West Virginia railroad culture: photos by Kevin Scanlon

My uncle Kevin Scanlon has snapping photos of Appalachian life for as long as I could form sentences -- actually, no, longer. When I was young, his photos taught me to appreciate the modest, mostly overlooked beauty surrounding the old railroads that snake through West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and neighboring states. His photographs document what is now a dying culture.

His first-ever solo exhibit opens tomorrow in Grafton, West Virginia. It's probably safe to guess that most of the people who read this blog post aren't in easy driving distance of Grafton, West Virginia, but you can see some of the images online, and buy prints if you're so inclined. If you do go to the opening on Saturday, please give him a hug for me.

Shown above: Morning Coal Train, Coopers, WV, 2005. Here's another one of my favorites from his railroad series. (high five, uncle Kev!)

Previously on BB: Kevin Scanlon's heavy industry photography

Update: Here's a snip from an interview with Kevin:

West Virginia reveals itself much like a book, one page at a time. The mountainous terrain and twisting valleys force you in close. Every page of the state has an interesting story to tell and another surprising view. The railroad is the thread that ties it all together. There are two themes that define my approach to photography: context and light. I am drawn to industrial subjects because of their influence on the culture of an area. Railroads are iconic in West Virginia. They were the key in developing the state, they were one of the defining factors when the state's borders were laid out and they literally carry the state away every day, one carload at a time. This series of photographs attempts to depict the railroad as an element of the landscape.
(thanks Aunt Dory!)


  1. Simplicity is calming and comforting… When I stare at Morning Coal Train I almost start to daydream.

  2. There’s nothing much to like about West Virginia except clean air, trees, trees, more trees, mist in the morning, cool moist air when other parts of the country are melting, a relaxed pace of life, honey-gold sunsets over endless rolling mountains and some of the best whitewater on the planet.

    As far as I’m concerned, West Virginia + high-speed internet access actually does equal heaven.

    Yeah I’m a tree-hugger. Sue me.

  3. Gee, and here I was remembering going out for drinks with friends from West Virginia (who commuted to Northern Virginia and the District to work) and having to choose where we went based on which clubs would admit a black man.

    Of course, this was back in the dark ages — 1994 or so.

    –which has nothing at all to do with Kevin Scanlon’s work, of course, which is wonderful.

  4. I think you might get called out by all the WV readers out there. I’m about an hour and a half’s drive away from Grafton. Every place I’ve been, I always manage to find myself back in WV. The scenery really is beautiful, and it’s almost like some areas are stuck somewhere in the distant past.

    Though, as Mazoola pointed out, that isn’t always a good thing. We still have problems with that sort of thing today, especially in the most rural areas. A lot of people in those areas have only seen black people on TV. :(

  5. That’s really cool, WV peeps! I was conceived in your fair state. My favorite part of West Virginia is Possum Holler, a tiny little burgh nestled between two old mountains, where you can buy cheese and pepperoni slices at Possum Holler Pizza. I used to have a bumper sticker from there, with a little possum offering you a piping hot slice in his little outstretched possum paw.

  6. My grandfather was a railroad engineer out of Dubois, PA. That part of the Appalachias is still, to me, some of the most beautiful country in the US. Gently rolling hills of endless woodland, stippled with granite outcrops and the occasional rusting steel belt town. I have friends in PGH who still spend a Saturday chasing a train through the green and smoky highlands that gave us pierogie suppers, black lung and the Whiskey Rebellion.

    Dolly Sods, WV is one of my favorite spots.

  7. @mattmckeon, i know that area, the monongahela valley! I love this warning about camping in the area — Civil War leftovers can make you hurty!


    [[[Special Notice: Many of the artillery and mortar shells shot into the area for practice still exist here. In 1997, a highly trained crew surveyed the trail locations and known campsites for shells. They found 15, some of which were still live. All were exploded on site. Many more may still exist and are dangerous. Since it is impossible to survey every acre of the wilderness, we ask that you follow the recommendations below for your own safety]]]

  8. One side of my family is from WV, and we used to go there a few times a year when I was a kid. In the years since then I’ve traveled all over, and I think West Virginia and Bali are tied for the most beautiful and distinctive landscapes I’ve seen.

    Sadly, all my family up there have either died off, moved away, or (ahem) gone to prison, so I haven’t been there in twenty years or so.

  9. Saying something even as benign as It’s probably safe to guess that most of the people who read this blog post aren’t in easy driving distance of Grafton, West Virginia is a sure way to raise any West Virginian’s ire!

    But thanks for the post. My family and I are all in West Virginia and can easily drive to Grafton. In fact, Grafton, WV is on U.S. Route 50; in pre-Interstate days it would have made an easy drive from much of the U.S. — relatively speaking, that is.

  10. The casting call was almost identical to the one for the new Star Trek movie. Funnily enough, New York and California allow cousin marriages and West Virginia does not. So much for stereotypes.

  11. That’s really cool, WV peeps! I was conceived in your fair state.

    Lucky you, and excellent post, Xeni. Those photos really capture the feeling.

