Appalachia officially became a town in 1908. Water came from Ben’s Branch into a dam owned by Cumberland Water Co. which furnished it to Clear Creek Water Co. Railroads hauled people and supplies in, coal out. Dozens of coal communities were erected to house the miners, some with their own schools, stores, hospitals, theaters, churches and cultures. As the town’s streets were laid out, stores on Main Street faced the railroads. Three hotels stayed full and passenger trains hauled hundreds of visitors form several states to shop, visit, dine and be entertained by big bands, movies houses, skating rinks and various other attractions. Several banks were established, newspapers, dentists, lawyers, doctors and other professionals opened offices here. As the town grew, many stores moved form on location to another. National chain stores came and traffic was bumper-to-bumper, double parked. Bus stations and cabs operated a thriving business 24/7, as the population continued to expand in and around town.
The governing body held its first city-manager elections in 1931; prior to that an appointed mayor officiated according to our Town Charter. Several lasted only a month, or days, and our early Town Managers also resigned rapidly as the town continued to grow by leaps and bounds.
Coal was needed for steel, electricity and our economy boomed. Then machines replaced the men down in the mines and a mass exodus began which had a tragic domino effect. As families moved out, many stores closed. The cabs, busses and passenger trains became a memory, as did all but a few coal towns. The “bust” changed the face of Main Street, and our town officials are hard at work today looking at tourism to support our economy.
Being hemmed in by Jefferson National Forrest, bisected by a river and most of our students leave after graduation. But as we struggle to overcome our economic troubles, we are proud of our unique heritage which continues to attract visitors from every state and many countries overseas. We’ve been called a “Mayberry in a Norman Rockwell Painting”. We’ve been in Ripley’s “Believe It or Not”, and several famous people were born, educated, worked and or grew up in and around Appalachia. These include
Pulitzer Prize reporter Don Whitehead;
Movie/TV Star Peggy Castle;
Paul “Pig” Davis of the Atlanta Falcons;
Willie Horton of the Detroit Tigers;
Olympic Gold Track star, Olin Cassell;
Broadway star/producer Frank Lowe, Jr.;
Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Ed Talley
3-Star General Pat Crizer
1993 Miss America Leanza Cornett, to name a few
Our history is documented in several publications including the Big Stone Gap newspaper’s archives of our Appalachia Independent newspaper; the Lonesome Pine office of Youth; “As We Were”, the only book written of our history compiled by Emma Jane Wright James found in our local libraries archives; the Wise County Historical Society’s two volumes and local churches’ publications. The Appalachia Cultural Arts building has played a big part in preserving our past with pictures while attracting tourists here, as has our Veteran’s Memorial Wall and Lewis Henegar’s Coal Miner’s Memorial Park, and the Lonesome Pine Railroad Club’s model trains, another tourist attraction.
Our past, our history is exciting and unique. We had the tallest building in all of Southwest Virginia, the shortest Rail Road Tunnel. We were the “Magic City”, the hub of all activity in Southwest Virginia—and we are proud of who we are and where we have come from.
We overcome our problems and respect our forefathers, our past, our ability to work together, welcome strangers and invite you back. We are the offspring of many nationalities (notice our unique buildings) joined by hard work, neighborhoods, love and charity for one another. No other town in Southwest Virginia can say they had what we had. Many imitate what we began, many look to us to solve their problems, all respect our heritage.