photo is quite common on the internet, the research I found states that the photo was taken in the 1940s
This photo is quite common on the internet, the research I found states that the photo was taken in the 1940s

   First, let me give you a bit of background information on Lynch, Kentucky.    In 1917 the U.S. Coal & Coke Company, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, built the community of Lynch, Kentucky, then the world’s largest coal camp.  The coal camp was built on part of the 19,000 acres the company had purchased in the southeastern tip of Harlan County, near the Virginia border.  The camp’s population peaked at over 10,000 people.  One thousand company owned structures provided housing for people of 38 nationalities, the most prominent of which were Italian, Spanish, Czech, Polish, English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish. By the 1940s this mining complex employed more than 4000 persons above and below ground.

     The public buildings were constructed of cut sandstone, and included a  company store, theaters, churches, a hospital and schools.  Many company buildings were built of stone as well, such as the offices, bath house, power plant and lamphouse.  In the 1920s U.S. Coal & Coke owned the world’s largest coal tipple with a capacity of 15,000 tons.  On February 12, 1923 the world’s record for coal production in a single 9 hour shift was achieved when miners operating 40 shortwall cutting machines produced 12,820 tons of coal, filling 256 railcars.

The public schools pictured in these photos were  first part of the  The Lynch Mines School System.  Apparently, since the company owned the town, the company also ran the schools at this time.  This was disolved sometime around the 1960s and schools were integrated into the Harlan County Schools.   At this time in history, schools were segregated.   Another school located on the west end of town still stands as well, and right on the building it says “Lynch Colored Public School”  When the schools were integrated in the 1960s the school was renamed Lynch West Main High School.  I will have more on the high schools in  a later post, back to the Elementary School, and on to the real good stuff.  The pictures!