Towns Without Pity

Ghost Town - Office Guy Cartoons

We need an understanding heart..
Why don’t they help us, try to help us
Before this clay and granite planet falls apart.

~Town Without Pity by Gene Pitney, 1961.

When does a town just wither away—officially?

Since 1997, three Virginia municipalities have reverted back to their counties: Castlewood (Russell County), Clover (Halifax County), and Columbia (Fluvanna County). It looks like St. Charles (Lee County) will be the fourth.

As reported in Cardinal News, January 26, 2022, St. Charles, in far southwest Virginia, is fading away [https://cardinalnews.org/2022/01/26/i-cant-make-the-town-stay-there/].

Created in 1914 in Lee County, the town used to have a lot—a sewing factory, hardware store, hotel, firehouse, clothing and grocery stores. Hundreds of people once lived there, mostly miners and businesses that served them.

But in the coming months, St. Charles is likely to become a used-to-be town. Lee County officials are asking the General Assembly to “terminate” the town, in the language of the bill filed earlier this month. 

Said a county supervisor for the district, “I really hated to be part of that call, because I hated to see them lose it. . . . But I just don’t think there’s any way forward for them. I think they’re best suited to be brought on into the county.” 

According to the 2020 census, St. Charles is home to just 73 people. In 2010 it had 128. No one has run for town council – or voted – in the last two town elections. . . .  Today, the only commercial enterprises in town are the St. Charles Community Health Clinic and the adjacent black lung clinic.

No one has run for town council – or voted – in the last two town elections. 

As the Cardinal News article describes it, “By most accounts, the 1940s and ’50s were the town’s heyday, with businesses lining the narrow main street and houses reaching up onto the hills flanking the two sides of the town. The town hit its peak population in the late 1940s; the 1950 U.S. Census put St. Charles at 550 residents.” According to the 2020 census, St. Charles is now home to just 73 people. In 2010 it had 128.

But it was all due to the coal business. Several coal companies set up nearby “camps” for workers and their families; as the business grew, so did the town. Kids could go all the way through high school without having to leave town.

Today, the only commercial enterprises in town are the St. Charles Community Health Clinic and the adjacent black lung clinic.

Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, and Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, introduced legislation that would bring an end to St. Charles and turn over to the county any property – or debts – held by the town. The bill has been referred to committees in both houses.

A 70-year-old former resident says he doesn’t expect his three kids to ever move back. “They went where the jobs were,” he said – Richmond, Northern Virginia, Knoxville. “I can understand that. I get sick every time I drive through St. Charles. If we had been more diversified, we would be a thriving community.”

A 70-year-old former resident says he doesn’t expect his three kids to ever move back. “They went where the jobs were,” he said – Richmond, Northern Virginia, Knoxville. “I can understand that. I get sick every time I drive through St. Charles. If we had been more diversified, we would be a thriving community.”

A woman who raised her children in St. Charles and is still surrounded by family, said she has no plans to leave, regardless of what happens to the town’s legal status. “It’s sad to watch it go down, especially when it’s your own town,” she said. “But to me, it’s still home.”

Perhaps diversification is not an incentive when one type of business provides a thriving economy. But, then, when life changes and those businesses are no longer needed, diversification or a change in major industry is required. The free market rules; there is no way to ensure against a town’s demise. 

The story of coal is the story of dying towns, all across America.

The last mining company in Segundo, Colorado, closed in 1960. Today, the population has fallen below 100, and few people come for activities other than hiking, wildlife viewing, and the wonders that are the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and North Lake.

In Buxton, Iowa, at the Consolidation Coal Co., Black workers were in the majority, held leadership positions, and by 1910, European and African-American workers were living and working together, and their children were attending integrated schools. The last of the mines closed in 1927.

As the Chisos Mining Co. found in Terlingua, Texas, if you can mine cinnabar, you can extract mercury from it. During the mid-1880s, that’s exactly what Terlingua did. About 110 people live there today, but visitors to Big Bend National Park have made Terlingua mostly a tourist destination for rafting, canoeing, mountain biking, camping, hiking, and motorcycling.

Numa, Iowa, with the Numa Block Coal Co., has spent the better part of a century dying. Laid out in 1871, Numa was born as a mining town and supported two different mines until 1937. It produced 100,000 tons of coal during that time, making it one of Iowa’s top producers. While nearly 660 people lived there at its peak, only 90 still call Numa home.

Madrid, New Mexico, of the former Albuquerque and Cerrillos Coal Co., is today a quaint little artists’ community of about 200.

There are fewer than 10 people in Thurber, Texas, now, once the proud home of the  Texas and Pacific Coal Co.

The Haydenville Mining and Manufacturing, Haydenville, Ohio, was founded in 1852.  Fewer than 400 people still live there.

Add to the list Kennecott, Alaska; Centralia, Pennsylvania; Thompson Springs, Utah; and Lynch, Kentucky. Add to these 12 towns those that manufactured textiles or other goods, and it’s clear how the fortunes of various business affect the fortunes of those who live in those places. Most don’t die, but many do. And when that happens, people have to pack up and find other localities to call home, and begin life all over again.

People naturally gather together in like-minded ways and for similar pursuits. Small towns that previously functioned as a kind of hub lose out to the larger competition, even as smaller concentrations may continue, not as legal jurisdictions but for specific purposes, as in retirement communities.

People’s lives either adapt or go downhill, as do their towns. This is inevitable when livelihoods are so closely tied to one major industry. Change of this type is certainly difficult for people. But there is no other way. Sometimes people can make midlife career changes fairly easily, but such usually involves difficulties related to more education or training and possible relocation. But with a certain attitude, these changes can be exciting and life-affirming.

When does a town just wither away? When the jobs that supported it leave.

 



Categories: Issues, legislature, Local, National, State, wealth inequality

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