It’s not hard to find Coalwood, WV. Go north on highway 19 out of Abingdon, VA, take a left on highway 16 in Tazewell, VA and don’t get in a hurry because the road soon clings hard to what little space there is between a meandering creek bank and whatever mountains you are passing.
After a bit you will go through War, Cucumber and Caretta and find Coalwood, where the road takes a hard turn to the right. Truth is, you will find what used to be Coalwood because there is scant left of what once was a thriving mining village of 2,000.
But the real question is: why would anyone go searching for Coalwood, WV?
For me, it started with a book I read more than a decade ago that told the story of Homer Hickam, Jr. and his teenage years in McDowell County. A story that recounted how Homer, better known as Sonny, and his friends Roy Lee, O’Dell, Billy, Quentin and Sherman learned to build rockets. In fact, they learned so well that they won a gold medal at the 1960 National Science Fair.
As things do sometimes, the book captured my attention and I filed Coalwood away in my mind, promising that if the opportunity ever came along, I would pay my respects. So one August day in 2019, I paid a visit to this little spit of West Virginia.
The story goes that a George Carter wandered through the hills and hollows of McDowell County in the early 1900s and found coal. He bought 20,000 acres and over time, built Coalwood, most of which he owned lock, stock and barrel. Everything belonged to the company. Houses, school, company store, doctor, dentist, church, post office, utilities, everything.
Homer’s daddy was the mine superintendent. Coal was his life–and his death–and at a young age Sonny determined that it would not be his. Oddly enough it was an event on the other side of the world from Coalwood that gave purpose to young Homer. Russia sent Sputnik into the heavens in the fall of 1957 and when Homer watched from his backyard as the first space craft passed far, far above he set his heart on building rockets.
Decades later Homer recalled it all in his book Rocket Boys. I could relate to the book for the simple reason that Homer and I are the same age. But while he was learning to build rockets in the mountains of West Virginia, I was chopping cotton in south Alabama. And it was Sputnik that convinced my father that I should study engineering at Auburn. So while Homer was at Virginia Tech becoming an engineer, I was at Auburn coming face-to-face with the realization that calculus was not my pathway to success.
At one end of Coalwood’s main thoroughfare these days is a large metal sign proclaiming it to be home of The Rocket Boys. But rust is about to reclaim the sign, just as nature is reclaiming Coalwood. The house Homer grew up in is across the street from the only store in town. But most all of Homer’s boyhood hometown is gone. The railroad, the mine tipple, even the post office. Only a handful of houses remain.
It’s hard to believe that a bustling community was once here. That this was were boyhood friends, spurred on by the encouragement and support of a teacher, Freida Joy Riley, created the Big Creek Missile Agency and launched their rockets from a coal slack site dubbed Cape Coalwood.
It’s been nearly 40 years since the mine closed. Coalwood closed with it. But the dreams this little community birthed never died.
So I took highway 19 at Abingdon and took a left on highway 16 at Tazewell a few months ago. Not so much as to see another mountain and winding creek as to be reminded of how powerful the human spirit truly is.
Editor’s note: Homer Hickam Jr. became an engineer, working for NASA in Huntsville from 1981 to his retirement in 1998. He trained astronauts. Rocket Boys was published in 1998. The movie about Homer and Coalwood, October Sky, was released in 1999. He has written a number of books, including The Coalwood Way, Sky of Stone and From Rocket Boys to October Sky. They are all about Coalwood and I have enjoyed each of them. He lives in Huntsville.