Coalwood Portraits, 2021

In 2021, I lived a couple of hours from Coalwood in Fayetteville, West Virginia. I was there to work on a photo project that after several months was slow to take shape. So, one evening, after hearing so much about McDowell County, I decided to drive down to the coalfields, which is an area of WV packed with underground coal deposits and coal camps. Upon entering the town, the Welcome sign proudly reads “Home of the Rocket Boys.” I didn’t know much about the four boys who built rockets, and by doing so, defied mining culture by not following in their fathers’ footsteps. Eventually, I sat down and watched the biopic, “October Skies,” and found out that Homer Hickam and some of the other rocket boys went on to get prestigious jobs at NASA, and of course, leave the town. While many remember this inspiring story, most of the world has forgotten about the town itself.

 

On that first evening when I began to explore Coalwood, I came upon a general store, The Country Corner. I quickly learned that The Country Corner, while definitely a place of business, is more than that. It’s a community center for the town. In essence, it represents the area’s heart and soul. I spent countless hours at the small store meeting the people of Coalwood and learning about its storied past and precarious present.

 

When speaking with, getting to know, and photographing the people of Coalwood, one theme kept coming up over and over again: escapism. It made me wonder about the future of a town like this. Many of the older folks I talked with told me about the town’s heyday. There was pride in the town’s productive history, and sadness about its current condition. The younger folks talked a lot about leaving the town, but over time I also started to notice that not everyone dreamed of leaving. Young and old alike have pride in where they live, and they also have conflicting thoughts about wanting to rebuild industry in the area. I came to understand that no one wants Coalwood to become an abandoned ghost town. They’d much rather see it revived.