    Anybody here ever walk out underneath the New River Gorge bridge? You can go all the way across in the supporting understructure. There’s not much between you and six hundred feet of open air but walkway and a few girders. The view doesn’t suck, and it kind of feels like Darth might pop out and say “search your feelings … you know it’s true” any moment.

  12. Beautiful pictures of my home region. Thanks for the post!

    I feel like I should both apologize and stand up for the Appalachian regions of Southwestern PA and WV: we’re slow to change in good ways and bad, but we try. Don’t give up on us!

  13. Actually, I live in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia, but grew up north of Grafton in Terra Alta. I come from a long line of railroad workers and the Grafton yard was one of my favorite places to visit. I may just make a weekend of seeing the folks and driving down to check out the exhibition.

  14. @Samurai Gratz: It’s technically back to “Wild and Wonderful” now, but most of the signs haven’t been changed back over yet, so you still get a nice “Open For Business” welcome in places, like coming into Keyser from Cumberland MD. That slogan was one of Gov. Manchin’s more idiotic changes since coming into office.

    @Tekna2007: I’ve gone underneath the bridge once, and it was terrifying. I’m not usually scared of heights, either; I’ve always wanted to check out the Bridge Day festivities there, but I guess it’s one of those things that the locals don’t get around to as much as the out-of-staters.

  15. My goodness, those bring back some memories, the Hawk’s Nest ones especially, as being closest to where I grew up. Trains, and coal trains specifically, were a part of my life from the time I was 3 or 5 months old, and a daily part from the age of 4 or so – we moved near a coal-fired power plant. This was back when the old Chessie System trains were commonplace too, not CSX Transportation (I understand the reasons for it, but aw…) Finally moved away in my twenties (married a boy from a coal family no less) for work, and while we’re working, I don’t think we could move back. When it’s just us, though, later, maybe so. I feel “unprotected” out of the mountains. Thanks, Xeni. (And I feel like I’ve heard your uncle’s name before, but I can’t place it….)

  16. I live about 15 minutes from Grafton, right up 119 toward morgantown. I wish I could make the photography show, but I have to work.

    And, whats so wrong about a movie casting guy looking for inbred or weird type of people? If you don’t want to be in the movie, then don’t.

  17. I grew up in Ansted, home of Hawk’s Nest State park.
    The train winding up the Gorge brings back a lot of memories. Growing up as a kid it was hard to apprieciate how beautiful my surroundings really were. At the time I was more interested in getting through high school and going to somewhere that wasn’t just “mountains, rivers and trees”. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the mountains, rivers and trees. I actually had some sex on the overlook where that picture was probably taken as well as in the woods near the tracks a little further up the Gorge. I never walked the catwalk under the New River gorge bridge but I did whitewater raft under it a few times. I’ve still got a lot a family back in Ansted but I rarely make it back. These pictures make me want to plan a road trip. Thanks!

  18. WOW! Some amazing shots of some of the most beautiful parts of this country. That shot on the Gallery announcement looks an awful lot like a tiny place called Thurmond, WV….population 7. Thurmond used to be a major stop along the C&O railroad back in the old days of coal. It was also where they filmed the movie ‘Matewan’ that tells about the plight of coal miners trying to unionize in the early 1900’s and was the sight of a massacre between miners and ‘company henchmen’. Check it out if you’d like to catch a glimpse of Appalachian life 80 or so years ago.

  19. I was born in WV (Morgantown, which my friend from McDowell County jokes is actually western PA). My mom’s family lives in Grafton. Of the many holidays I’ve spent in that town, this is probably the first art exhibit I’ve heard going there. The rest of the town is a dump; of course, one could say that for many WV boom towns. I counted myself lucky to have gotten out of that state when I did.

    That said, the art show looks interesting.

  20. There are two ways to get from Morgantown to my parent’s house without driving the interstate. One way is to take 119 through Grafton. The other is to take 119 to 92 via flat rock road. I usually prefer the latter way as there are no stop lights and no small towns. Tomorrow I’ll drive through Grafton on my way to Morgantown. Grafton was huge when coal was king and there are still some incredible old buildings downtown.

  21. MY wife Susan and I grew up in Morgantown and moved back here after 9 years in Boston to raise our family (a nine-year-old daughter and a boy on the way) and to be near our parents. I work at the West Virginia University Press as production manager and lead designer. I am going to talk to my director tomorrow about trying to acquire a massive coffee table book’s worth of Kevin Scanlon’s photos. He’ll never go for it–but God I would love it if he did. The “steel” section of his website is amazing.

  22. Thanks to you all for the comments. West Virginia is a rich and wonderful place if you take the time to really look. Mountain poets, coal miner musicians, beer can visionaries and story-telling ghosts will find you if you stop and listen. And it was a great time making the photographs.

  23. Another native West Virginian Boing Boing pal here. Born in Parkersburg, lived there and in Huntington, have family from Morgantown and Elkins and all over the place.

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