Coal Heritage Trail. Hard work paves way for byway title. Click here for article.
Coal Heritage Trail. Seeking scenic byway designation. Click here for article.
Coal Heriitage Committee, click here for more.
Coal Heritage Trail: Public meetings set on VA Coal Heritage Trail, click here for more.
Coal Heritage Meeting Slated, click here for more.
September 15, 2010 by Debby Spencer

The Town Meetings are finally coming together for the week of September 20th. Below is what I have thus far. I am encouraging each of you to send out press releases, e-mails or make calls to encourage those in your areas to attend if they are interested. Here are my thoughts on a possible press release or what you need to send folks or tell people when you invite them.

Next week a series of town meetings are being scheduled in the counties of Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Tazewell, Wise and the City of Norton for those living along or those interested in the Virginia Coal Heritage Trail being designated as a National Byway which requires a corridor management plan to be developed and adopted by all counties. We are now developing that plan.

Each meeting will be focused on a particular section of the route. We are encouraging people along the route or those knowledgeable of those areas (both past, present and future) to attend the meetings of interest to them.

The purpose of the meetings is to discuss in detail the sections of Virginia Coal Heritage Trail through those particular communities and determine what recommendations, suggestions and concerns need to be included in the corridor management plan. The goal is to get public engagement and support for the initiative so that, in the end, we have developed a corridor management plan that people feel they were a part of, that they can support, and that the communities can adopt.

We encourage anyone who has an interest in this to please attend. The meetings are open to everyone. For more information about the initiative, call Debby at (270)792-5300.


A HOUSE DIVIDED:  Save town history, or help businesses?

By Phillip Keene for THE VOICE, Friday, October 1, 2010

Richlands Town Council member Doug Ratliff has called for changed in the downtown area.  Ratliff has been vocal recently about the need for more parking for downtown businesses.

Ratliff has been seeking the demolition of the old railroad section house in order to utilize the property for a parking lot that would serve several downtown businesses.

The issue has been debated intensely by Ratliff and other council members, including Rod Curry.  Curry is against the destruction of the section house, citing its historical significance.

According to lease agreement, the property is leased by the town from the Norfolk Southern Railroad for $420 per year.  Ratliff said the building, which belongs to the town, could be down for about $2,000.  About $4,000 worth of gravel could then provide a much-needed parking area.  This would save many downtown businesses that will other wise be closed, Ratliff said.

Curry and some other council members want more time to work out a solution that they say can both provide parking and save the historical section house.

Several residents spoke out in favor of saving the section house at this month’s council meeting.  Ginger Branton with the Chamber of Commerce also spoke to the council about saving the section house.  Branton talked to the council about the possibility of turning the building into a museum and also providing parking for businesses.

Local businessman Condle Whitt spoke to the council on behalf of downtown business owners.  Whitt said the whole 1500 block area of Richlands is suffering because of the parking problem.  He said these busineses have to have some help and asked the council to develop a plan that will resolve the issue.

Ratliff wants the issue to be resolved quickly. He said that if the area is not used for parking, that it will go on unchanged over the next two or three years while local merchants are going out of business.  He says he knows of at least two businesses that are affected by not enough parking in the downtown area and have said that if they don’t have help within two years with parking they will relocate to Claypool Hill.

“I don’t understand,” said Ratliff.  “Nobody had a plan for that building until we proposed a parking lot there, where were they for 120 years?”  Ratliff has also pointed out the dilapidated condition of the building and wants to know why supporters haven’t take care of it and removed the weeds and kudzu from the back of the structure.  I drive past that building ten times a day in my business and I’ve yet to see a line of people waiting to see the place,” he said.  He says claims that consumers will park near the post office and walk to the downtown businesses in question is ridiculous.  “People just won’t do that.”

Curry spoke out during the meeting, saying the section house is an important link to Richlands’ past.  He promised residents and business owners that this is an issue he is working on and will continue to work toward a solution.


