Most recently updated on May 22, 2023
Originally posted on April 10, 2021
We’ll be spending our entire day motoring along Interstate 64, the freeway that takes travelers from St, Louis all the way to the Atlantic Coast in Virginia.
We were on this road briefly three days ago making our way from Richmond to Charlottesville.
Today, the virtual route takes us east out of Louisville.
After an hour of passing through the Kentucky countryside we arrive in Frankfort, the state capital.
The city has a population of slightly less than 30,000, making it the fourth least populous state capital in the nation. It’s the second least populous we will travel through during our 60-day journey.
Native Americans once roamed this heavily forested region for centuries as a hunting ground, seeking out migrating herds of buffalo, deer and elk.
The first English explorers passed through in the 1750s. Daniel Boone was part of a hunting party that visited in 1769. Boone and his wife, Rebecca, are buried in a cemetery in Frankfort.
The town was founded in 1786 and named after Stephen Frank, who was killed in an attack by native tribe members in 1780.
The governor’s mansion was built in 1789, reportedly making it the oldest governor’s home still in use in the country. Frankfort was officially named state capital three years later in 1792.
The Lexington and Ohio Railroad arrived in 1835 and was used extensively by the timber industry. Tobacco, salt pork and livestock businesses were also busy.
During the Civil War, Confederate troops held the city for one month in 1862. Since Kentucky was officially a neutral state, that technically makes Frankfort the only Union state capital to be captured by the South. Union troops regained control in short notice and built forts to protect the city.
On January 30, 1900, Kentucky Governor-elect William Goebel was shot as he walked to the state Capitol. The assailant used a high-caliber weapon from an office across the street. Goebel was headed to the Capitol to observe hearings on his disputed election victory. Goebel was sworn in the next day, despite being wounded. He died two days later. To this day, Goebel is the only U.S. governor to be assassinated while in office.
The economy today in Frankfort is centered on the bourbon industry. There are at least eight distilleries, breweries and wineries here. It celebrates with a Bourbon on the Banks festival in October.
Agriculture is also a factor in this region with tobacco and corn being among the chief products. The thoroughbred horse industry is also active as are auto parts and furniture manufacturing as well as machinery.
Kentucky State University, which was established in 1886 as the State Normal School for Colored Persons, is here. About 2,000 students are enrolled at the Black land-grant university.
Also here is the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The memorial opened in 1988. It includes a sundial with the names of all 1,108 Kentucky military personnel who died in that war. The sundial is constructed so it shadows the names of the soldiers on the anniversaries of their death.
Frankfort is also home to the Floral Clock, a 34-foot-wide sculpture surrounded by water and flowers. It was built on the grounds of the state Capitol in 1961 and weighs 100 tons. The clock has 10,000 locally grown plants inside it. The hour hand is 15 feet long and the minute hand is 20 feet long. Coins thrown into the wishing well are used to fund scholarships in horticulture.
Another 40 minutes east on Interstate 64 takes us to Lexington, the second most populous city in Kentucky with 320,000 residents, a population that skyrocketed when the city merged with Fayette County in 1974.
Lexington, which sits in the Kentucky hills at an elevation of 1,000 feet, is known as the “Horse Capital of the World” and not without reason.
For starters, there are 450 horse farms here.
The best known is the Kentucky Horse Park, a working horse farm and educational facility opened in 1978. It’s been home to championship horses such as John Henry and Cigar. The 1,200 acres of bluegrass farmland are dedicated to educating the public about humans’ relationship with horses. It contains an International Museum of the Horse as well as a Hall of Champions. There’s also the Big Barn, where visitors can learn about horses and watch them being groomed.
In another part of town is The Thoroughbred Center, which houses more than 900 horses as they train for races. The facility was built in 1969 and contains more than 1,000 stalls as well as two practice tracks.
Lexington also has two active race courses.
Keeneland is a track for thoroughbred racing. It opened in 1936. The facility hosts races for horses of all ages. They include five Grade 1 stakes, which are considered to be potential springboards to Triple Crown and Breeder’s Cup competitions. Famous jockeys, included Bill Shoemaker, Eddie Arcaro and Angel Cordero Jr., have competed here.
