May 12, 2022 - Two tunnels essential to development of Raleigh County, West Virginia's major industries were recently memorialized by the Raleigh County Historical Society (RCHS) and the National Coal Heritage Area Authority (NCHAA).
Timbering, not coal, first put Raleigh County on the economic map in the early 1890s. Cut trees and finished lumber were originally moved by horse-drawn trams. In 1891, J. R. Beaty Company built a circular sawmill at Crow, and brought in steam locomotives to do the hauling. The company built a 13-mile narrow-gage line from its depot in Raleigh to the mouth of Glade Creek. This made the Glade Creek and Raleigh (GC&R) Railroad the first of numerous short-haul lines servicing the timber industry.
Two tunnels essential to development of the county’s major industries were recently memorialized by the Raleigh County Historical Society and the National Coal Heritage Area Authority.
The original line ran from the mill under Crow Ridge through a hand-dug tunnel, then followed narrow Scott’s Branch through a precipitous descent into Glade Creek Gorge. In 1903, management closed out the Scott’s Branch line, collapsed the tunnel, and ran the rails southeast to the present location of Glade Creek Reservoir. The GC&R was purchased in 1906 by Raleigh and Southwestern Railroad, which was in turn purchased by the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Railway in 1910. Shortly thereafter, the voracious timbering industry effectively put itself out of business by consuming nearly all the state’s virgin forests.
Logging was first replaced, then quickly surpassed by coal mining as the county’s paramount industry. Rail lines again proved essential, but these were sprawling networks designed to haul coal from mines to East Coast seaports for export, or to the interior for consumption. Railways engaged in fierce competition to control coal routes. A classic example of corporate competition is memorialized by the second marker.
Common carriers C&O and Norfolk & Western Railway were the first competitors, followed by the smaller but purpose-built Deepwater-Tidewater (later renamed Virginian) Railway. Competition between C&O and Deepwater-Tidewater for access to the rich coal deposits of the Slab Fork District came to a head as the companies started digging parallel tunnels through Guyandotte Mountain at Jenny Gap, some two miles southwest of the town of Lester.
The railroad firms made charge and countercharge alleging acts of sabotage, such as survey stakes being moved and violations of right-of-way layout rules. The C&O finally filed suit in the circuit court, initiating “one of the hottest court fights ever to occur in Raleigh County.” In the so-called “Big Tunnel Fight,” C&O won its claim of prior right to the disputed land. But Deepwater-Tidewater promptly appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court, and won a reversal on April 25, 1905. As historian Jim Wood reported, C&O was forced to cease work on its nearly completed shaft, whereupon the Deepwater-Tidewater “immediately stopped work on its tunnel and ran its tracks through the C&O project.” An industry trade journal called the high court decision unprecedentedly harsh, with the C&O receiving not “one cent of indemnity, recompense or ‘salve’ money.” The winner did, however, graciously permit the loser to recover their tracks!
The Jenny Gap Tunnel marker is mounted at the entrance to Lester Elementary School, off of WV 97. Little General Stores corporation graciously permitted RCHS to install the Crow Ridge Tunnel marker next to its Grandview Shell Station at exit 129 off of I-64. Dedication ceremonies will be held when pandemic conditions are sufficiently abated. The public will be invited to attend.
Funding for both markers was provided by NCHAA and Beckley Area Foundation (BAF) competitive grants. RCHS president and Ward One councilman Tom Sopher noted, “NCHAA is our newest public education partner. BAF has consistently supported Society programs over the years, including our historical marker projects.”