Debby Spencer, with WMTH Corp., the firm contracted to development of the Virginia Coal Heritage Trail Corridor Management Plan, held one of several public meetings in Tazewell County, Tuesday, September 21 at the Richlands Town Hall.  Tazewell County will host two more public meetings – one at Jewell Ridge and the other in Pocahontas – to receive input regarding the Coal Heritage Trail’s national designation and what people want to see developed along the corridor.  (L-R) Debby Spencer, WMTH Corp., Dr. Mark Estapp, president of Southwest Virginia Community College and vice president of the Richlands Area Chamber of Commerce; Tim Taylor, Richlands town manager; Rod Curry, Richlands town councilman; Gaynelle Thompson, Richlands town historian; Ken Wysor, former Richlands mayor; Margie Douglass, Tazewell County economic development and tourism coordinator.  For more information regarding the Virginia Coal Heritage Trail and its development, call Ginger Branton, Richlands Area Chamber of Commerce, (276) 963-3385 or email:


The Virginia Coal Heritage Trail Advisory Committee hosts an annual coal celebration at the Russell County Fairgrounds in Castlewood the first weekend of August.  This year’s celebration was held on Saturday August 7, and included events such as a Motorcycle Dice Run in partnership with the Wise County Shrine Club, a car and truck show in partnership with the Lebanon Cruisers, live music by the Barefoot Movement and James Meadows and the Country Mile Drifters, food vending provided by B & K Barbecue, vending/display booths and a beauty pageant.

The Virginia Coal Heritage Trail is a 325-mile Virginia Scenic Byway, which winds through the counties of Tazewell, Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell, Lee, Scott and Wise and the City of Norton.  The purpose of this trail is to preserve our history heritage and culture though the promotion of coal, its supporting industry, miners and railroad.  It is an opportunity to educate people about coal and its significance to our economy and our everyday lives.  The annual festival is free to public.  The festival is supported through sponsorship and proceeds from events such as the car show and beauty pageant.

Alpha Natural Resources awarded a grant in the amount of $5,000 to the 2010 Virginia Coal Festival, making Alpha the prime sponsor of this event.  Without their support of this project since its inception in 2009 would not be possible.


Richlands.  A stop on the Coal Heritage Trail could save the railroad section house and improve business for downtown merchants.  The house is owned by the town but the Norfolk Southern Railway owns the property on which it sits.  The house was constructed over 100 years ago and was used by railroad personnel for many years.

Ginger Branton, director of the Richlands Area Chamber of Commerce  and Chairman of the county’s tourism committee said the section house is a planned stop on the trail.

The Coal Heritage Group held a public meeting in Richlands September 21.

Branton and Debby Spencer, consultant for the coal heritage trail, drove the area last week and Spencer suggested that the portion of the trail scheduled for the western end of the county include the Coal Miners Memorial in Richlands as well as the section house.

Spencer suggested that a stop in Richlands would be logical for travelers going from  Pocahontas to Jewell Ridge.  She said that could be accomplished by having travelers exit the four-lane near Cedar Bluff and come through the town.

Branton said the heritage trail group is hoping grant funding will be available to restore the house as a railroad museum.  The town has looked at several options for the house since a downtown revitalization was undertaken several years ago.

The revitalization group looked at the idea of putting a restaurant there and later considered moving the library from its present location to the site.  Neither of those ideas cam to fruition and the property has remained unused.

Branton said the museum would bring visitors to the area and also provide 50-75 parking places. Councilman Doug Ratliff proposed in August that the house be torn down and a parking lot be erected on the property.

Council took input from the public at its September 14 meeting and several speakers asked that the house be preserved as part of the town’s history.  Condle Whitt, representing the merchants in the area, said he was not opposed to preserving history but the area needed more parking.  Both Ratliff and Branton said the plan could take several years to become a reality.

Councilman Rod Curry said the town is eligible for a grant from the Department of Transportation to help with the restoration.  Council approved Curry’s motion to assess restoring the house.  Ratliff encouraged Whitt and other people interested in the area to stay involved in the discussions about the property.


On Tuesday, September 21, 5:30 pm, the third public meeting for establishing the Virginia Coal Heritage Trail as a national byway will be held at Richlands Town Hall council chambers.

Debby Spencer, president of WMTH Corporation, the company chosen to help develop the corridor management plan for the Virginia Coal Heritage Trail, will review the value of becoming a national byway and what is entailed to achieve this status.  Her firm will also provide the potential economic impact such a trail might have if developed into a national byway, and to assist the communities in applying for national byway status.

National Byways can become major marketing draws to entice visitors to travel the roads less traveled and stop in areas they may not visit otherwise.  This can become a great marketing tool to draw more tourists to your communities.

