Appalachia, West Virginia

Difficult Terrain: The History of West Virginia’s Infrastructure

Caroline Filice Smith

Infrastructure

Through a series of writings and mappings, Caroline Filice Smith explores the history of infrastructural investment in West Virginia communities marked by decades of precarity and neglect. West Virginia’s infrastructure has long been defined by the rapid success and subsequent decline of the coal industry. What happens to planning and design when the promise of progress has faded? What infrastructure is needed and who steps in? She posits that reframing the landscape as necessary foundational infrastructure is needed for the state’s future success. – Nina Chase, Appalachia Rising report editor

In 1975, a rickety suspension footbridge connecting Vulcan, West Virginia, to Kentucky collapsed. Built by coal companies decades prior, the bridge—not wide enough for a car—had been in a state of disrepair for some time, though residents still regularly used it to travel to and from their hamlet. In fact, this bridge was then Vulcun’s only access to the outside world. The only other way out of town, a gravel access road that paralleled the rail tracks, was owned by N&W Railroad, who locked its entrances and policed, prosecuted, and fined anyone caught using it.1Huey Perry and Jeff Biggers, They’ll Cut Off Your Project: A Mingo County Chronicle, (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2011) Though maps of the area showed a public state road in Vulcan, the government had never actually gotten around to building it.2Huey Perry and Jeff Biggers, They’ll Cut Off Your Project: A Mingo County Chronicle, (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2011), 25 Stuck between the base of a strip-mined mountain and the steep banks of the Tug Fork River, Vulcan’s residents were essentially trapped.

To frame this report, West Virginians were invited to shape alternative narratives for the state by writing letters to future family members.

“Dear Alexander . . . they say salamanders are one of those beings that can’t survive what we’ve done to our places, a sensitive species, a coal mine canary . . . That’s why I think of you, a hundred years from now, playing in your own West Virginia creek. Alexander. Salamander . . . after 2020, the whole country upended. You’ll learn that history soon, if you don’t know it yet. By the time Jack’s son, your grandfather, finished school in 2050, West Virginia was a better place to make a life than California was. You see, what happened here first eventually happened everywhere else. And because we had so much practice with things falling apart, West Virginians, through it all, held onto their best qualities: decency, integrity, kindness, generosity.”


—Ann Pancake, Morgantown, WV

Though it is difficult to imagine the degree of neglect and lack of planning that would lead to this dire situation, Vulcan’s circumstances were not unusual. Like many small towns in the region, this remote spot in the folds of West Virginia’s mountainous terrain had been urbanized in the early twentieth century solely due to the discovery of coal in the region. As coal increasingly drove global industrialization, private corporations, most of which were headquartered out of state and often out of the country, became increasingly invested in infrastructural development across West Virginia’s isolated “hollers” (the regional equivalent of “hollows”, or remote valleys and ravines). With a rise in the commodity price of coal, industrialists could suddenly access the financing necessary to fund risky infrastructural development across difficult terrain.

The coal boom subjected West Virginia to a wave of urbanization that resulted in a constellation of small company-built towns popping up across the state. This rapid development could not accommodate a comprehensively planned or integrated network of water, power, and transport infrastructures; instead, it took shape as a smattering of trunk and fork rail lines, ad-hoc bridges, and temporary roads. Towns often had rail access to large, distant trading hubs or other company towns, but little or no access to communities just around the bend. Companies essentially built only the infrastructure necessary to get in and out of their own holdings. By 1925, 83 percent of towns in the state were “company towns,” meaning a coal company owned and managed their entire infrastructure, from land and housing to roads, rail, power, water, schools, hospitals, and the infamous company store.3Ronald Eller, Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers: Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880–1930 (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1982)

 

Credit: Caroline Filice Smith and Merritt Chase

Then, in the early 1950s, the wartime coal boom finally bust. Taking advantage of oil and natural gas infrastructures (pipelines and refineries) built as part of the government war effort, industrialists moved away from coal. Many mines were abandoned, while others shifted to forms of extraction that drastically reduced the number of workers required. As the industry shifted, so too did the towns it had forged. With no need for a large population of miners and their families, companies liquidated their assets. Roads, bridges, schools, clinics, and homes were sold to residents or left to the state, which took on the financial burden of maintaining the tenuous infrastructure that connected scattered settlements to the outside world. These geographically isolated towns were left stranded with the Sisyphean responsibility of maintaining infrastructures never intended to last beyond the abandoned mines for which they were built.4Ronald Eller, Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers: Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880–1930 (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1982)

The conditions of post-coal Vulcan illustrate a perfect example of this neglect. All three local infrastructures—rail, road, and bridge—had been built by and for the coal industry and its associated rail companies and maintained only to the extent that continued investment in their upkeep was justifiable. By the mid-1970s, N&W Railroad had ceased passenger service through town and closed the gravel access road; the bridge was offloaded by the coal company into the hands of a community with no financial resources for the repair required to maintain it.5Caity Coyne, “Plight of Nolan residents stirs memories of ‘bridge the Russians almost built’,” Charleston Gazette-Mail, March 3, 2018

When the bridge finally collapsed into the Tug River in 1975, Vulcan’s residents were left to fend for themselves. In order to access Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) funding, which allocated about $240 million for road and highway infrastructure improvements, Vulcan was required to participate in the Office for Economic Opportunity’s (OEO) self-help community development programs. Created as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, these programs were intended to help the poor help themselves, which implied that infrastructural decay—particularly in a place like Vulcan—was less the result of corporate and government neglect than the consequence of a supposed “culture of poverty” passed down through generations.

