Almost Heaven? By James D Porterfield, "On The Menu", Railfan & Railroad Magazine
When John Denver recorded "Almost Heaven", his ode to West Virginia, either he was not a railfan, or he'd never been to Landgraff. If he was and had been, there would have been no "Almost". Anyone who loves locomotives- the sight of the them, lashed up and pulling or pushing their consists, or running light returning from helper duty; the sounds the make, whether working hard to move a heavy train up grade, rumbling as they hurry a string of empties back somewhere, or drifting downgrade for another helper run; the soft scents and rumbling sensations they give off as they pass- has to go to Landgraff. There may be no better legal location from which to watch, photograph and film trains in America.
Be warned, Landgraff is not a very big place. In fact it's a town so small it doesn't have a zip code, a town my dear aunt Eleanore would have described thus: "Gee, this is a nice town, wasn't it?", a town, in fact, that has only one apparent building. But that's the building you want: The Elkhorn Inn & Theatre. To arrive at Landgraff from the east, exit I-77 at Bluefield, WV, and follow US Route 52 west for about 30 minutes. You pass a natural wonder, Pinnacle Rock, and a stream of small coal and railroad towns: Bramwell, Freeman, Maybeury, Elkhorn, Kyle, Northfork and Keystone. You are in McDowell County, straddling the widest part of the bituminous coal seam that runs the length of West Virginia. You're in the heart of "coal country". After Keystone, be on the lookout- hard to do, given that Norfolk Southern's two-track Pocahontas Division parallels you to your left- because the Elkhorn Inn comes up suddenly, standing alone on your right. There was a town around it until 2002, when the floods changed everything. Those floods were the beginning of
Why? Because they brought Dan and Elisse Clark, a husband and wife who are as "New York" as it gets, to the area. They work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Dan in Logistics and Elisse in Community Relations. While there, they kept driving past the abandoned and boarded up Empire Coal & Coke Company Clubhouse. "At that time the town of Landgraff was still standing," says Dan. "But all the buildings except the Clubhouse... were damaged beyond repair and torn down by late 2002". Little wonder that the Clubhouse was left standing. Built in 1922 to replace two earlier clubhouses that had burned down, it is nothing but concrete and brick. "There is no wood in the building," says Dan. "It has an 18-inch thick concrete floor. The foundation and footers run more than twelve feet deep, six feet below the basement floor, all the way to bedrock. This is so Elkhorn Creek, which throughout its history has run on both sides of the building, wouldn't make the foundation unstable." The Clarks took it upon themselves to enter the boarded-up building through a crawlspace at its rear to determine its possibilities. Inside they found 11,000 square feet of floor space and the debris one would associate with an abandoned 75-year old buidling. But its solid construction, front porch framed in brick arches to give it an Italianate look, trout stream and theatre
out back, and a Federal highway out front, offered possibilities.
Why would two sane and sensible professional people whose work makes them intimately familiar with the problems associated with rebuilding damaged properties, give up life in a big city to occupy an abandoned building on a flood plain in a poor region of the country? "When Dan and I got married," says Elisse, "we were looking for something to do together. As we would pass this old place, we kept telling ourselves it had potential." Elisse is an artist whose watercolors are large, so the building's spaciousness held some appeal. The challenge of restoring an historic property to useful purpose appealed to them as well. "We bought the building for $10,000," says Dan, "and plan to put another $150,000 into the restoration." Behind the building, across Elkhorn Creek, sits a replica of the Shakespearian-era Globe Theatre built by a previous owner. After it is restored, live entertainment will bring more tourists- and jobs- to the area. "So," Dan continues, "we made the offer for the building in September of 2002, got court approval for the purchase
in December 2002, and moved into the third floor in January 2003."
The building had been empty since 2001 and flooded twice..."The first task was to clear five feet of mud out of the basement", said Dan. "Next, I brought in a power-washer to clean the first floor. There was so much mold and decay that I knocked all the plaster off the walls. There were no doors left in the building, no light fixtures, circuit breakers, wiring or plumbing. Even the wainscotting had been removed. Fortunately, the second floor, beyond the reach of the flood waters, was okay. The third floor, though, was damaged by leaks in the roof, which I replaced. It is the largest roof I've ever done."
The focus, though, was on the second floor. "We got it done in May 2003," said Elisse. "Then we could take in our first guests." Incidentally, in the second floor parlour, one ducks through a window-height door to go out on the balcony to watch trains running by at eyeball level just across the highway.
In 2003 the first floor was sufficiently finished to be put into operation. You enter the foyer, which serves as the registration area, through a beautiful cut-glass doorway on the porch. Elsewhere on the first floor is the original institutional kitchen, the size of which appealed to Dan, and a large dining room where miners and others staying or working at the Clubhouse once dined, and the Fireplace Lounge, a sitting room filled with comfortable furntiure facing a cozy fireplace... On the second floor are eight bedrooms - two with private bath- that can accommodate 16 guests. Once company offices, the rooms are now decorated with vintage 1930s furniture and art.
Now about the trains? "On our first night in the place", Elisse says "we no sooner turned in than a
train roared by. Dan and I looked at each other and said: "We have got to find people who love
trains!" That has been a focus of ours ever since." And what trains they are. Big, loud and frequent - as many as 30 or 40 a day, they run not 50 feet from the Inn. Eastbound trains run autoracks or automobile parts, intermodal consists, grain and export coal. Westbounds haul coal, empties, coal, intermodal, and coal. Shifters work this stretch as well, and it is not uncommon to see a string of six or seven helpers heading west to push trains up the grade east to Bluefield. All manner of NS motive power is to be seen in these movements, as are pool units from everywhere else in America.
To take advantage of all this action, know this about the bedrooms at the Elkhorn Inn: All four front rooms overlook the track. The best of them, the Greenbrier Room, is on the front east corner of the building. There, with the windows open, it is perfect for taping trains with audio. On the creek (back) side, the four rooms are quieter, but that is relative. Having spent my night in the back room on the east side, I can tell you that one comes to breakfast understanding why people who have endured a hurricane say it "sounds just like a freight train passing overhead". For some of us, of course, that is music.
And speaking of the "breakfast" side of the bed-and-breakfast story, given the growing popularity of the Elkhorn Inn with railfans, imagine the conversations that flow when 16 like-minded true believers gather. Rooms at the Elkhorn Inn & Theatre, currently priced at $99.00 with a shared bath and $120.00 for a private bath, include a continental breakfast. Rooms can be ensuited, or the entire inn booked. Dinner and lunch can be arranged in advance for an additional $45.00 and $17.00 respecively. For more information or to make reservations, go to www.,elkhorninnwv.com - an extensively illustrated website- or call 800-708-2040. Click on "Railfan" on the website to find numerous additional pictures which show just how close you'll be to the trains.
To read more about the West Virginia's coal industry and its close ties to railroading, see King Coal: A
Pictorial Heritage of West Virginia Coal Mining by Stan Cohen, and Appalachiam Coal Miners and Railroads by Thomas W. Dixon, Jr. To explore the Pocahontas Division, see Garland McKee's cover story- "Doin' The 'Pokey'"- in the January 2003 issue of RAILFAN & RAILROAD. A Personal Aside: A favorite movie of mine, John Sayles Matewan, depicts the violent clash between union men and mine owners in the town of that name in the 1920s (it's in neighboring Mingo County, 65 miles from the Elkhorn Inn & Theatre), and the inspirational story October Sky, which took place in Coalwood, 15 miles away, are both available on DVD.