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In Search of Roots, Part One: Grundy, Virginia

June 11, 2012

As this is being posted, we are already in Pennsylvania.  Forgive me for backtracking just a bit, but this trip was informative – and very important to Nell:

Yes, it was a road trip, but it was actually a journey into the past, in search of roots that grew from a coal mining town on the banks of a river in Virginia.

A farm scene in Virginia

Buchanan County Courthouse

Grundy, Virginia, founded in 1858 upon the formation of Buchanan County, was named for Felix Grundy (1777–1840), United States Attorney General (1838–1839) and United States Senator from Tennessee (1839–1840). It was incorporated in 1876. The present courthouse dates from 1905.

In October 1864, Union raiders under Brigadier General Stephen G. Burbridge passed through Grundy on their way to destroy the saltworks near Saltville in Smyth County, where they were met by Confederate troops commanded by Brigadier General Alfred E. Jackson at the Battle of Saltville. The Union troops were defeated in the battle, but returned later and succeeded in destroying the saltworks.

At one time, Grundy was a central town in the coal mining industry.  It was rumored that at one time, Buchanan County had more coal millionaires than anywhere else in Virginia.

Today, the only active coal mine in the county is Buchanan #1, in the mountains above the Grundy/Oakwood area.  Buchanan #1 is an underground coal mining operation, owned by CONSOL Energy, and operated by Consolidated Coal Company.  The mine was idled on July 9, 2007 because of a roof failure, and returned to production on March 17, 2008.

According to the Virginia Coal Heritage Trail organization, Island Creek Coal Company’s Keen Mountain is one of the most intact coal camps in the area and one of the very few that still has its company store in excellent condition.  You can read more at:

There is also much information on the area’s coal industry at:

This statue stands at the entrance to the courthouse, bearing the inscription “Dedicated to Buchanan County Coal Miners”.  A plaque states the statue was “A 1987 Girl Scout 75th Anniversary Project”.

The Jewell Coal & Coke plant, sitting just up Hwy 460 in Vansant, is a key fixture on the local landscape that has kept 200 to 300 folks working since the 1960s. The plant bakes coal into coke, a key ingredient needed by the remaining steel manufacturers.

You can read about the Jewell plant here:

Grundy is a town under siege by construction equipment, with a road widening project underway on the only route through town.  When we arrived on Thursday afternoon, we sat for a very long time, waiting for traffic to come through from the other direction on the only lane that was open.   Any major project through here requires some pretty heavy mountainside removal.

As U.S. Hwy 460 passes through Grundy, hills rise up on one side, with sometimes impossible looking driveways running up to houses clustered above the road.  On the other side is a flat strip, taken primarily by industrial businesses of all kinds, including a number of welding shops, used car lots and small salvage yards.  Immediately behind the commercial strip is the Levisa Fork River.

One of the floodgates protecting a portion of downtown, including the courthouse

Information on Wikipedia notes that since 1929, Grundy has suffered nine major floods of the adjoining Levisa Fork River. After the inundation of April 4, 1977, many businesses did not reopen, and the buildings that housed them were abandoned.

A project to relocate much of the town to higher ground has been completed. The project started in 2001 and consisted of blasting the mountain across the Levisa Fork to create 13 acres (53,000 m2) of land. After a few years of blasting, utilities were placed and new bridges across the river were built. A new downtown is planned that includes a multi-level Wal-Mart with a parking deck. Buildings backing on the river have been demolished and a new flood wall protects the county courthouse. U.S. Route 460 has been relocated to the top of the flood wall. Businesses formerly located downtown were relocated to an industrial building located just outside of town. State Route 83 will be rerouted to meet U.S. Route 460 down the street where U.S. Route 460 originally took a directional split to go through downtown Grundy. Additional work under study upstream reroutes U.S. Route 460 inland from its current path.

A downtown street that runs next to the courthouse (on right)

Walmart: two floors of parking garage with the store on the third level above

There wasn’t a Walmart here before, but they have built a store with a unique design.  The big box store sits above a two level parking garage, saving space, which is limited here between the river and the mountains, and, presumably, protecting the store from damage in the event of another flood.  We rode escalators up to the store level from the parking garage.

The movie theatre complex (above) was constructed the same way.

Appalachian School of Law

Grundy is home to the Appalachian School of Law (above) and the Appalachian School of Pharmacy (below).

Part of the Appalachian School of Pharmacy occupies what was once the school that Nell’s older brothers attended

This is the background for a search by brothers and sisters, a search for the resting places of ancestors and the homes they lived in.

(To be continued…)

*     *     *

One of the overlooks at Breaks Interstate Park

Less than an hour from Grundy is Breaks Interstate Park, also referred as the “Grand Canyon of the South”.  Breaks  is located in southeastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia at the northeastern terminus of Pine Mountainn. It is administered as a state park by the states of Virginia and Kentucky, and is one of two interstate parks in the United States.

The Breaks is the deepest gorge east of the Mississippi River through which the Russell Forw river and Clinchfield Railroad.

American frontiersman Daniel Boone is credited with being the first person of European descent to discover the Breaks, which he first saw in 1767.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 18, 2012 12:10 am

    An interesting journey Ralph.


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