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May 20, 2009

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Turn-of-the-century Bramwell, West Virginia, was a rich little town with more millionaires than any place of its size in America. Tucked away in the coal fields, 14 millionaires or perhaps 19, depending on which account you read lived sumptuously along-side the town's 4,000 citizens.

In the early 1880s, word spread quickly of the discovery of the Pocahontas coal field along the Virginia/West Virginia line. Fantastic coal seams eight to 10 feet high began at Bramwell, W.Va. and extended for 48 miles. Speculators, developers, entrepreneurs and miners flocked to the budding village, known informally as Horseshoe Bend. Some miners came from Pennsylvania coal areas, others directly from England, Scotland and Wales. Operators of the new mines recruited immigrants at Ellis Island.

One fortune-seeker was Joseph H. Bramwell, a New York civil engineer, who arrived in 1883. As first postmaster of a post office that needed a legal label, he said, "Every little baby has a name, and this little town must have the same. I therefore name it Bramwell."

Later, Joseph H. became first president of the famed Bank of Bramwell, and a big-time real estate investor. Unlike many millionaires who stayed around to lose their money during the Great Depression or when the mines began to play out in the 1930s and '40s Joseph Bramwell soon gathered up his fortune and moved to Switzerland.

By 1885, C.H. Durhing, a coal company engineer, had mapped out lots for homes and businesses. On the Bluestone River's horseshoe bend, he designed the two major brick streets to form a cross. A three-mile-long chartered area included the mine sites of Cooper to the west and Freeman to the east. Each mining community complex had its own houses, schools, churches, and stores. Located between them, Bramwell was the hub.

Within Bramwell's elongated limits, six railroad bridges and six highway bridges crossed the looping, snaking Bluestone River, and the highway crossed the tracks three times.

Bramwell was a residential oasis, where wealthy coal barons and their officials could live in luxury with their families, all enjoying a sparkling social life, perhaps even drinking the "beerine" produced in a local factory. A support system of merchants, ministers, doctors, attorneys and others undergirded their lifestyle. Before 1900, the town had electric street lights, a water company, telephone service and a weekly newspaper.

Officials' Victorian homes were avant-garde for the times. Imported furnishings were common. A copper roof covers the 24-room, 1910 Queen Anne-style Cooper home. Built of orange brick imported from England, its amenities included an indoor pool. The 1885 home of Dr. McGuffin, Bramwell's first physician, had indoor plumbing, a shower, and a speaking tube from the front door to his bedroom. The lovely blue 1895 Goodwill house has a ballroom. Imported Italian masons laid stone for the 17-room, 6,500-square-foot, Tudor-style Thomas house.

In Bramwell's heyday, the four major local mines each bore the title "Coal & Coke Company": Mill Creek, Buckeye, Booth Bowen and Caswell Creek. One company employed 400 men. A 16-foot-diameter fan ventilated 174 beehive coke ovens at another company.

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May 20, 2009

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