Bramwell, West Virginia
- 3 Jan
Mansions & Millionaires
Early in the 1900s, southern coal boomtown Bramwell had more than its share of both
By ALLISON BARKER
Nestled in the rugged mountains of southern West Virginia, in a horseshoe bend of the Bluestone River, lies a millionaire coal town. At the turn of the century, when 4,000 people lived here, at least 14 millionaires called Bramwell home, making it the richest town per capita in the United States. Today, the town built by King Coal enters a new millennium with fewer than 650 residents. Still, the grand Victorian homes of yesteryear remain. ''When you go into the town of Bramwell, it's like stepping back in time,'' says Beverly Wellman, director of the Mercer County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Built on one of the few level spots in coal country, about 2,300 feet above sea level, Bramwell is just half a mile wide and 4 miles long. Much wealth was concentrated in that sliver of land: Bramwell once flourished with businesses, a busy train station , a prosperous bank and an active society. The Bryant Pharmacy, now the Corner Shop, was the third drugstore in the United States to stock Chanel No. 5 perfume for its wealthy clientele. The Bank of Bramwell, incorporated in 1889, financed local endeavors and those far from the coalfields.
Two projects in Washington, D.C. -- The Burning Tree Country Club, where President Eisenhower played golf, and the National Woman's Golf Club -- were both financed from Bramwell. And in 1917, when the United States declared war on Germany, the first liberty bonds were sold here.
Before the days of armored trucks, banker Isaac T. Mann would push a wheel barrow loaded with cash down the street to the railroad station so that it could be dropped off at the numerous coal mines on pay day. But like so many businesses and towns, Bramwell's fortunes crashed with the stock market in 1929.
The entire town, about 15 miles from Interstate 77 near the Virginia border, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
Although its mansions are small compared to expansive estates like the Biltmore, in Asheville, N.C., their luxurious features are unique in an area where the average coal miner's home was a simple four-room rowhouse. ''It's a town built by first-generation coal operators,'' says historian Betty Goins, who grew up in the miners' community of Coopers, about 3 miles away. ''It was a very unusual, special place. The operators really cared for their workers because it wasn't that far back that some of them were workers, too.''
The first wagon of coal from the rich Pocahontas coalfield that straddles the West Virginia-Virginia border was hauled from the community in 1884, when John Cooper opened Mill Creek Coal and Coke Co. His great-granddaughter, Eve Cooper Murphy, still lives in the Queen Anne style house built by Cooper's son, Edward, in 1910. The home's orange Normandy brick was imported from England, as were many of its furnishings. The same brick is used in other buildings on the grounds, including one housing an indoor swimming pool. And the home's solid copper roof was one of the first of its kind in the United States. Two goldfish ponds flank the sidewalk leading to the massive entry door. Once inside, delicate gingerbread trim softens the heavy hand-carved staircase, illuminated by a Tiffany stained-glass window. Polished silver awaits use in the dining room, while a Steinway piano graces the music room. The extravagant touches in the middle of the West Virginia coalfields don't seem odd to Murphy; to the 70-year-old widow, it's just home. ''I'm the only one in my family born in this house,'' she says. ''I raised my children here. It's not a museum or anything. We just live in it.''
Nearby is the Perry House, a bed and breakfast that once was home to bank cashier J.B. Perry and his family. The inn is on a brick-lined street known as Doctors' Row, where more modest homes were built for several coal company doctors.
Perched atop a hill overlooking the town is the Goodwill House, built in 1895 by Philip Goodwill, general manager of Goodwill Coal and Coke. Goodwill raised the roof on his Victorian home, one of the most lavish in town, to add a third-floor ballroom so his wife could host parties like those she attended in her Pennsylvania hometown, near Philadelphia. Phoebe Goodwill had a perfect view of the town from her semicircular bedroom windows, says historian Goins. "She kept a journal and would write in it every day what she saw,'' Goins says. ''We have learned a lot about life in the 1900s from her.''
Nearby, Italian masons were brought in do stonework on the Revival Tudor mansion built by W.H. and Annie Cooper Thomas. The house, no longer owned by a family member, is reported to have cost as much as $95,000 when it was completed, in 1912. An elaborate stained-glass window in the home illustrates a previous owner's affection for fishing with native bass and trout depicted in brilliant blues and greens. Today, it is home to Dr. Michael Shanan, a doctor in nearby Bluefield, who moved to Bramwell in 1985 from New England. ''People have been moving out of the cities for years as small-town life becomes more and more fashionable,'' Shanan says. ''It's a great place to raise children.''
The same environment that attracts new residents to the area today isolated earlier generations before the days of two-car families and Internet-ready computers. Now, residents are hoping to capitalize on their town's charm and heritage. They are working on a walking trail to connect their town to nearby Pinnacle Rock State Park to attract more visitors. And they have joined forces with the Pocahontas Exhibition Mine and Museum, five minutes away in Pocahontas, Va., to offer a more comprehensive overview of the area's common history. ''The story of Bramwell is not in the history books,'' Goins says. ''We want to share our story. We want people to discover our hidden treasure, to visit, learn our story and share it with others.''
Except for a few bed and breakfast inns, most of the mansions are private homes that are open to the public only twice a year. The Bramwell Millionaire Garden Club hosts an open house when the dogwood trees are in bloom in May, and again in December, when the homes are decorated for Christmas. Group tours are available at other times by appointment.