The Red Mile Gaming & Racing track hosts harness racing where horses pull two-wheeled carts. It’s the second oldest harness track in the world. The facility opened in 1875. The resort also has 900 gaming terminals as well as live broadcasts of horse races on 175 televisions. The complex is named after its one-mile oval track and its red clay dirt.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Lexington was the center of the state’s Pack Horse Library initiative where librarians rode horses to bring books to underserved rural areas during and immediately after the Great Depression.
The program was administered under the Works Progress Administration and provided reading material to people in a 10,000-square-mile region of eastern Kentucky. It was estimated in 1930 that almost one-third of residents in this area couldn’t read.
Book centers were set up in churches, post offices and other facilities. They were run by librarians who supplied carriers with books and magazines donated by the community. Those riders then got on their horses and traveled into the hills. Some of them rode 18 to 20 miles in a day on their routes. Some stopped by schools. Others also carried mail and other packages.
In 1936, pack horse library riders served 50,000 families. The horse program ended in 1943, but in 1946 book mobiles took their place. In 2014, Kentucky had 75 book mobiles, the most of any state.
In 1958, the city also established the nation’s first urban growth boundary. This was done to protect the horse farms on the edge of town while allowing for development in the city’s core. This was in essence the first greenbelt in the United States.
That law, however, is now under fire. In 2019, developers and business owners went to city officials, complaining that the greenbelt is limiting growth, increasing housing prices and driving away commerce. A task force was appointed in April 2022 to study the issue.
The Fayette Alliance, a pro-greenbelt group, argues that Lexington’s horse industry contributes $3.5 billion to Kentucky’s economy every year and is responsible for 96,000 jobs in the state. The group also points out that the horse culture brings in tens of thousands of tourists every year.
City planners note that an estimated 40,000 new residents will come to Lexington by 2025, creating demand for new housing. They say, however, that new homes can be built without tearing up the horse country’s pastures.
The region has a long history with the land here.
Native tribes hunted extensively in this area for centuries.
The city was founded in 1775 and named after Lexington, Massachusetts, the site of the first skirmish in the Revolutionary War.
Besides horse-related businesses, the early economy also relied on tobacco and hemp production. The town developed a manufacturing sector and became a major trading center. With 1,800 residents, it was one of the largest towns in what then was known as “western America.”
Today, the horse industry remains strong, but there are also markets for beef, sheep and bluegrass seed. The Jif factory here is the largest peanut butter producing facility in the world. The plant employs more than 200 people and is known to create quite a pleasant peanut-y aroma in the neighborhood where it sits.
The city is also the headquarters for Lexmark International, Tempur Sealy international and A&W Restaurants.
The University of Kentucky is in Lexington. It was established in 1865. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, is one of the famous graduates from the university. Today, the 814-acre campus houses about 22,000 undergraduate students.
There appears to be a strong education component throughout the town. It’s estimated that more than 40 percent of adults in the city have college degrees.
Lexington also has a thriving LGBTQ community. In 2019, the city received a rating of 93 out of 100 from the Human Right Campaign for its inclusive policies and laws. The group Lexington Fairness has been working on LGBTQ programs here since 1992. They helped pass the Fayette County Fairness Ordinance in 1999. They also helped establish the Lexington Pride Festival in 2018. In November 2022, Lexington was named as one of the most inclusive cities for LGBTQ people.
There are two historic houses worth noting before we leave town.
The Mary Todd Lincoln House was originally built in 1803 as an inn. The Todd family acquired the property in 1832. Mary Todd lived in the home from 1832 to 1839 before she moved to Springfield, Illinois, and married future president Abraham Lincoln. The 14-room house was opened to the public in 1977. It was the first historic site to be restored in honor of a first lady.
There’s also Ashland, the historic estate of Henry Clay, the congressional representative and senator known as “The Great Compromiser.” The home was built around 1806. At point, the plantation housed 60 slaves and covered 600 acres. Today, the estate encompasses 17 acres that showcases historic buildings, gardens and walking paths. It also includes artifacts from the five generations of the Clay family that lived here.
There are some famous people from the entertainment industry with Lexington ties, too.
