Stragglers, stories all thats left of coal townadmin
BONNY BLUE This once-booming coal camp is testament to what can happen when bustle goes bust.
Some Richmonders may have been surprised last week when a University of Virginia study disclosed the capital city’s population has shrunk 2.9 percent since 2000. For the few stragglers in Bonny Blue, that’s a statistical hiccup.
To see what population decline really means, you have to come to the far western reaches of the state, to Lee County, to Bonny Blue. In the past 50 years, the community outside St. Charles has all but disappeared, its collapse a microcosm of what has been happening throughout Virginia’s coalfields for decades as small towns wedded to the fortunes of coal have evaporated and disappeared from state maps.
Few now remember that in the 1930s, when Northern Virginia was a mere backwater and Richmond was surrounded by farm fields, the state’s coal counties were thick with people and economic opportunity. One of the counties, Wise, was the second most populous in the state, behind only Pittsylvania.
Bonny Blue, for decades at the center of the economic hubbub that pushed the coalfield population higher, is quiet and still today. Where the Blue Diamond Coal Co. once housed its 1,200 miners in company-owned homes and several packed boardinghouses in the coal camp, there remain but several dozen crumbling homes scattered over the rugged terrain, in deep hollows and along wooded ridges.
Residents long ago said goodbye to the company store, along with the post office, the boardinghouses, the buses and taxis, the company police force, the company doctors and the Bonny Blue elementary school. Gone too is the tennis court that once sat on Big Dude Hill, the neighborhood that took its name from the fact that its homes were reserved for coal company bigwigs. The coal ran out, and so did the people.
“This has changed so much, you wouldn’t think it’s the same place,” said 93-year-old Velena Rigsby, a tiny, wizened woman who spends her days in her small home in Pot Branch Hollow with her space heater cranked to full blast. “Everybody had a job back then, and things were different. It’s a peaceful place now, ain’t got no wild people living here.”
Pot Branch Hollow is one of the former neighborhoods of Bonny Blue. Essentially, it is a string of small homes along a band of asphalt that quickly turns into two muddy ruts. Dogs, chickens and cats wander across the small yards in front of the houses and along a shallow creek that runs through the hollow. Bits of rusting iron scraps litter the landscape.
“It’s real gloomy and desolate down there at this time of the year,” said Harold Catron.
Catron, a native of Pot Branch Hollow, is one of the many residents who fled Bonny Blue when the coal company started shutting down operations in the 1950s. While other men took their families to Ohio and Michigan looking for work in the auto industry, Catron enlisted in the Army.
From there, he joined the state Department of Corrections, where he rose through the ranks until he retired as manager in the department’s Inspector General’s Office. Today he lives in Charlotte Court House in Southside Virginia, where he raised his three kids, and he never considered returning to Bonny Blue or Pot Branch Hollow.
“I would have never have wanted to raise those children back there,” he said.
Still, Catron recalls the heyday of the community fondly, and last year he wrote a 103-page book of reminiscences titled “Pot Branch Hollow, Bonny Blue and St. Charles.” In the book he recalls waking up to find snow falling through the roof of his house, hauling buckets of water from the creek since the house had no indoor plumbing, and helping to dig graves for neighbors who had died.
The book is full of nostalgia for simpler times, for a time when his family made apple butter every year and nearly every family had a small garden plot. But, like the thousands who have left the area over the years, Catron sees no future for Bonny Blue.
He visits family occasionally, he said, and when he’s in Bonny Blue he tells people to let the exodus from the area continue. “I say to people, ‘Let your children know what’s on the other side of the mountain.’”