Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Local hero rescues neglected monument on New River

Plumley at Beury Monument
PRINCE, W.Va. -- Ralph Plumley did what no one else had managed. He rescued a long-neglected monument that had been raised to Colonel Joseph Lawton Beury (1842-1903), the first man to ship coal out of the New River Coal Field. While several agencies debated how and when and whether to rescue the brier-draped obelisk, Ralph Plumley quietly did so.

"I just thought saving it was the right thing to do," Plumley said while surveying his handiwork. "I didn't know that anyone else was trying to do anything about it. I just wanted people to know it was there and to be able to visit."

So Plumley set about acquiring the property, clearing away surrounding brush, and demolishing two derelict building to open the view.

Plumley, who grew up at Prince, played on the monument as a child in the 1960s, during which time it was partly hidden behind a restaurant and service station. The landmark's location below the level of the adjacent highway also worked to obscure it, though it was intended to overlook the site where the first carload of coal was shipped from the New River field. Beury had built a branch line here from his mine to meet the mainline of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway.

Obelisk cleared
An astute prospector, he had settled in a cabin at Quinnimont along the developing route of the railway several years before its completion. The line opened in January 1873, and Beury shipped the first load in September. Thereafter, he reinvested in land and mining operations many times, building one of the largest and most powerful industrial enterprises in West Virginia. He later moved to a mansion downstream, deep in the New River Gorge, at what came to be known as Beury. Only a few tumbled stones remain. Beury also provided land for the nearby McKendree Hospital, a miner's hospital that has also crumbled into ruins.

Following the fatal explosion of the Upper Big Branch Mine in 2010, a tragedy from which he barely escaped, Plumley decided to retire and spend his days improving the remote section of the New River Gorge in which he was born and raised.

Obelisk before clearing,
Cristy Bailey, director of the National Coal Heritage Area, lauded Plumley for his integrity. "I can't express how important it is that this site has been protected and enhanced," she said.

Plumley says he hopes to continue to provide good access to the site and keep the property managed, possibly adding signage to explain its history. The monument, an obelisk, overlooks the New River from a vantage that offers a clear view upstream and downstream.

Plumley welcomes all who would learn of the history of mining in the gorge to visit the site, which is located along WV-41 approximately .7 miles east of the railway station at Prince. Visitors are welcome to park in the flats along the road and walk down a bank to the site.

For more information on Beury and area ghost towns such as those at Prince and Quinnimont, visit our guide to Ghost Towns of the New River Gorge.

Related: 1950 Newspaper Reveals When Beury Monument Was Erected


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