867 stairs down into history
Over Spring Break we took a trip to the Smoky Mountains. In order to break up our 12 hour drive, we stayed a night in Fayetteville West Virginia and spent the next day exploring the area. Fayetteville is a quirky little town that is home to the New River Gorge Bridge which is the longest arch bridge in the US and, at 876 feet above the New River, the 3rd tallest.
Our first stop was, of course, the Visitors Center. There we learned about the history of the area which was, no surprise here, mining. There was also a good display on the building of the bridge. Then we went out and walked down a walkway to an observation area for the obligatory smile-at-the-camera-with-bridge-in-background photo-op. That taken care of, it was time to dig a little deeper into the area. So we decided to do a hike following the rim of the gorge.
The day was beautiful. Sunny with a hint of spring in the air. Coats were quickly shed as we walked a path that followed a rushing creek flanked on either side by Mountain Laurel. Buds were just beginning to emerge on the trees which gave us hope that, even though there were still a few patches of snow on the ground, spring was coming.
The hike took us to a number of rock ledges which overlooked the river hundreds of feet below us. We heard voices and, carefully glancing over the edge, we saw climbers slowly making their way up the rock faces. I guess this is also a popular climbing location. It looked like so much fun!
The trail ended at another overlook at a bend in the river. It was a beautiful spot. We sat and had a snack while we watched the river flowing far below us. On either side of the river were train tracks. We must have counted at least ten trains that day using those tracks. It’s still a very busy area. As we sat looking out over the river we noticed the remains of a mine on the other side of the gorge. It ran the entire length of the hill, clinging to its steep side. Our friend Rob said, “there’s where we’re heading next, we’ve got to find that mine!”
So, we loaded back in our cars, drove across the bridge, turned onto a dirt road, and headed off to find the mine. We soon reached a small parking area at the trailhead to the mine. The trail disappeared over the edge of the steep side and a sign there warned us that there was a set of 867 stairs to reach the bottom of the Kaymoor Coal Mine!
Going down was fine. The trail switch backed down the mountain, passing several small waterfalls until it reached the top of the long abandoned mine. There a sign still remained that warned workers to be careful because their families needed them. There were also a few buildings and the blocked off entrance to the mine. A sign stated that the average height inside was 3 feet! It’s so hard to imagine those working conditions!
We looked around some and then came to the dreaded stairs. All 800+ of them heading straight down as far as we could see. We all took a deep breath and started down. We knew that each step we took down was one that we would have to climb back up, but down we went. The stairs were on top of what was once an incline railroad which was how the miners traveled to the job site every day. It was steep (30 degree incline) and scary and dangerous. We noted the remains of the track as we went down. Down…down…down…
At the bottom were the remains of the coke ovens and the mining town. Buildings were now huge heaps of twisted metal leaning in precarious angles. Railroad tracks could be seen through the overgrown vegetation. The area was so isolated with the steep mountain on one side and the river on the other. Life must have been very busy when the mine was working, but now the rusted machines, leaning buildings, and massive piles of debris just made the area seem lonely. Lonely except for the rushing river keeping us company.
Always the river.
Soon it was time to face the stairs. Up…up…up. Someone had written the stair number on every 100 or so stairs. Our progress was actually faster than I thought it would be and soon we made it back to the top of the mine. After resting we continued on the trail back up the mountain and collapsed onto a sun-soaked boulder at the trail head. We laid there enjoying the late afternoon sun and discussed what life must have been like back then; such hard and dangerous work. The hike was definitely one of the highlights of our trip!