Opening up a printed 19th century atlas of Athens County, Tom O’Grady points to dozens of towns that no longer exist — Floodwood, Federal and Salina, for example — or at the once-bustling coal towns that became jagged abandoned buildings and piles of bricks.
Mostly hidden by autumn leaves, an Ohio University student cruising the Hockhocking Adena Bikeway might miss the crumbling stone walls, bricks and metal rods that evidence the abandoned mining town Floodwood, which once boomed during the coal industry’s heyday.
“Smaller towns, they kind of got left behind,” O’Grady, executive director of the Southeast Ohio Historical Society, said. “So all you’re going to find now is remnants of old buildings.”
Emma Howells / Photo illustration
The remnants of the Canaanville Coal Co. mine in Canaanville, which is about ten minutes east of Athens.
Located in York Township, about 14 miles northwest of the City of Athens, Floodwood was home to coal mines, rows of houses and a company store in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Now the old town is gone, though New Floodwood lies on the other side of the Hocking River.
Sometimes unofficially labeled “ghost towns,” many abandoned mining communities like Floodwood dot Appalachian counties. More than 70 such mining towns flourished in southeast Ohio at the beginning of the 20th century, according to the book Little Cities of Black Diamonds, written by Jeffrey Darbee and Nancy Recchie.
“(Towns) saw themselves as growing toward becoming cities,” Cheryl Blosser, historian for the Little Cities of Black Diamonds Council, said. “They thought, ‘if we’re growing this fast in a few years, someday we’re really going to have a future here.’ ”
While some towns survived the decline of Ohio’s coal industry, others did not and were abandoned as workers and their families left the areas.
But those ghost towns serve as reminders of the region’s rich history, and some former mining towns have seen efforts to restore and preserve their historical structures.
“We don’t want to let these towns totally disappear,” Blosser said. “Having a building standing up is important. If all of that’s gone, all we have to show is a picture of the building.”
Most of today’s ghost towns began as areas established by mining companies to accommodate workers, O’Grady said.
“Often these towns would start up around some sort of a natural resource, a mineral or something like that,” he said. “So if it was a coal mining operation, then a village would spring up around that.”
Coal companies set up towns primarily in Athens, Hocking, Perry and Morgan counties, according to Little Cities of Black Diamonds. By 1870, the counties were at the center of Ohio’s coal mining industry.
The industry boomed: from 1850 to the 1920s, coal production in Ohio increased from about 1 million tons produced per year to about 30 to 40 million, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
A statue of a coal miner sits in a small garden in downtown Shawnee on Oct. 20.
“If there’s nothing there but a field, and you want to open a mine, then you have to provide,” Blosser said. “The company has to come up with a way to house (miners), and if you want to keep them, then you have to provide basic services.”
Those services, provided by companies, included housing, stores, schools and medical care for miners and their families, Blosser said.
However, many of the towns’ buildings were not built to last, Geoffrey Buckley, professor of geography at OU, said.
“If (towns) are going to be there for 10 years, you’re putting up pretty cookie-cutter housing that maybe is substandard,” Buckley, who has researched social and environmental impacts of coal mining in Appalachia, said. “That stuff disappears pretty quickly.”
Some buildings in coal company towns did last, though, such as the company store in Canaanville, about nine miles east of Athens. Now, the old brick building is known as the Athens Do It Yourself Shop, 16060 Canaanville Rd., and sells beer and wine-making supplies.
The store, previously owned by the Canaan Coal Company, closed in 1930 and had a variety of uses before current owner Eric Hedin opened up shop. In previous decades, the building was used as a dance hall, an antique shop and a yarn shop, he said.
“We should embrace the past,” Hedin said. “We should try to preserve the past more.”
Parts of the coal company’s abandoned mining buildings and smokestacks can be seen a few hundred yards from the store on Mine Road.
Robert Christy, a Canaanville resident for more than 70 years, lives on Mine Road.
“The mine closed in the 1920s,” he said. “Pictures of that time are hard to come by.”
For those who lived in the towns, it was often difficult to make a living. Miners were usually paid by the ton of mined coal and had to work six days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day, Blosser said.
“They used to say that Sunday was the one day you actually saw the sun, because you went in the mines in the dark, and you came out in the dark,” she said.
But during the 20th century, some smaller towns began to decline, becoming the “ghosts” they are today.
Provided via State Library of Ohio
Once coal was mostly extracted from a particular area, people abandoned smaller towns and left their buildings behind, O’Grady said.
“Most of the ghost towns I know were never large,” O’Grady said. “They existed because there was a lot of industry here. As that part of the economy declined, they faded into the distance.”
Beginning around 1920, the “coal boom” of the region collapsed as businesses closed and residents moved away, according to Little Cities of Black Diamonds.
During and after the ’60s, coal production began to shift toward the western U.S., and oil and natural gas became more popular energy sources, Buckley said.
In addition, as cars became more popularly used, miners no longer had to live in company towns directly next to the mines, he said.
“The utility of these mine towns went away a long time ago,” Buckley said. “Towns really started to wither on the vine.”
Blosser said many who left the region during World War II did not return because there were jobs and opportunities in larger towns and cities.
“Once you start getting those jobs in other places … you’re not going to come back,” she said. “Many of these towns diminished and continue to diminish.”
The abandoned towns, or what is left of them, are presently scattered across southeast Ohio. O’Grady said many are in the Wayne National Forest.
Some of the more accessible spots include San Toy, East Clayton and Oreton. Some unofficial websites offer lists and locations of the so-called ghost towns, such as Ohio Ghost Town Exploration Co.
The streets of Shawnee have a mix of shops, homes, and abandoned storefronts.
Many of southeast Ohio’s small towns were once mining communities, and their residents remain in the region simply because they love it there, Blosser said.
“The people that stay, many of them are very loyal to the area and they don’t want to live in the cities,” Blosser said. “It seems to foreign to them. I find a hard time looking at flat land, it just sort of bothers me, there’s something wrong with it.”
Blosser, who lives near Shawnee in the former mining town New Straitsville, said her husband’s family has lived in the region since the early 19th century.
Blosser also works as a tour guide for the Little Cities of Black Diamonds Council, which is based in Shawnee. The council aims to educate people in the area about the history of mining towns.
“(People) don’t realize the accomplishments and life that the people here had and the difference it made,” Blosser said. “They should be really proud of that history.”
Over the years, groups in the area have made efforts to reclaim and preserve buildings in former mining communities such as Shawnee, Blosser said.
One example of that is the Tecumseh Theater in Shawnee, which was built in 1907 and provided entertainment to those in the mining community for decades. The theater has since been restored and preserved by a group of local residents after nearly being demolished in the ’70s, Blosser said.
Today, grassroots groups such as the Little Cities of Black Diamonds Council and the Ohio Hill Country Heritage Area, work to preserve and celebrate the mining towns in the region, Blosser said.
“For the first time I’m starting to see a little bit of hope. I really am,” she said. “I’m seeing some things change.”