The last Saturday in July every year marks a long standing West Virginia Event that few know about. Widen Days, a dinner on Friday night and a get together on Saturday in Widen. Widen West Virginia holds a personal history. My family comes from this coal town in Clay County West Virginia. My father spent his his first few years living in Widen before his family moved to a nearby farm. in 1962 his senior class was the last to graduate from Widen High. Once my father shared his old high school pictures with me I realized there is history for me to learn. This last Saturday I stopped by Widen Days and met distant cousins and old family friends.
History of Widen:
The coal company town of Widen was established in 1911 in the rugged hills of West Virginia nestled in the eastern corner of Clay County. In the early 1900’s capitalists from northern states found an interest in West Virginia coal and lumber. During this time Elk River Coal & Lumber controlled more than 80,000 acres of land for the purpose of extracting resources from West Virginia. A solid town was built in Widen adding a bank, a company store, a high school, and more all built by the company. Streets were lined with homes painted company red built by the company to rent to its workforce. In the 1930 the United Mine Workers renewed a drive in unionizing West Virginia Miners. Multiple strikes occurred in Widen, one in 1933 and another in 1941, then in 1952 the bitterest of the strikes occurred. The strikes turned brothers against brothers, ended friendships, and tore the community. The strike of 1952 officially claimed one life and lasted 16 months. In 1959 the mines were sold and by 1963 the railroad and mines ceased operations.
My Dad proudly drove down Nicholas Street pointing out friends and family that lived there, then points up Braxton Street remembering where he once lived. During his time these streets where filled with houses, side by as far as the eye can see. Today, these streets have sporadic houses and trailers signalling a community barely existing. The only businesses present are the local post office and a newly open grocery store in what was once the community building. As we drove down one baron road there was no trace that anything ever existed here. Widen is just one of many Coal Company Towns in West Virginia, but my family history drew me here to see it through the eyes of my Dad. Most of these coal towns are quickly disappearing and with it we are loosing our history.
I traveled back in time to Widen West Virginia, a once thriving coal community not unlike countless other communities. This story is not to spark a controversy on coal. Coal has been a life force in West Virginia for over a century and I am not about to guess where its future will or wont be.
My takeaway is that after a century West Virginia is still an extraction state. The mountain state with all its beauty has been used for its natural resources and when a company has gotten what they can they move out and leave ghost towns just like Widen behind. Yesterday it was coal, today I see the oil and gas industry following in the footsteps. The entire state is on the verge of becoming Widen. West Virginia is losing population, people are fleeing to lands with greater opportunity. It is time to diversify and demand a better return on West Virginia’s Investment, both in resources and the sweat equity of the people of West Virginia.