Actor George Clooney was born here. So was country music star Chris Stapleton. Actress Ashley Judd, a University of Kentucky graduate, is known to attend basketball games at her alma mater. And actor Johnny Depp owned a 41-acre horse farm in the Lexington area until he sold it in 2020 for $1.3 million.
Two hours east of Lexington along Interstate 64, we reach the town of Ashland, a community nestled in a corner of Kentucky near its borders with West Virginia and Ohio.
This community of 21,000 along the Ohio River doesn’t look like a place where you’d find Russian intrigue amid high-profile plans for a large-scale manufacturing plant.
But that’s what’s been happening here the past few years.
Ashland had humble beginnings and was a rising star during the Industrial Revolution.
It was settled in 1786 when the Scottish-Irish Poage family traveled from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia through the Cumberland Gap and built a homestead along the river.
The town grew rapidly in the 1800s due to the Ohio Valley pig iron industry. In 1854, officials at the Kentucky Iron, Coal and Manufacturing Company laid out the city. Ashland was incorporated as a village in 1858 and named after Henry Clay’s home in Lexington.
At one time, Ashland was the busiest stop on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad.
During the 1900s, the major employers here included Armco, Ashland Oil and Refining Company, and Allied Chemical and Dye Company. Armco opened a steel plant in 1923, producing steel sheets using a groundbreaking continuous rolling process. At its height in 1954, the factory employed 7,500 people.
The city’s industrial base began to decline in the 1980s. Armco was purchased by AK Steel, which reduced the payroll to less than 1,000 workers. In 2019, the plant closed.
The other manufacturing complexes also faded. King’s Daughters Medical Center is now the city’s largest employer.
As the industrial base declined, Braidy Industries and the Russians stepped in.
In 2018, the company announced it planned to build a $1.3 billion aluminum processing plant on 300 grassy acres near Interstate 64. It was projected to be the largest aluminum factory built in the United States in 40 years.
Braidy officials said the 2.5-million-square foot plant would employ more than 500 people at twice the average local salary and create 18,000 other jobs across the state. Kentucky handed over $15 million in tax revenues to help the project along.
Most people in the region were ecstatic… until a story appeared in Time magazine in August 2019.
That article detailed how Rusal, a Russian aluminum company, had purchased a 40 percent stake in the Ashland plant for $200 million after economic sanctions against that country were lifted by the Trump administration. Braidy’s executives also had to look past the fact that the billionaire owner of Rusal was being investigated on suspicion of interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The story came a month after it was reported that Braidy had to raise $300 million in equity capital in three months or risk losing the Ashland venture.
Many people in the community still welcomed the Russian investment in order to bring in new jobs.
Others, however, expressed concerns. Some Democratic activists said Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell had worked to get the Russian sanctions lifted so the aluminum plant project could go forward. This was part of the impetus for the Democrats “Moscow Mitch” campaign, along with McConnell’s refusal to support legislation to improve election security in the United States.
The original Braidy plans called for the aluminum plant to be built in 2020. However, financial difficulties continued to delay the project. In early 2020, there were reports that company needed another $500 million to make the new plant happen.
In October 2020, Braidy announced it was changed the company name to Unity Aluminum. In a statement, company officials said there is a 2.6 million metric ton shortage of aluminum in the United States and the average of current processing facilities is 70 years.
Unity officials said the new plant would produce 300,000 tons of aluminum sheet every year to be used in everything from cars to soda cans to planes.
“Simply put, America is not producing enough aluminum to meet its own demands,” the statement read. “Not only can the U.S. increase production to our own materials like aluminum, but we can do it with American workers, creating jobs that support local economies.”
However, financial difficulties continue to plague the project. In September 2021, state legislators grilled Unity executives about why the opening of the plant has been pushed back to 2025 as well as what it’s doing with the $15 million it received from the state for the facility.
In January 2022, state legislators began the process to recover the $15 million investment. In September 2022, state officials announced they had recovered the $15 million.
Plans for the aluminum factory appear to be dead, but if it is ever built, it could be a boost for Ashland.
The city’s median annual household income is $45,000 and the poverty level hovers at about 23 percent.
