The West Virginia Town That Applied For Soviet Foreign Aid

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Wedged between a towering horseshoe-shaped mountain to its north, east and south, the tiny community of Vulcan, West Virginia’s western edge is flanked by the murky waters of the Tug River — one of America’s most storied waterways. The hamlet’s geography, decided eons ago, leaves it entirely ostracized from its neighbors and were it not for the discovery of coal in the general vicinity of the land, a great case could be made that the area would never have been inhabited.

However, coal was discovered in the region in the opening days of the Twentieth Century and soon, a mining camp grew up in what would become a map dot known as Vulcan, West Virginia.

The coal camp eventually grew into a thriving community and the area became home to a countess number of individuals who found steady work and acceptable wages in nearby coal mines.

Unfortunately, by the early 1960s the mines, which served as the small town’s lifeblood, dried up – causing all operations to cease.

Soon, what was once a flourishing hamlet had been reduced to little more than twenty families; all of which were remaining holdouts who refused to leave the place they now knew as home.

Describing Vulcan, West Virginia, in his 1972 book, They’ll Cut Off Your Project, Huey Perry wrote, “Their biggest problem was that the state had forgotten to build a road into the community. Although state maps showed a road into Vulcan, it was nowhere to be found. The only way people could get in and out was to drive up the Kentucky side and walk across a swinging bridge, which was too narrow for a vehicle. The bridge had been built by the coal company years before and was on the verge of collapse; although there were boards missing, the children had to walk across it to catch the school bus on the Kentucky side…”

The grievances held by local residents was not limited to state and county officials. According to Perry, the children of Vulcan, at times, were forced to crawl under parked railroad coal cars on their way to school. The track, which ran parallel with the river, blocked access to the swinging bridge – the town’s only legal egress – leaving school children with no other choice but to crawl under the parked train cars.

One of the former school children who grew up in Vulcan, Troy Blankenship, even lost part of his left leg when he was eleven, crawling under a coal car that was parked.

Further angering the townspeople was an N & W Railroad side road that ran adjacent to the main line of the tracks, which passed through Vulcan. The road ran to the nearby community of Delmore, approximately five miles to the north of Vulcan; however, the company locked the entrances to the road on both ends, hanging a “No Trespassing” sign. Those caught trespassing by using the road were prosecuted and fined.

The railroad company defended their actions by saying that the road was too dangerous for civilian vehicles, arguing that opening up the road to residents would “jeopardize the railroad, and the railroad would be responsible if an accident occurred.”

Norfolk and Western maintained that the problem was a local problem and that they were not responsible for providing transportation in and out of the impoverished community.

Despite repeated attempts to convince government leaders to repair their bridge, no action was ever taken and over the next decade, conditions deteriorated significantly. According to reports, the failing bridge eventually collapsed in 1975, leaving the residents of Vulcan hemmed between the Tug Fork to their west and impassable mountains to their east.

Residents then began illegally using the railroad owned gravel road, which, at times, proved to be hazardous.

Still, West Virginia officials were reluctant to rebuild the collapsed bridge, citing a lack of traffic and cost, as opposed to other needs of the state.

The election of Governor Jay Rockefeller wrought little change for the economies of southern West Virginia, leaving many residents in the Mountain State’s coalfield region to allege that their localities were not receiving a fair amount of money from the state’s coffers.

Soon a popular bumper sticker began appearing on vehicles throughout the coalfield-region, stating, “These roads could Rock-a-Feller!”

Feeling forsaken by their own government, after repeated pleas to have a new bridge constructed, the people of this West Virginia community made an unprecedented move which soon garnered international headlines. At the height of the Cold War, residents of Vulcan wrote to the Soviet Embassy in Washington, as well as to communist officials in East Germany, detailing their plight and requesting foreign aid from the nations.

Sensing an opportunity to shame the American government, the Kremlin immediately dispatched journalists to the United States.

Interviewing the residents of Vulcan and broadcasting their troubles to the rest of the world, the government in Moscow did what the residents of Vulcan had been attempting to do for years, bring attention to their transportation nightmare.

By mid-December 1977, newspaper headlines around the country were announcing, “Small Town Seeks Russ Foreign Aid” (Spokane Daily Chronicle).

The Spokane Daily Chronicle wrote, “Soviet officials were amused today by reports that the small town of Vulcan, W.Va. has appealed to the Kremlin for foreign aid… The town, with a population of 200, asked the Soviet government for financial help to build a bridge after the town was turned down by the U.S. and West Virginia governments.”

Local radio stations began reporting bomb threats toward any bridge built with communist help.

Embarrassed by the attention their lack of assistance was receiving, state officials wasted no time in committing $1.3 million and built a bridge for the tiny community.

Though the only legal way to access the community of Vulcan, West Virginia, continues to be via Pike County, Kentucky, residents of the former mining town now enjoy a one-lane graffiti covered bridge connecting them to the ‘outside world!’

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