After several failed attempts to solicit support from state and national government officials, as well as the remaining corporate entities,6Huey Perry and Jeff Biggers, They’ll Cut Off Your Project: A Mingo County Chronicle, (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2011) Vulcan’s self-appointed mayor John Robinette wrote a letter to Leonid I. Brezhnev, then de facto leader of the Soviet Union.7Gregory Jaynes, “Stranded Mining Town Awaits Bridge,” The New York Times, December 16, 1978 Given that this was the height of the Cold War and programs such as the ARC and OEO were envisioned as part of the fight against communism,8Daniel Immerwahr, Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015) Robinette’s letter was an extreme tactic to get the attention of United States officials. While no Soviet officials responded, Moscow-based journalist Iona Adronov visited Vulcan in December 1977 and promised that Russia was ready and willing to construct a new bridge should American officials fail to do so.9Gregory Jaynes, “Stranded Mining Town Awaits Bridge,” The New York Times, December 16, 1978; Caity Coyne, “Plight of Nolan residents stirs memories of ‘bridge the Russians almost built’,” Charleston Gazette-Mail, March 3, 2018 Within hours of Andronov’s departure, word came down from the governor’s office that West Virginia and Kentucky would jointly fund a new bridge. Two years later, on Independence Day 1980, the new bridge opened.10Caity Coyne, “Plight of Nolan residents stirs memories of ‘bridge the Russians almost built’,” Charleston Gazette-Mail, March 3, 2018

While it’s tempting to see this as little more than a humorous anecdote, the story of decrepit infrastructure, neglect, and statewide financial incapacity is neither exceptional nor a story of the past. The nearby town of Nolan similarly relies on a bridge across the Tug River into Kentucky as its primary access point out of town. As was the case in Vulcan, Nolan’s bridge was eventually sold to residents after the coal operator packed up shop. As the decades progressed, however, the resident holding company dissolved.11Caity Coyne, “Plight of Nolan residents stirs memories of ‘bridge the Russians almost built’,” Charleston Gazette-Mail, March 3, 2018 When the bridge was deemed unsafe in 2012, it was unclear who was responsible for fixing it.12Caity Coyne, “Plight of Nolan residents stirs memories of ‘bridge the Russians almost built’,” Charleston Gazette-Mail, March 3, 2018 Both the town and bridge had been built by an industry that maintained only those assets it immediately needed, offloading accountability, liability, and responsibility for a spatially dispersed and fragmented collection of infrastructure to the state government.

The negative effects of boom-and-bust speculation and disinvestment have proliferated across West Virginia. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Infrastructure Report Card, close to 20 percent of the bridges in the state are structurally deficient, 75 percent of dams are considered high hazard potential, and 31 percent of public roads are in poor condition.13Emily Allen and Brittany Patterson, “Study Finds West Virginia Counties Among ‘Worst in Nation’ for Drinking Water Violations,” West Virginia Public Broadcasting, September 24, 2019

Both the town and bridge had been built by an industry that maintained only those assets it immediately needed, offloading accountability, liability, and responsibility for a spatially dispersed and fragmented collection of infrastructure to the state government.

Additional studies show that 54 percent of structures in the state lack connection to central sewage systems, often leading to polluted drinking water supplies.14Caity Coyne, “Southern WV residents wary of water’s health effects,” Charleston Gazette-Mail, December 6, 2018 Between 2016 and 2019, over 900,000 people in West Virginia relied on water systems that were out of compliance with federal standards at least once, with 36 of the state’s 55 counties appearing on lists of the worst in the nation for drinking water quality.15Emily Allen and Brittany Patterson, “Study Finds West Virginia Counties Among ‘Worst in Nation’ for Drinking Water Violations,” West Virginia Public Broadcasting, September 24, 2019

The story of Vulcan makes clear that current budgetary shortfalls and the dire conditions of West Virginia’s infrastructure—the foundation of life across the state—are far from new. The sources of today’s infrastructural issues are rooted in a history that has left communities and their support systems fragmented across a difficult terrain.

Central to this history is the land. It was the coal beneath the hills that drew industrialists into small hollers, and it is these same geographic features, and the towns that the coal industry built up around them, that make infrastructural redevelopment economically difficult in the region.

Credit: Caroline Filice Smith and Merritt Chase

Rather than continuing to view the land as a resource to be preserved or mined, perhaps we should reconceptualize land as itself an infrastructure. What happens if we reimagine the land as part of our sociotechnical systems—an agent in its own right—that might direct us towards alternative modes of infrastructural development, investment, and repair—as many of the projects highlighted in this report do? Perhaps if we return to the “foundation” from which and upon which our “tracks” are to be laid—the original meaning of the word infrastructure16Ashley Carse, “Keyword: infrastructure: How a humble French engineering term shaped the modern world,” in Infrastructures and Social Complexity, ed. Penelope Harvey, Casper Bruun Jensen, and Atsuro Morita (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2016)—we might discover a new perspective in which the landscape is no longer a problem to be solved or a barrier to progress, but rather a hint towards an alternative future. This is a vision that much of America desperately needs, and one that West Virginia, considering its exceptional past and present, is well positioned to provide.

 

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.

 

Biographies

Caroline Filice Smith

is a researcher at Harvard University, where she is pursuing a PhD in Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Urban Planning. Her research is centered on debt, risk, and uncertainty in central Appalachia, with a focus on histories of infrastructural development and the ways class and racism intersect in the production of America’s rural and urban built environments. Her family hails from Eastern Kentucky.