Michael Graese, Ashland’s city manager, said in spring 2021 that the town was “very hopeful” the Unity project will still come through. They also hoped to market the former AK Steel site as well as the acreage once used by a coke plant as industrial sites along the Ohio River.
They also would like to recruit people who can work from home to live here, similar to the Tulsa Remote program we discussed on Day 10 in Oklahoma.
In the meantime, Graese told 60 Days USA the city is working on a plan under the guidance of Roger Brooks’ Destination Development Association to turn their downtown into a “place making” location.
Right now, cars tend to speed through town on Ashland’s two main roads, Highway 23 and Winchester Avenue. The idea, Graese explains, is to change Winchester from four lanes to two lanes with parallel parking in hopes motorists will slow down and stop.
The city wants to lure visitors to stop in at the Paramount Arts Center, a theater with 1,400 seats, as well as its 50-acre Central Park with three statues by Spanish artist Gines Serran-Pagan that were dedicated in January 2020.
Graese says the people of Ashland are hard working as well as friendly and family oriented. The town is also a faith-based community.
He adds there is plenty to do in the Ashland area from outdoor activities to some of their annual events, including the Gravy Bowl competitions in February as the Summer Motion celebrations during July 4th weekends.
“We’ve got all the things somebody would want to do,” he said. “You’re not going to be bored here.”
Before we leave, we should some of the famous folks with ties to Ashland.
Among them is former CIA director Gina Haspel, who was born here in 1956.
The mother-daughter singing duo of Naomi and Wynonna Judd were both born in Ashland, 18 years apart.
Game show host Chuck Woolery is also a native, born here in 1941.
Opioids, Chemicals and Coal
From downtown Ashland, we return to Interstate 64, cross the meandering Ohio River and enter West Virginia.
We’ll discuss some of the serious issues facing the state along the rest of today’s drive, but we’ll also drop by a school known for its championship singing as well as a food market that is helping people eat healthier.
First, a little history.
Native Americans occupied this land for thousands of years. In the 1670s, the Iroquois drove out other tribes to preserve their hunting grounds.
The first European explorers passed through about that same time.
The territory was claimed by a number of states before Virginia finally snagged it. West Virginia was formed after Virginia seceded from the Union at the start of the Civil War. In response, residents of northwestern Virginia held two convention in 1861 in Wheeling, a town wedged in a panhandle between Ohio and Pennsylvania, to discuss becoming a separate state. They eventually succeeded, being admitted as the 35th state in 1863.
West Virginia remains the only state to be carved out of another state.
The early economy centered on the development of mineral resources. Initially, limestone was mined. Coal quickly took over as the chief mining product. The abundance of West Virginia coal helped fuel the Industrial Revolution. New mining methods and railroads expanded the industry. It also was the center of labor disputes and union organizing in the 1900s.
Coal is still an important cog in the economy of West Virginia. The state remains second in coal production, behind only Wyoming. In addition, 91 percent of electricity in West Virginia is produced by coal-fired plants.
However, coal is not what it once was in West Virginia and it looks like it’s on the way out.
The mining industry here peaked in the 1940s at 125,000 jobs. State officials reported that only about 12,000 people were employed in West Virginia’s coal mines in 2021, the lowest number since 1890.
Coal production in West Virginia topped out in 2008 when nearly 158 million short tons were mined. That had fallen to 78 million short tons in 2021.
The decline is being seen nationwide.
There are about 55,000 coal mining jobs left in the country. That’s down from more than 800,000 at the industry’s peak in the 1920s and more than 250,000 at the start of 2012.
One reason is that less than 20 percent of the nation’s electricity is now powered by coal. That’s down from 48 percent in 2008.
There are a number of reasons for the decline. For starters, most of the best quality coal has already been taken from the ground. In addition, air pollution rules have dampened production. And alternative energy sources such as wind and solar have expanded.
There’s also a cost factor.
A 2019 report noted that coal cost between $60 and $143 per megawatt hour compared to $41 to $74 for natural gas. Wind power cost $29 to $56 per megawatt, down from $70 a few years ago. Solar power’s price range was $40 to $46 per hour compared to $120 in 2010.
President Donald Trump championed coal after his election 2016, but the industry didn’t grow much during his years in the White House.
