A hope for Helen: Community looks to preserve coal camp

By MATT COMBS, The Register-Herald
HELEN, W.Va. (AP) — Donald Moore was born in Helen in 1946 during the height of the coal camp that featured a company store, boarding house, grill and movie theater.
“We had two mines going then or maybe three at one time,” Moore said.
“I just remember when I was little we just played marbles all over Helen,” Moore said. “That was the big thing then; there wasn’t no computers or nothing, no TVs; the kids just stayed outside and played.”
According to Moore, Helen’s general store had everything you needed from furniture upstairs to groceries downstairs. In fact, one of Moore’s first jobs was at the store’s gas station, where he made 50 cents an hour.
“As I go along walking with my grandkids, I try to tell them about all these things that have gone on here in Helen, where I used to live in Lower Bottom and stuff,” Moore said.
Moore still laughs at his address now, even after being in his home for over 40 years, explaining that his neighborhood once housed the town’s mine foremen and the doctor.
“This is Big Shot Bottom,” Moore said. “We lived down the lower end, of course. I never thought we would live up here, but times have changed.”
That change has nearly wiped Helen off of the map.
In the 1940s, the decade when Moore was born, Helen was home to over 1,100 residents of many races and nationalities.
By the 1950s, with the onset of mine mechanization, coal jobs in town began to fade away and Helen’s last active mine closed in the 1980s.
In 2015, the population of Helen was estimated at just 114.
“There’s a lot of history in Helen and it’s sure fading away, isn’t it?” Moore said.
Although in his 70s and retired, Moore is doing his best to maintain his hometown as best as he can by taking care of the town’s park grounds and as the custodian of the town’s old church, alongside his wife.
“I would just like to see more people contribute to the town, but I don’t know how to get them to do it,” Moore said.
While relatively new, some contribution is happening slowly but surely in the once-booming coal camp.
Kyle Bailey, an AmeriCorps worker with the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia, is attempting to get Helen on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Helen, in particular, is sort of well-preserved,” Bailey said. “It’s an intact coal camp for the most part and those aren’t really common in this part of the state.”
The old coal camp was part of the Winding Gulf Coalfield, which ran generally from Crab Orchard near Beckley to Mullens in Wyoming County, expanding east and west along the tributaries of Winding Gulf and the Guyandotte River.
Dozens of coal camps with names like Hotcoal, Stotesbury, Slab Fork, Tams, Besoco, Killarney, Bud, Lego and Ury sprang up in the region during the 1910s and 1920s, when both the C&O and Virginian railroads extended their lines into the area.
Once promoted as the “Billion Dollar Coalfield,” the Winding Gulf region would explode in population through the 1940s before fading away just as quickly.
Bailey sees the possibility of saving part of the region and state’s history through preservation of Helen.
Although the camp’s tipples, company store, schools and infrastructure are now gone, many of the miners’ homes, the foremen’s homes and even the supervisor’s home remain.
“You don’t have that in a lot of these coal camps,” Bailey said. “A lot of them have been destroyed and sort of forgotten, so we want to preserve them before the same thing happens here.”
If Bailey is successful in creating a historical district in Helen through the National Register, then residents and local organizations such as the Winding Gulf Restoration Organization will be able to apply for tax credits and development grants.
“The fact that we have lost so much already in Helen should be a call to action for the community members to come together and say, ‘Hey, let’s not lose any more of what we have here,'” Bailey said.
Bailey was a history major at Concord University, but his involvement in the work in Helen is very personal.
The young man grew up only a couple minutes down the road from the town, and his mother grew up in the coal camp of Amigo.
During his college classes, Bailey said that he had little interest in local history, writing his senior thesis on New Orleans in the Civil War.
Upon graduation, Bailey became a substitute teacher, but quickly found that he wanted a chance to really use his degree.
A chance meeting with Christy Bailey (no relation), executive director of the National Coal Heritage Area, led the young Kyle Bailey to discover the open position with AmeriCorps.
“They had a position here in Helen and I thought, ‘Well, that’s perfect,'” Bailey said. “It has been sort of crazy how fast it all happened. I went from not knowing what I was doing, to doing this all of a sudden. I’ve enjoyed the work that we’ve been able to do so far.”
With the onset of winter, Bailey has been mostly confined to doing online research.
In the spring, he hopes to begin photographing the buildings of Helen and filling out the required paperwork to be sent away for the National Register nomination process.
That process really begins with getting out into the community to talk to residents about the project and the history of the town.
“Even though it’s such a small town, there aren’t a lot of people who know about what we are trying to do,” Bailey said.
Another hurdle is nailing down the history of the coal camp.
While much is known, Bailey said there is minor confusion about some dates and locations of key historical places.
One of those locations is the coal camp’s African-American neighborhood.
Although work in the mines was not segregated during the camp’s heyday, much of the personal life of the residents was.
Bailey had received multiple tips on the location of the African-American neighborhood but until a recent talk with Moore was uncertain which location was correct.
Moore, who delivered newspapers as a boy to that neighborhood, pointed out a long string of homes up a hollow as the neighborhood in a 1947 panoramic photo he owns.
According to Bailey, information like what Moore shared with him is key to his study.
“I think it’s going to take some community involvement to really pin down where some of these things were,” Bailey said.
While Bailey believes that the preservation of Helen for history’s sake is important enough, he is also hopeful that the preservation may generate economic activity for the coal camp.
“We’re hoping that having a historical district here may bring in some sort of convenience store or some sort of local museum where people can stop by on their four-wheelers and see the sites around town,” Bailey said. “People are getting an interest in getting back to their roots.”
While Moore is happy with Bailey’s preservation work, he is a little discouraged by involvement in keeping Helen up through the years.
When asked why, through all the hard times for Helen, he stayed around working diligently to maintain what he could, Moore had a quick answer.
“I just like it here,” he said. “This is where I was born. It’s home to me.”
Email: mcombs@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @mattcombsRH
Information from: The Register-Herald, http://www.register-herald.com