Blue Ridge Country - May/June 2015 - 51
they now abandoned the dying
area. They left behind ghost towns
and cemeteries filled with friends
and family members.
"Many people across the country
probably have ancestors buried here
along the gorge and don't even
know it," says Sellers.
In the heart of the New River
Gorge National River are the
remains of one of those ghost
towns. Thurmond, the chief railroad center on the C & O Railway
mainline by the early 1900s, had the
largest revenue on the C & O. It
served some 75,000 passengers a
year and moved 4 million tons of
freight. The town was a bustling
economic center with stores,
saloons, hotels and boarding houses
constantly overflowing. By the
1970s, Thurmond was little more
than a ghost town.
lumberjacks, migrating blacks and
many European immigrants. At one
time, about 50 small coal towns
were scattered along the gorge.
Once vibrant and humming
engines that sustained the industrial revolution, most are by now
largely reclaimed by Mother Nature.
After almost a century of limitless mining and logging, the boom
went bust. Just as people had
flocked into the gorge to find work,
Once we arrive at our work location, we fan out and began searching for a gravestone he'd found
almost a year earlier.
We scour the area until we hear
Sellers shout of "Here it is," echo
through the trees. We rush to converge on the spot. The headstone
stands erect but leaning slightly. Its
top was chiseled in a graceful curve;
the center carved out with a name
that has been worn down by the
wind, rain and snow of decades. A
scuffing away of leaves revealed a
footstone as well.
An unspoken ripple of emotion
runs through the group as we look
upon this long-lost gravestone with
reverence. Who was buried here?
What was the age at death? What
was the cause of death?
Once the area is cleaned up,
Sellers plugs the coordinates into
his GPS so the site can be found
"We find more cemeteries every
year," he says. "We've identified
about 70 cemeteries in the park. We
often use the old CSX railroad maps
and town maps to find cemeteries
in the park."
A headstone rests along the gorge.
new river park r a n g e r M a r k
Bollinger helped create the cemetery reclamation volunteer project
about eight years ago. "We wanted
to honor the memory of the workers and families who came here and
died here during that time. Our idea
wasn't to return these cemeteries or
gravestones back to pristine condition. We wanted to keep them from
being totally lost and a part of the
history of the gorge and America
being lost along with them."
Many headstones in the cemeteries have no identifiable marks.
On others, the wind and the rain
has worn the markings away. The
ones that wrenched our hearts were
those of children only one or two
years old, or young siblings buried
next to each other. Some cemeteries
sit just off the railroad tracks.
"Some small towns didn't have a
cemetery," says Sellers. "They put
the bodies on the train and moved
them to a cemetery somewhere
along the tracks for burial."
We depart at the end of our service week with a feeling of satisfaction. In a small way, we have helped
the National Park Service protect a
piece of our country's cultural history. Today's gorge draws over 1
million visitors a year for outdoor
recreation. Whether floating the
river on a raft, hiking, biking, rock
climbing or enjoying the view from
the bridge, if your travels take you
through the gorge, take a few
moments to acknowledge those
who came before us, those who rest
in the graves along the gorge.
May/June 2015 51