In fact, four coal companies filed for bankruptcy between October 2018 and July 2019.
A 2018 report stated a comeback by the coal industry isn’t likely. A 2019 report predicted that renewable energy will replace coal as the world’s main fuel source by 2030. An expert from the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado said at the 2019 World Environment Day that “Coal will be gone by 2030.”
That’s certainly the way it looks in West Virginia.
Natural gas production, on the other hand, has skyrocketed in the state, rising from 250 billion cubic feet per year in 2008 to 1.4 trillion cubic feet in 2017. In 2021, production rose to 2.5 trillion cubic feet, placing West Virginia fourth among states in that industry. Employment in the field has risen to more than 13,000 jobs, more than coal mining.
The chemical industry is still strong and tourism is mostly centered on outdoor recreation. Unlike some of its neighbors, West Virginia has limited farming activity due to its mountainous terrain.
West Virginia remains a sparsely populated state with many smaller, more rural towns. It has less than 1.8 million residents, placing it 39th among states. There are only 13 towns here with populations above 10,000. The population of most West Virginia towns has declined since the 2010 census. Overall, the state’s population has decreased by about 80,000 since 2010. That drop has cost West Virginia one of its seats in the House of Representatives.
About 91 percent of the populace here is white, one of the higher percentages in the nation. West Virginia’s annual median household income is less than $47,000, ahead of only Mississippi.
West Virginia also suffers from a myriad of health problems. It has the highest per capita rate of cancer deaths among the states, slightly ahead of Kentucky. It also has one of the highest rates for premature deaths. One reason is that West Virginia has the highest adult smoking rate in the nation at 20 percent.
The coal and other industries have left their mark.
In 2020, it was reported there is resurgence in West Virginia of black lung disease, a potentially fatal ailment that can strike coal miners who inhale toxic dust in underground mines over a number of years.
In 2019, officials announced that a fund to pay for medical expenses for coal miners with black lung disease was running low on money because the Trump administration allowed coal companies to cut in half the payments they were making to the fund.
In April 2020, the National Mining Association asked Congress to cut by 55 percent the tax on coal production that funds the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which sends monthly payments to 25,000 retired coal miners. The reduction would force the trust fund to borrow money from the federal government.
In March 2021, Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) introduced a bill that would make it easier for families of coal miners to receive benefits from the trust fund. In November 2021, it was reported that the fund had borrowed $2.3 trillion from the U.S. Treasury to meet its payments that year.
In August 2022, it was announced that a permanent extension of the trust fund had been granted under the Inflation Reduction approved by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden.
Put all this together and you get a state that is ranked 47th for health outcomes.
But one that is making an effort to solve some these problems, as we shall see down the road.
About 10 minutes past the West Virginia border, we came upon Huntington, a town that has dealt with its share of economic and health issues.
The town has a population of 45,000, making it the second most populous city in the state. Its population, however, has fallen slightly since the 2010 census. It’s about half what it was in 1950.
The Huntington region was originally inhabited by Ohio Valley Native American tribes such as the Adena, Huron, Shawnee and Iroquois.
It was first settled by Europeans in 1775 and incorporated as a city in 1871, being named after railroad president Collis Potter Huntington.
The railroad through town was completed in 1873 and drove the local economy. At one point, Huntington was the western terminus for the Chesapeake Ohio Railway.
The city thrived as a manufacturing and distribution center until the Great Flood of 1937, which caused $17 million in damage and left 6,000 people homeless. In 1938, the Army Corps of Engineers built a 15-mile flood wall to help future disasters.
Problems have plagued Huntington ever since.
After 1950, the economy declined as the steel and manufacturing industries faded. In 1993, 600 people lost their jobs when the Owens-Illinois glass container factory closed.
In 1970, tragedy struck Marshall University, a college of 12,000 students in Huntington established in 1837 and named after Supreme Court Justice John Marshall. On November 14, a chartered jet crashed near Tri-State Airport. The crash killed all 75 people on board, including 37 members of the Marshall football team who were returning from a game against East Carolina State. The team’s coach, the university’s athletic director and 25 team boosters were also on the plane.
A 2006 Warner Brothers film, “We Are Marshall,” was filmed in town. It depicted the crash, the grief suffered by the town and the attempts to rebuild the football program.
