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Garden Grounds

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Lumber railroad hauled timber from Garden Grounds
Map showing Garden Grounds region of Fayette and Raleigh counties.
Map of The Summit: Bechtel Family National Scouting Reserve, east of Glen Jean
1925 map of coal mines surrounding Garden Grounds

Local tradition refers to the region of forested ridges and tablelands north and west of Garden Ground Mountain as the "Garden Grounds."

Garden Grounds lies between the New River Gorge National River and the US-19 expressway north of Beckley, WV. The region might best be described idiomatically as bounded on the east by the New River Gorge, on the north and west by Dunloup Creek, and on the south by Mill Creek and Batoff Creek. Highway WV-61 between WV-41 and Mount Hope, WV, is generally accepted as its defining southern border. As is typical throughout much of the upland region, the area is primarily forested in oaks and hickories and to a lesser extent in maples, beeches, and birches. Stands of hemlock cluster around streams; dense thickets of mountain laurel are common throughout the area.

The Summit: Bechtel Family National Scouting Reserve

More than 10,000 acres of Garden Grounds was purchased in 2010 by the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) as the site of a national scouting reserve. The National Park Service (NPS), headquartered in Glen Jean, also owns and manages thousands of acres in Garden Grounds along the New River Gorge.

In August of 2010, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection announced that the agency had committed $10-12 million over a three-year period for eligible reclamation projects within the Garden Grounds property. The DEP will address dangerous highwalls, exposed portals, old coal refuse piles and abandoned concrete structures, all remnants of underground and surface mining on the property that ceased prior to 1977, when federal laws began requiring more responsible reclamation from coal companies.

According to the agency's press release, the Garden Grounds property includes close to 15 miles of highwall with an average height of 30 feet. Falling rocks from the highwall are a constant problem. There are also more than 40 mine portals easily accessible to the public. Reclamation work will include backfilling highwall locations and re-grading those areas to allow for access roads; sealing portals; demolishing and disposing of concrete structures; and re-grading, re-vegetating and properly draining a two-acre coal refuse pile. Phase I contract has been awarded to Eastern Arrow Corp. at a cost of $4.5 million with an expected completion by late-2010. Phase II, under design at the time was projected to cost close to $5 million. The DEP’s Abandoned Mine Lands and Reclamation program is funded by a fee placed on coal, currently set at 31.5 cents per ton for surface-mined coal and 13.5 cents per ton for coal mined underground.

Extractive Industries in the Garden Grounds

The lands that encompass the Garden Grounds can be traced back to a survey of 40,680 acres of land along the New River made in 1785 for Henry Banks. A grant for this land was made to Banks on August 3, 1786, by Edmund Randolph, governor of Virginia, in payment for the use of Banks ships during the American Revolution. This was the first survey made within Fayette County and was the first and largest land grant ever made in the county.

In 1870, Thomas G. McKell married Jean Dun, daughter of John Dun of Chillicothe, Ohio. The bride's father gave the newly wedded couple a wedding gift that consisted of a half-interest in a 12,300 acre tract of land that lay between the areas surrounding what would later become Thurmond, Glen Jean and Mt. Hope. John Dun had inherited this tract of land from the Graham estate, which was a part of the original Banks survey. McKell soon began to expand his land holdings. In 1883, he and his wife bought out the other half-interests in the 12,300 acre tract of land, buying 6,150 acres from George and William Dun. In the years that followed, McKell continued to purchased additional tracts of land, amassing a tract of land nearly 20,000 acres in size.

In 1892, Thomas McKell reached an agreement with Melvin E. Ingalls, President of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway (C&O), that the C&O would build a branch line railroad, of about 10 miles in length, into McKell's coal lands. In January of 1894, the C&O's Loup Creek Branch, was completed from Thurmond to Macdonald.

In 1893, McKell organized the The Glen Jean Lumber Company. The company soon began harvesting timber from the virgin forest of Garden Grounds. A make-shift narrow-gauge railroad, using wooden rails made from standing timber, ran throughout the Garden Grounds area, and was used to haul timber to the mill at Glen Jean. In a tax hearing in Fayette County, William McKell, son of Thomas McKell, stated that the lumber company's supply of timber in the Garden Grounds soon ran out, because of the high demand in the local area for lumber during late-1890s and early-1900s.

That same year, McKell organized another company, the McKell Coal & Coke Company. By 1894, three of the five coal mining plants were in operation on the Loup Creek Branch were operating on lands leased from McKell. Additional mines were soon opened on McKell's lands, either by McKell himself, or on tracts of land leased from McKell. During the 1920’s, the KGJ&E constructed a short branch line along Mill Creek into the area known as Garden Ground to coal mines at Balwood and Lee (see 1925 map at right). Both mines were short-lived, and the branch line was abandoned probably in the 1930s.

The New River Company acquired the McKell lands, including the Garden Grounds tract, in 1939. Mining did not occur within the Garden Grounds itself until the early-1940s, when the C&O build a short branch line, the Mill Creek Subdivision, from Mount Hope along Mill Creek into the Garden Grounds and the New River Company opened the Garden Ground mine. The Garden Ground mining operations were closed in 1961. Extensive strip mining was performed throughout the Garden Grounds during World War II. The New River Company also operated several small "punch mines" in Garden Grounds. All of the coal was hauled to the Garden Ground tipple by truck.

The New River Company also harvested white oak timber for the U.S. Department of Navy during War World II, which was used in the construction of various naval craft.