This past year, the Appalachian Magazine travel bloggers headed down historic US Route 52, reaching the dusty coalfield community of Williamson, West Virginia.
Nestled on the banks of the infamous Tug River, the City of Williamson dates back to the late-1800s and once served as Norfolk & Western’s main hub for all of Appalachia – the rail yard garnered the title, “Million Dollar Coalfield” due to the endless lines of rail cars filled to their brims with black, West Virginia coal.
Because of the explosive growth of the rail yard and booming coal industry, the community that served as the county seat for “Bloody Mingo,” a place once described as “the most murderous county in America,” experienced rapid growth at the turn of the last century, bringing an influx of capital investors, weary families looking for work and curious journalists who had heard tall tales of murderous mountain men and tree trunks wider than train cars.
With railroad barons, political leaders and prying newsmen all coming to Williamson on a regular basis, the Williamson Chamber of Commerce set out to raise funds for the construction of a hotel that would live to the standards the bustling new community hoped to project.
In 1923, shares of stock were sold to 1,400 stockholders who were mostly local residents. Within two years, nearly half a million dollars were raised and the Mountaineer Hotel, located at the corners of East Second Avenue and Court Street first opened its doors to travelers.
For decades the hotel served as the premier destination for anyone wishing to visit the Mountain State’s southern coalfields. Visitors to the inn ranged from political supremacies such as John F. Kennedy and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to country sensations including Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams, Sr. Auto tycoon and American legend Henry Ford even spent a night in the luxury suite of Mingo County’s foremost stopover.
Unfortunately for the hotel, a sagging coal-based economy, numerous floods of the Tug Fork, and a dozen other setbacks all culminated to the esteemed inn’s closure near the latter end of the twentieth century.
In the years ahead, the five-story, 116 room hotel sat vacant, like so many other buildings of Southern West Virginia, a sad testament of a booming time that once was, but is no more.
Had it not been for the vision of one local attorney, the building that is the centerpiece of this article and the travel bloggers’ most favorite getaway of 2014 may never have again been mentioned.
Fortunately, Mark Mitchell, a personal injury attorney whose offices are in Williamson and Hurricane, West Virginia, purchased the building roughly a decade ago and went to work, painstakingly restoring the hotel to its legendary status.
In the summer of 2014, Mitchell and his staff were ready to showcase their work to the readers of Appalachian Magazine, inviting the travel bloggers to their location for an evening of fun and history.
Below is the account of our visit to the Historic Mountaineer Hotel:
We arrived at the Historic Mountaineer Hotel around 3 p.m. after a wonderful road trip along U.S. Route 52; a drive that took us from Bluefield, West Virginia, into McDowell County and through dozens of mining communities whose histories have been made into Hollywood blockbuster hits – movies such as Matewan and October Sky just to name a couple. The road is curvy and some of the communities may be seen by the outsider as “rough,” but if you want to see real Appalachia at least once in your life, then you must take this route.
That summer afternoon, we saw hundreds of ATVs along our route, a typical view in this part of the country in mid-summer. Thanks to the success of the Hatfield and McCoy ATV & UTV Trails a new breath of life has been breathed into struggling localities along the route in the form of tourism spending.
Arriving in Williamson, we parked our vehicle conveniently across the street and entered the hotel’s large lobby. As our eyes adjusted from the bright West Virginia sun, we were immediately taken aback by the beauty of the 90-year-old building’s elegant marble floors and breathtaking chandeliers.
Once inside the foyer, to our left we spotted the “Mountaineer Church,” a small and charming room dedicated to prayer and quiet meditation.
Walking forward, we reached the front desk where I was most impressed that even with the countless thousands of dollars in renovations; the historic authenticity of the building had not been compromised.
The front desk’s pigeonhole boxes for room keys and a teller window made me feel as though I had taken a walk back into the 1920s – I couldn’t help but look around to see if I could spot Matewan Police Chief Sid Hatfield slipping up the steps with Mayor Testerman’s wife.
Having a grandmother who spend her entire life on Dingess (not in, but “on”), I really enjoyed seeing the clocks at the top of the reception desk – providing the times for Seoul, Los Angeles, London and Dingess!
We were greeted by Edna a truly professional hotelier and her assistant, Breanna McCoy. McCoy’s roots were from across the Tug River in Pike County, Kentucky, the home place of Randolph McCoy and his clan who warred against Mingo County’s Hatfields (at the time, however, Mingo County was part of Logan County). Both of the women treated us as honored guests, providing us with a remarkable tour of the facility, taking us through the French doors that led to the impressive formal ballroom, an ideal spot for wedding receptions, the lobby’s restaurant and through the dizzying maze of floors, balcony overlooks, hallways that is this remarkable building.
Being a history enthusiast, my most favorite part of the visit was the opportunity to study the hotel’s history collection.
Telegram from Johnny Cash following the Tug River flood which destroyed much of the hotel and City of Williamson (a state of the art floodwall now protects the city), photos of a young Democratic senator with a funny accent attempting to woo the state’s blue-collar voters as he bitterly fought for the West Virginia primary. That senator would go on to win the state’s primary would be thrust into the Oval Office in a matter of months.
Other artifacts included the metallic “Fallout Shelter” sign on the side of the building, a timeless reminder of some of the nation’s most fearful days.
According to Edna, the History Channel’s American Pickers stopped at the hotel and begged Mr. Mitchell for the sign, but he refused to part ways with the Cold War icon.
A trip up the metallic and rickety elevator which came straight out of the early days of the hotel – there’s a modern elevator beside it, but I wanted the full experience and we were on the fourth floor.
Moments later, we had entered room 419, the executive suite President John F. Kennedy spent the night in while campaigning for the Democratic nomination in Mingo County.
Each year, I see scores of NASCAR drivers, politicians and “famous” people, and by and large I never get stars-truck (On a side note, seeing King Richard Petty did leave me a little shaking of the knees!), but standing inside the same room JFK spent the night while in my beloved Mountain State left me with a sense of wonderment. “How cool is this?” I said with a glee in my voice that I thought had vanished decades earlier.
Room 419 is a simple room and dated, however, plans are in place to modernize the room, providing it with the full amenities one would expect from a 21st century hotel of the Historic Mountaineer Hotel’s caliber.
Our room was nice. A large king sized bed with hot tub. I could describe it, but a picture is worth a thousand words and here there are three pictures!
I’m already well over my 1,100 word maximum, but I feel like I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what is the Historic Mountaineer Hotel. I have not even mentioned the solar panels atop the roof which help power the building, the mahogany conference rooms, the Coal House across the street – a building made entirely out of coal – which serves as a mini-museum of the area, or the bustling city of Williamson itself, which warrants an entire article.
Sure, Bloody Mingo has a storied past and is presently involved in the fight of its life as it seeks to transition its economy from coal to manufacturing and tourism, get a grip on its out of control drug abuse problem, and seek to get its political house in order – but none of these things should deter anyone from visiting this community that is rich in history – the home of the Hatfields & McCoys, the famed Battle of Matewan and downtown Williamson – the coolest downtown in southern West Virginia.
The bottom line is this – if you’re looking for a place to stay within an hour of Williamson, then you must check out the Historic Mountaineer Hotel.
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