During the past two decades, Huntington has also been “ground zero” for the opioid crisis and the obesity epidemic that have struck the nation.
Cabell County, whose center of government is Huntington, was a target of aggressive marketing by Purdue Pharmaceuticals to persuade doctors to prescribe opioids such as OxyContin for pain relief. The history of the OxyContin epidemic and Purdue’s relentless sales pitch for their new “miracle drug” is captured in the Hulu series, “Dopesick,” that debuted in October 2021.
Huntington wasn’t the only place in West Virginia where a flood of prescription pills poured in.
In Williamson, a town of 3,000 people an hour and a half south of Huntington, there were 6,500 opioids per person handed out over a decade’s time. Two pharmacies four blocks apart did most of the transactions.
In Kermit, a town of less than 300 people a half-hour north of Williamson, pharmaceutical companies shipped 12 million pain medication pills during that time period.
In West Virginia, the pain medications led to addictions that led to the use of illegal opioids such as heroin and fentanyl. In 2018, the state topped all others with 51 drug overdose deaths per 100,000 residents.
Huntington was among the town with the most serious crisis.
In 2016, the city was one of the highest in the state for heroin use, drug overdose deaths and drug-dependent newborns.
Overdoses weren’t the only problem.
In 2019, an HIV cluster was identified in Huntington and blamed on the use of dirty needles by people who were injecting opioids.
Drug abuse hasn’t been the only problem in the region.
In 2008, Huntington was named the unhealthiest city in the United States. The title was bestowed on the town due to the fact that nearly half the town then was categorized as obese. It also ranked high for heart disease, diabetes and seniors who had lost all their teeth.
In 2014, Huntington was named as the “fattest city” in the country with an obesity rate near 40 percent.
Huntington citizens, however, have fought back.
After the Owens Brockway factory closure in 1993, a group of residents formed the organization Our Jobs, Our Children, Our Future. The purpose was to focus on the city’s economic future. After 2000, city leaders began to shift the focus of the local economy from manufacturing to education, technology, services and tourism. The glass factory was transformed into an industrial park. Pullman Square opened in 2004 on a “super block” where four city blocks have been demolished in 1970 as part of an urban renewal project.
The economy continues to be bolstered by the town’s placement along the Ohio River at the mouth of the Guyandotte River. The Port of Huntington Tri State is the one of the largest inland ports in the country. It moves 80 million tons of goods such as coal, oil, chemicals and steel with a value of $5 billion in a typical year.
After the 2008 designation of unhealthiest city, chef Jamie Oliver brought his “Food Revolution” show to Huntington schools in fall 2009. He helped set up Huntington’s Kitchen, a community food center where people come to learn how to cook healthy, well-prepared meals.
While Oliver made a media splash and won an Emmy from browbeating parents and school employees, the real work was being done by people like Rhonda McCoy, the food services director of Huntington schools since 2005.
McCoy tweaked school recipes instead of overhauling them. She secured grants to retrofit kitchens and retrain cooks. Now, up to 80 percent of food served to Huntington schoolchildren is made from scratch. In 2019, McCoy received a national honor for her summer food program to feed low-income children when school isn’t in session.
After the “fattest city” designation, city leaders started a campaign to educate the town on how to eat healthier. By 2018, the obesity rate had dropped to 32 percent. That was still above the national average, but Huntington was no longer the most overweight community in the United States or even West Virginia. In 2019, the rate had dipped further to 29 percent.
Part of the solution has also been The Wild Ramp, a non-profit farmers’ market whose goal is encourage locally grown food economy.
Huntington pays homage to its past at the Heritage Farm Museum and Village. The 500-acre park has 25,000 square feet of facilities that display the history of Appalachia. Among the features are log buildings, a blacksmith shop and a country store.
Huntington is also home to the 26-acre Camden Park, one of the world’s oldest amusement parks. It was founded in 1903 as a picnic grove on the Camden Interstate Railway. Today, there are plenty of amusement rides as well as picnic areas, paddleboats and miniature golf.
A half-hour east on Interstate 64 takes us to Hurricane, a town that got its name from the shape of a few trees.
