War City Hall — McDowell County, West Virginia

War bills itself as West Virginia’s southern-most city. War is located on state highway 16 about 15 miles south of Welch. War was the home of Big Creek High School, Homer Hickam’s alma mater.
War City Hall, War West Virginia
War was incorporated as a city in 1920. The population of War peaked in 1950 at 3,992. According to the 2014 census estimate the town has a population of 793.
War, West Virginia

War Elementary School — War, West Virginia

Back in 1999 when the US Army Corp of Engineers came into McDowell County and offered assistance to relocate schools out of the flood plain, War Elementary School that was originally opened all the way back in 1922 was one of the schools targeted.  


Ground was broke in December of 2005 on a brand new K-8 facility that would replace War Elementary, War Middle and Berwind Elementary Schools.   The new school would be located directly in front of Homer Hickam’s alma mater, Big Creek High School on the east side of town.  You can find an article heralding the ground breaking of the new school here.  Bluefield Daily Telegraph Article


I only got the chance to visit War Elementary School once back in 2011 a few months before it was demolished.  As you can tell in the picture above, windows had already been removed at that time.


The first picture deplicts the front fo War Elementary, the second picture is the back where students loaded onto school busses.  The brighter red building was at one time War Junior High.  Not really sure if the Junior High moved out of War Elementary to the other school previously covered in this blog or if the school down there was consolidated into this facility.

But at anyrate, at the end of the 2008-09 school year the new Southside K-8 school was completed and this school closed to students.   The school was demolished in 2012 and is now home to a community park.


While researching and digging for information about this school I found several historical photos to share that are in no way my own property, but were way too interesting not to share.


The date on this photo was listed as 1940.



Coalwood, West Virginia 24248


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.

War Junior High School / War High School — War, West Virginia

Before I get started on this blog entry which will cover the old War Junior High School / War High School and its adjacent gymnasium and its ultimate demise I need to explain why this school and building is so important to me.  Back in 2008 when I first stumbled upon McDowell County almost by mistake I was taken aback by the amount of abandoned buildings and the amount of history that was disappearing from the communities in the county.  I didnt visit the city of War until the spring of 2009.  On that visit, I went inside of my first abandoned school as a photographer / photo journalist.   That school is discussed below.  I hope you all enjoy and if anyone is reading this with more information on this building please comment or message me.warmiddle3

During my first trip through McDowell County in the spring of 2008 I got side tracked and didn’t make it to the city of War or Coalwood for that matter.  When I got home I started studying maps and realized I missed a good part of the coal mining history along the State Route 16 corridor including War, Coalwood and Caretta.


I knew I had to go back and that following year I did.  Driving through War I saw many interesting sights.


The old war motel, the old War Jail….and then on the western side of town along the banks of the banks of the tug fork river I noticed a magnificent sprawling abandoned school complex of two buildings.


I later identified that building as War Junior High School.


Up to this point I was very inexperienced in exploring abandoned buildings and still developing my photography skills so these pictures from 2009 aren’t my best.

Im still not entirely sure as to when war Junior High School closed but my instincts tell me probably sometime around 2002-2005…..possibly it was one of the schools damaged beyond repair in the floods that devastated the entire county in 2002.


At the time of this trip I was still coming to grips with the reality that I was an adrenaline junkie and I had a thirst to explore abandoned buildings.  I was still not that adventurous and only made it inside the former gymnasium .


and only snapped one picture at that.

Flash forward to the summer of 2013.  I took an entire day out of my vacation and while on my way to the northeast I side tripped through McDowell County.  My first stop was War Junior High School.


I had become fascinated with this area by then and had developed a knack for doing a little light trespassing and adventure photography.




On this visit, which would be the last time I would see the magnificent buildings standing as they were, I made it inside the main hallway, several classrooms and even upstairs to more classrooms.  I also revisited the gymnasium.




On this trip I was amazed at how much vandalizm and natural aging and deterioration had occurred at both buildings.  The doors were wide open on the main building and the gym and vandals had taken advantage of that set up.






Notice the difference in this picture and the almost same shot that I had taken in 2009.  The building had fallen on hard times and I knew its days were numbered.



Sadly when I was preparing for my excursion to McDowell County earlier this month a friend whom I have made who is a native of War informed me that the school had been demolished and nothing remained of the building.  I still had to see it myself

Sadly, he was correct and I cant help but feel sad when I look at the vacant lot where the three story school and gymnasium once stood so proudly.


Upon returning home and doing a little research to write this article I realized that there is very little in the way of information available about this school or building online.  One interesting fact that I did lear is that this building was not originally a Junior High School


Only a hint of the former school’s foundation remains.

This school was originally opened as War High School in 1923 by the Big Creek District Board of Education.   In the early 1930s the  Big Creek Board of Education noted the need for a consolidated central high school, thus Big Creek High School, from “October Sky” fame was opened in 1932 and War High School became known as War Junior High School

Today the City of War and the surrounding communities are served by a new ultra modern sprawling one story school known as Southside K-8 School.  I know progress is good, and the new school offers a ton of opportunities for students, but I hope at least through my writings and photos something of War Junior High School will be preserved.

Mt Zion United Methodist Church — Coalwood, West Virginia

This weekend while my friend Donny and I were in Coalwood we drove to near where we thought was the end of Coalwood and came across this quaint little church on the hill.  Coalwood1

That night when I got home and was looking through the literally hundreds of pictures I took that day while touring McDowell County this picture kept sticking out in my mind.  I wanted to know more.  What was the story of this church?

According to Homer Hickam’s Memoir  “Rocket Boys” and pictures from http://www.coalwoodwestvirginia.com a website maintained by a former resident of Coalwood I can identify this church as Mudhole Church later called Mt Zion United Methodist Church.  This was Reverend Richard’s church!   Homer spoke of the church and Reverend Richard in his memoir as quoted below:

 At the entrance to Mudhole was a tiny wooden church presided over by the Reverend “Little” Richard. He was dubbed “Little” because of his resemblance to the soul singer. Nobody up Mudhole Hollow subscribed to the paper, but whenever I had an extra one, I always left it at the little church, and over the years, the Reverend Richard and I became friends. I loved it when he had a moment to come out on the church porch and tell me a quick Bible story while I listened, astride my bike, fascinated by his sonorous voice. I especially admired his description of Daniel in the lions’ den. When he acted out with bug-eyed astonishment the moment Daniel’s captors looked down and saw their prisoner lounging around in the pit with his arm around the head of a big lion, I laughed appreciatively. “That Daniel, he knew the Lord,” the Reverend summed up with a chuckle while I continued to giggle, “and it made him brave. How about you, Sonny? Do you know the Lord?”
I had to admit I wasn’t certain about that, but the Reverend said it was all right. “God looks after fools and drunks,” he said with a big grin that showed off his gold front tooth, “and I guess he’ll look after you too, Sonny Hickam.” Many a time in the days to come, when I was in trouble, I would think of Reverend Richard and his belief in God’s sense of humor and His fondness for ne’er-do-wells. It didn’t make me as brave as old Daniel, but it always gave me at least a little hope the Lord would let me scrape by.


It makes my heart happy and a little more content to know that this little church is still standing and still maintained in Coalwood today.