We Remember Matoaka

Matoaka is a small community in the western part of Mercer County in West Virginia approximately 20 miles from Princeton, the county seat.  The population is declining in the entire area and is estimated to be less than 200 in the town area in 2020, a far cry from the 1,003 residents in 1950.  The entire community fits within 0.26 square miles.  The town was incorporated in 1912, and was named Matoaka after Chief Powatan's daughter, who was more commonly referred to as Pocahontas. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matoaka,_West_Virginia)  The community is located on Rt 10 on the Virginian mainline and the N&W Bluestone Branch and was an interchange point between the two railroads.  The east end of the double track ended near Matoaka at MX Tower.  The Virginian depot still stands (2020).  This is the second Virginian depot at this site.  The standing block station was the last Virginian depot built before the line merged with the N&W.  The first structure burned. (https://www.nwhs,org/convention/2013mullens/Princeton_to_Twin_Fallspdf)  For many years, Matoaka was the leading business town of the Mercer County coalfields.

This part of Mercer County was coal country in the early 1900's, and coal was money.  While there was some settlement prior to the Civil War, it was the need for coal that drove the development of the railroads in the area that preceded  the mines and coal camps.  The Norfolk and Western Railway (N&W) built into the coalfields in 1883, with the first passenger train to Pocahontas, VA. The N&W extended its lines into Coopers, Simmons, Flipping, Carne Creek and Widemouth sections in 1884.  The first coal from Widemouth Creek was shipped in June 1904 and shipped from the Weyanoke Coal and Coke Company. (https://www.ptonline.net/archives/mercer-county-memories-despite-a-roug…)

The development of mines along Widemouth Creek from the Bluefield/Bramwell/Rock area and the influx of workers needed to mine the coal pushed the population and the need for services. It is said that Captain D.H. Barger, N&W Conductor charged with developing the mines in this area named the station built at this junction of the railroad.  He also laid out the town next to the tracks.   This was mainly mountainous farm land and forests following the creek with steep mountainsides.   But since water takes the route of least resistance, laying the tracks near Widemouth Creek provided an easier route over the undeveloped landscape.

The Virginian (VGN) railway also developed a line from the Deepwater Fields through Mullens to Matoaka and on to Princeton and Roanoke.  This opened the door to more business and opportunities for the townspeople.

Each coal camp town was usually in isolated places but with the trains, travel was made easier.  Each camp would have its own company store and school (usually grades 1-8)  but Matoaka offered businesses that were closer than traveling to Princeton or Bluefield.  The miners from Pawama, Hiawatha, Weyanoke, Piedmont, Giatto, Smokeless, Wenonah (Dott/Turkey Gap), Algonquin, and Thomas No.2 mine in Mercer County and Garwood and Coval in Wyoming County came to Matoaka.  People living in Lashmeet, Beeson, Pinoak, Mt. Olive and other nearby communities also went to high school and shopped in Matoaka.

The town boomed.  Matoaka had multiple grocery stores, dry goods stores, restaurants, drug stores, hotels, a theater, a bank, a funeral home and churches.  Five doctors lived in the town and traveled to outlying areas to care for patients. The Bank of Matoaka operated for 50 years before moving to Princeton to become The Mercer County Bank (now BB&T). Both the Norfolk and Western Railroad and The Virginian Railway operated stations in Matoaka. (https://www.ptonline.net/news/local_news/matoaka-becomes-a-business-hub…)

The first school in the area (a one room log school) was built near Giatto in 1870. Matoaka built  its own town schools.  One of the first four high schools in the county was built here in 1908, locally known as The School on the Hill. While each coal camp had an elementary or a K-8 school, kids could now get a high school diploma. The town prospered through the 1920s to 1950s, then the closing of mines started.  People drifted away and businesses closed.

There were good times and bad times, floods, deep snows and all other things that make a town a town.  Bad publicity in the 1956-57 boycott against school integration received national publicity.  Incidents between citizens and the local police over the years, with several of each killed, gave the town a jaded image.

A major fire in 2014 destroyed almost one whole side of the town.  Because of declining population in the rural areas, the county consolidated high schools in 1994 and the students in junior and senior high school are now bused to Pikeview Middle and High Schools near Spanishburg.  The high school on the hill and the high school in town have been torn down and the elementary school beside it facing Widemouth Creek is empty.  Elementary students attend Lashmeet/Matoaka Elementary on Matoaka Mountain.

In 2018, fighting declining population and very few continuing businesses, the town council petitioned to dissolve the township.  

Remembering the past after you have been gone for a long time is sometimes done with tunnel vision.  You see things the way they were when you were there. We (Bonita Hurst Sink and Linda Harris Godfrey) have spent the past two years researching the history of the area where we grew up and went to school.  My friend still lives in the area and I have been gone for over 50 years.  Our attempt with this page is to provide some history of this area of the state based on research as well as memories of growing up around this area.  Knowing that everyone remembers things differently and sometimes it depends on who you talk to how the story goes means this is a work in progress and corrections will be made as more information is discovered.

“I think we always remember where we grew up and went to school with special and happy thoughts that return when we experience something that floods our thoughts with memories.  I grew up in Lashmeet, a small rural community in Mercer County, West Virginia.  My family moved there when I was seven so I was always a ‘come-lately’.  I remember the big snowfalls and making snow tunnels in the drifts, sledding, bike riding, walking to Wright’s Market for an ice cream cone and exchanging soda bottles for change to buy penny candy.  I was close enough to the school to walk.  Lashmeet School had the most amazingly tall swings on the side of a hill and a really tall slide – it is a wonder we did not get seriously hurt.  There was hop scotch, shooting marbles, playing tag – and in the winter – sliding on ice made by pouring water on the hardtop of the playground.  Junior and senior high school required riding the bus to Matoaka about 3 miles away.  Boys basketball was about our only sport at MHS in the 1960s as there was no room anywhere for anything else.  But there was band, majorettes, cheerleading and lots of clubs. You could go uptown for lunch at Shuck’s in the old bank building (was really amazing how many people could fit in Shuck’s for a hot dog or fries for 45 minutes a day) or to William’s Café. Town stores included Akel’s Five & Dime, a Pool Room, A&P, Sam Davis Grocery, the Post Office, Moose Lodge, and a Drug Store.  The streets were pretty crowded and the stores were busy.  The town was really small size-wise.  Built by the railroad tracks.  Trains and coal are what pushed the economy of the area.  Hearing the train whistles blow and the full cars rumble through the town could be heard while in class, walking down the tracks to pick berries, and seeing the miners walking to their homes are memories stamped in my brain. It is really hard to talk about Matoaka and not talk about all the small coal towns and communities that also fed the economy.  I was only there from 1957-1968, but this area is home to me.  While there is not much left of the glory days of Matoaka or the town itself and most of the coal towns are gone, I still remember when…”  ~ Linda Harris Godfrey