That happened in 1774 when a group of surveyors sent by General George Washington found a spot along a small stream where the trees were bent as if blown by a strong wind. So, they named the area Hurricane Creek.
The first group of European settlers arrived in 1811. The town grew as a stagecoach stop and livestock area.
In 1873, a depot was built along railroad lines. The town incorporated in 1888. In the early 1900s, Hurricane thrived as a trading post for tobacco farmers.
In the 1960s, the city experienced another growth spurt when Interstate 64 was built. That allow people living in Hurricane to work in either Huntington or the state capital of Charleston.
Hurricane has remained a small town throughout the decades. It has about 7,000 residents, almost 91 percent of whom are white. Its median annual household income is $65,000. The poverty rate is a relatively low 7 percent.
Hurricane has two businesses that have been downtown for more than 100 years now.
The first is Putnam County Bank, which was established in 1901. Its motto is “Today. Tomorrow. Together.”
The second is Rappolds Barber Shop, which opened its doors in 1906. It’s been owned by the Rappold family the entire time and is on its fourth generation of management. The shop is open only during the day and is closed on Sundays and Mondays. The family also has a line of products sold through the E. F. Rappold Barber Supply Company.
There’s also the Forrest Burdette Memorial United Methodist Church. The church has a six manual and pedal pipe organ with 2,600 pipes, 456 draw nobs and six keyboards. The organ, which was installed in 2003, is the largest draw nob console in the world.
The main reason for stopping in town, however, is a group of students at Hurricane High School. The Red Hot choir has been performing since 1992, but the singers reached new heights in 2015 with the arrival of Joseph Kincaid as their director.
For the 12 years before that, Kincaid had overseen Visual Volume, a singing group at nearby Poca High School. A side note on that school. Their mascot is the Dots. Get it? Poca Dots. The school has been recognized by ESPN in the past as having one of the best mascot names in the country.
While in Poca, Kincaid led Visual Volume to a number of titles, including two West Virginia state championships.
Since he’s been at Hurricane High, the Red Hot choir, a mix of male and female singers, has won five state championships.
Hurricane High also has an all-girls choir known as Heat Wave, which was formed in 2017.
You know you probably have some environmental and safety issues when your town is named after a chemical used in explosives.
That’s the story behind Nitro, a community of 6,300 residents along the Kanawha River just 20 minutes east of Hurricane.
The town was established in 1917 after Congress approved the Deficiency Appropriations Act. The law cleared the way for three large explosives plants to be built to supply U.S. soldiers with the gunpowder they needed for the war in Europe.
One of the sites chosen was this spot along the Kanawha River. The name “Nitro” came from the nitrocellulose, a highly flammable ingredient used in gunpowder production.
During the 11 months it took to build the plant, 110,000 employees were on the payroll at some point or another. One of them was 17-year-old Clark Gable, who two decades later would become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
The workers not only constructed the factory, they also built homes, a civic center and a hospital. All that while the 1918 influenza swept through parts of the town.
The facility’s Explosive Plant C manufactured its first batch of gunpowder in September 1918. It churned out 140,000 pounds of high explosives per day. However, the war ended two months later, so Plant C’s days were short-lived.
Within weeks of the shutdown, 12,000 of the 23,000 people residing in Nitro departed.
City officials sought out chemical companies to set up shop on the now unused 1,722 acres.
A number of industrial firms took them up on the offer.
It resulted in Nitro having the largest concentration of chemical plants in the country for nearly a century.
The production and the environmental damage that followed brought the region in and around Nitro the nickname “Chemical Valley.”
Exhibit A is the Fike/Artel chemical plant. The facility manufactured chemicals and disposed of waste products on its 12-acre site. It was placed on the National Priorities List of the federal Superfund environmental program in 1983 and was closed in 1988. Most of the cleanup was finished by 2011. The federal agency still monitors the groundwater and other aspects of the site.
There’s also the 26-acre site of the Great Lakes Chemical Company. This facility was previously owned by the FMC Corporation. The Environmental Protection Agency oversaw a wastewater cleanup program there. Most of that operation was completed by 2002. A 2017 order restricted future use of the site to non-residential projects. Monitoring of groundwater and vapor continues.