National Byways can also help to educate people on the history of an area, which the Virginia Coal Heritage Trail has a huge opportunity to do.

National Byways can protect sections of roads and the intrinsic qualities along the route from being destroyed or covered up by other development.  The advantage of becoming a National Scenic Byway include:

·      Greater marketing opportunities

·      Potential for federal funding

Spencer will explain what needs to happen for a state byway to obtain national status – a corridor management plan must be developed and adopted by all communities involved.  This means a plan must be developed in which all seven counties and the city of Norton must agree upon, as well as the towns in which the trail travels.

The first step toward developing a corridor management plan is to inventory everything along the route.  Spencer and her partner drove the entire route and inventoried what they saw on each side of the road every mile of the route.  They saw some wonderful sites, but they also saw where work needs to be done to protect or even improve a person’s experience when traveling the byway.

WMTH would like to share first hand some of their thoughts and insights of what they saw along the route and how a corridor management plan might be developed that addresses all of these issues and the concerns of the communities and those involved.  In the end, the CMP basically establishes a “road plan” toward establishing, maintaining, and improving the route so that national status may be achieved.

Therefore, all of this information and photos are being added to the Virginia Coal Heritage Trail website WMTH has created to help keep everyone informed of the progress as the corridor management plan is developed.

The public is invited to the greater Richlands area public meeting for the Virginia Coal Heritage Trail to discuss, share your thoughts, ideas, and concerns and together the communities within the seven counties and the city of Norton will develop something that unifies the common thread – coal.

For more information, contact Richlands Area Chamber of Commerce (276) 963-3385 or email to

COAL HERITAGE TRAIL: Hard work paves way for byway title. 

Part of the project will involve determining where historic and interpretive centers should be located, the amount of signage needed, and how many interpretive centers, should be along the trail.

Supporters of the Virginia Coal Heritage Trail are continuing their push for a national byway designation.  The Coal Heritage Trail is already designated as a state scenic highway in Virginia.  It winds more than 325 miles through the beautiful mountains of Southwest Virginia, including seven counties and one city.  With the Commonwealth’s official Coal Miners Memorial now located in downtown Richlands, efforts to pursue a national byway designation in the region have gained momentum.

Beyond providing a welcomed tourism boost to the coalfield counties of Southwest Virginia, a national byway designation would also help promote additional economic development and historical preservation in the region.  The national byway designation also allows for federal grants for interpretive stations, restoration, and marketing, according to Ginger Branton, executive director of the Richlands Area Chamber of Commerce. 

The Virginia Coal Heritage Trail currently extends through Tazewell, Buchanan, Russell, Lee, Wise, Scott, Dickenson as well as the City of Norton.  It connects with the West Virginia leg of the Coal Heritage Trail near Pocahontas and Bramwell.

Project supporters are currently working to develop a corridor management plan, which is necessary before officials can apply for federal designation.  The Make Things Happen Corporation is helping to guide the local trail committee through the process of securing a national byway designation, including public meetings.  The public meetings are designed to inform the public of the plans for the byway while also providing a forum for input.

The current estimated cost of the corridor management plan is $60,000 but Branton hopes the trail will receive federal money for future expansion.

“We don’t know what kind of finances we will need,” Branton said last week.  “Hopefully, we’ll be able to apply for outright grants or matching dollar by dollar grants through being a nationally designated trail.”

In order to get grant money for the project, the “intrinsic” qualities of the Coal Heritage Trail must be proven, according to Branton.  That includes history, architecture, and culture.

Part of the project will involved determining where historic and interpretive centers should be located, the amount of signage needed, and how many interpretive centers should be along the trail.  With grant money from the federal government, the Virginia Coal Heritage Trail would be able to preserve and restore several places of historic interest related to the coalfields.

The town of Pocahontas also would benefit from the national byway designation with such attractions as the Pocahontas Exhibition Mine.  Branton said funds also could be secured to help with restoring historic structures in the town.

We applaud the efforts of the local Coal Heritage Trail Committee members who have been working since 2006 to secure the state and now national designation would also drive more visitors to the coalfields of Southwest Virginia.  That in return would provide a welcomed tourism boost to our entire region.

The national byway designation is a win-win for everyone.  We join the local trail committee members in urging a national byway designation for the Virginia Coal Heritage Trail.

WMTH Corporation is a certified DBE.