Losing the War in West Virginia

You know a community is in trouble when even the police department and jail is closed and boarded up.

War, West Virginia, calls itself the southernmost city in the state but like so many communities where coal was once king, War has seen better days.

Discovered War by accident while riding West Virginia 16 on the Harley through the southern part of the state recently.

As I walked the deteriorating main street of War, I passed empty store fronts, abandoned buildings and cars and signs of despair.

Yet War’s population increased 9.4 percent from 2000 to 2010 — from 788 to 862.  A longtime war resident sitting in the old Miners Club seemed surprised by that.

“Sure seems to me that people are leaving,” John Putnam said.

Before its incorporation in 1920, War was simply known as “Miners City,” a town fueled by nearby coal operations.  It thrived during the coal boom of the 40s and 50s, reaching a peak population of 2,998.   Three theaters, a hotel, variety stores and other retail outlets lined Main Street.

But the demise of the coal industry in the region turned Main Street into a a dreary line of abandoned buildings, broken sidewalks and vanishing hope.

“Ain’t much here now,” says Leo Ratner, who sits in the Miners Club.  “We just sit here, listening to the town rust.”

The town’s web site hasn’t been updated in years.  Some links are broken.

Notes the town’s web site:

By the late 1960’s, with less demand for the bituminous coal of southern West Virginia, and with mines being closed all over the County, the city began to decline in population. This downward slide continues, even today. In 1995, there are several store buildings that are closed and remain empty. There are many things you cannot buy in town—shoes, clothing items, furniture, linens, etc. Some of the basics of life are here, but any unusual items, and many usual ones, must be secured out of town. Today, there is no competition in terms of items being sold. Only one store might carry an item which a person might want to purchase and, if you want it without leaving town, you pay the price. This includes groceries.

“We lost the war here in War,” Leo says. “It’s as simple as that.”

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