Heritage tourism has proven to be a valuable and major industry for West Virginia and is centered on the preservation of historic traditions, sites, music, stories, and more. Each year, we recognize a project, site, and organization that is making a significant contribution to the heritage tourism industry in West Virginia.
Mike Gwinn of Beckley nominated a new coal heritage site that memorializes the twenty-nine miners who lost their lives in a coal dust explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine on August 5th, 2010 in Montcoal, WV. Coal heritage is an important part of the tourism industry for West Virginia, and the Upper Big Branch Miners Memorial in Whitesville epitomizes the significance of this heritage. The memorial is unique, also, because it recognizes the actions of first responders and mine rescue teams.
This memorial would not exist if it weren’t for the Upper Big Branch Mining Memorial Group. It formed in February of 2011 with a plan to secure funding for a permanent memorial to honor the miners killed at Upper Big Branch. This permanent memorial would replace a makeshift memorial in a gazebo that served as a place for family, friends, and the community to gather to remember and reflect on the lives lost in the days following the explosion. The memorial group’s goal in designing the Upper Big Branch Memorial was to replicate the gazebo’s appeal but in a more permanent and appropriate way.
The group partnered with Rob Dinsmore of Chapman Technical Group in St. Albans, to design the memorial. It consists of three distinct sections: The Upper Big Branch Miners Monument; the First Responders Bronze sculpted by West Virginia artisan Ross Straight; and interpretive signage that serves as a gateway to the memorial plaza.
What makes this memorial so special is that it was designed to be more than a gravestone and historical marker. Every aspect of its design was planned with economic development and tourism in mind, as well as the intention of providing an educational experience. The information included on the interpretive signs was provided by the famous coal heritage historian Davitt McAteer and the Governor’s Independent Investigation of the Upper Big Branch Disaster.
The economic impacts of the memorial are already being felt in Whitesville and the surrounding areas. The group has leveraged social media to promote events at the memorial. It is working with Coal Heritage Area to expand the memorial’s print and online ad campaign and is reaching outside of the state to tourists through travel magazines and websites. Additionally, it is an official geocache site and has quickly become a popular location for motorcyclists and former West Virginians who are home visiting family in the area. The group has even held meetings with local business owners to network and encourage them to target memorial visitors during the summer as tourist traffic increased. Through its website, the group has introduced a community page that exists as a travel resource for visitors and lists local restaurants and convenience stores in Whitesville. It also lists the names and contact information of other coal related tourism sites in West Virginia in the hopes of attracting more visitors from greater distances. It takes a strong-minded and dedicated group of individuals to withstand such great loss and create something positive from it. It was our pleasure to present the Heritage Tourism Award to the Upper Big Branch Mining Memorial Group. Accepting the award were Sheila Combs, Pamela Miller, and Adam Pauley.