The Solutia Inc. Nitro Plant had its environmental problems, too. Solutia officials agreed in 2002 to institute a cleanup and wastewater monitoring plan. The program was put into action in 2005. Solutia filed for bankruptcy in 2008, so its parent company, Monsanto, took over the responsibility. In 2016, an order was issued to further clean up groundwater and to continue to monitor the site.
In 2012, Monsanto settled another case involving dioxin contamination from a plant that made Agent Orange, the cancerous chemical used in the Vietnam War. That plant, which produced Agent Orange from the 1940s to the early 1970s, closed in 2004. The company paid out $93 million to clean up contaminated dust from 4,500 homes as well as monitor the health of 5,000 former employees.
The EPA is also overseeing a cleanup of soil and water at a 40-acre site owned by Union Carbide Corporation, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical.
And if all that isn’t strange enough, there’s the story of Clonaid.
In 2001, the human cloning company quietly set up a lab at a former high school in Nitro. It turns out the company had close ties to Raelians, an organization that promotes the idea that the human race was created by aliens who landed here thousands of years ago.
Mark Hunt, a West Virginia state legislator, paid the company $5,000 to look into using DNA to clone his infant son who had died after heart surgery. The lab closed soon after Hunt gave up his quest.
Nitro, however, does take pride in some of its past.
The city describes itself as a “Living Memorial to World War One.”
There’s the Nitro Wars Museum that includes memorabilia and artifacts from the war. The complex also contains a replica of a trench that soldiers along the war front hunkered down in.
Living Memorial Park was established in 2017. It features a statue of a World War One “doughboy” soldier. City officials say the park is a place where people can come to honor the country’s military. The names of 300 military veterans are engraved at the park.
There’s also the Bank Street Memorial, which consists of a circle of 11 U.S. flags.
It’s just 20 more minutes east on Interstate 64 until you hit the state capital of Charleston, a city you can definitely say is worth its salt.
The town sits at the confluence of the Elk and Kanawha rivers.
About 47,000 people live in Charleston, making it the most populous city in West Virginia, slightly ahead of Huntington. Charleston holds the distinction of being the second smallest city that is the most populous in its state. Burlington, Vermont, is the only one in this category with fewer residents. Nonetheless, Charleston is still more populous than 10 other state capitals.
The Adena, a mound-building tribe, once occupied the Kanawha Valley where Charleston now sits.
The first Anglo settlement was Fort Lee, built in 1788. The town was officially established in 1794. Daniel Boone and his family were among the early residents, but they left for Kentucky as the town started to grow.
Salt brines were discovered along the Kanawha River in the early 1800s and the first salt well was drilled in 1806. By 1815, there were 52 salt facilities operating in the region.
The first natural gas well in the United States was drilled here in 1815. Coal was discovered in 1817 and was used to power salt production plants. By 1840, 90 salt furnaces in the region were burning coal.
Charleston also became a trading and wholesale center, especially for east-west travelers.
During the Civil War, Confederate troops initially had control of the city in 1862, but Union troops captured it later that year.
The railroads arrived in 1873 and the salt industry declined until World War One arrived. That’s when it was discovered that chemicals such as chlorine could be made from salt brine. The Westvaco Chlorine Products Corporation plant in town is still the world’s largest producer of chlorine.
In the 1900s, Charleston grew as a government center as well as a manufacturer of coal, salt and chemicals. Timber, glass and steel industries also sprouted here.
In 1947, an airport was built by clearing 360 acres on three mountaintops, moving 9 million cubic yards of dirt and rock in the process. The airport was originally named Kanawha Airport but was renamed in 1985 as Yeager Airport after pilot Chuck Yeager, the first person to break the sound barrier in an airplane.
In the 1960s, Interstates 64, 77 and 79 were completed, all converging on Charleston.
In 1983, the Charleston Town Center opened. It was the largest urban mall east of the Mississippi River.
Chemicals, coal and government services still make up a major chunk of the economy.
Salt still has its impact. Just south of Charleston in the town of Malden is the J. Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, a 7th generation plant still in operation.
Tomorrow, we will leave the South after 11 days and enter the Northeast, using a back door entrance that was part of an early national highway system.