Special to Preservation magazine by Jimmy Scarano
It's hard for a small town to reinvent itself as a tourist destination when its main attractions are falling apart.
But that's what tiny Pocahontas, Va., the first coal mining town in the state, is trying to do. On June 30 the town suffered a setback when one of the walls of its 1883 company store, which APVA Preservation Virginia listed as one of the Most Endangered Sites in Virginia in 2005, collapsed. The building was already in bad shape, as the roof and third floor had collapsed the week before, but the town wants to rebuild it.
"I don't know if I'm optimistic, but I'm determined," says Tom Childress of Historic Pocahontas Inc., the local nonprofit that owns the deed to the company store and is spearheading the town's tourism movement.
Right now, Childress and the nonprofit are cleaning up the badly damaged building to ensure that it is not hazard. Childress says they hope to use some of the original lumber and other materials to build a new store.
"We just need to salvage what we can and then pump up our fundraising efforts so we can rebuild it," says Childress, who has helped the group raise about $180,000, including a $60,000 grant from the Virginia General Assembly that must be matched by local funds.
But Tom Brewster, president of Historic Pocahontas Inc., says that the repairs may cost close to $3 million.
"It's been impossible to keep up with the level of deterioration over the last three years," Brewster says.
On top of that, the group has other projects that are part of its tourism development that need attention. The biggest is the creation of a trail along the old rail line from Pocahontas to nearby Bramwell, about four miles away. According to Brewster, more than $600,000 has been allocated in federal and state funds for the trail project.
Most of the federal funds for Pocahontas have been the result of the efforts of U.S Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va), who Childress says has worked hard to revitalize the town and even visits about once a year. Boucher, who created a task force in 2005 to look into the tourism potential of the area, was instrumental in getting Norfolk Southern to donate the 1.8 miles of rail line that is being used to start the tourism trail.
But federal help has been hard to come by for the company store, so Childress is trying to secure private grants for the building.
"I want to get this accomplished before I die," Childress says. "American industry is the giant that it is because of towns like Pocahontas."
Incorporated in 1882, Pocahontas not only was the first coal mining town in Virginia but was also one of the most integrated areas in the South, as immigrants from all over Europe settled there.
Although the mine closed in 1955, the company store stayed in business until 1980, and many old buildings are still around. Today the biggest attractions are the Pocahontas Exhibition Mine and Museum, a National Historic Landmark, and the Pocahontas Cemetery, a registered Virginia historic site.
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