Faces of Williamson, West Virginia: A Photo Essay
By Jorge Caraballo, 2015-2017, Colombia
I’ve only been in Williamson, West Virginia for 48 hours and even though it’s not enough time to have a deep sense of everything that is happening in town, I’ve found a significant contrast between the quiet energy that I feel on the streets and the vitality of the residents who are trying to make improvements to their community.
I have been walking around with my camera capturing signs of a town that has suffered a dramatic decrease in its population–from 10,000 to 3,000 people–and talking with locals, asking them why they chose to stay when the coal industry has slowed down.
Williamson, West Virginia, was once a vibrant mining town with a population of 10,000 people. Since the big coal mines closed, there has been a dramatic decrease in the population. You can feel the absence of those who have left.
The current population of Williamson is 3,000 people. There are a lot of empty buildings on Main Street; a lot of spaces available for rent.
The coal industry has been the main income for Williamson’s economy since the late 19th century. However, the business is not as profitable as it was a couple of decades ago, and the town has been struggling to find other sources of income.
“We have always been proud of coal, but we also acknowledge that we need alternatives that guarantee us a future, we must diversify our economy now,” says Darrin McCormick, former mayor of the town.
Even though it’s not as big as it was before, the coal business is still at the core of Williamson’s economy. Trains full of coal cross the town all day long.
Jenny Hudson is one of the leaders of Sustainable Williamson, the city wide initiative to diversify the economy of this Appalachian town. She explained to us the four lines of the model they’re implementing: 1) Recreational: How to engage the community 2) Agricultural: How to increase Williamson’s food production 3) Clinical: How to improve the health of the community 4) Entrepreneurship: How to train the people of Williamson so they can create their own enterprises.
Harold worked for 27 years as a coal miner. Now he’s soon to be eighty and lives with his wife in Shelby Valley, Kentucky, very close to Williamson. We spent the morning with him working in the community garden where hopefully he will grow his own vegetables.
Ian Fields, 19 and his girlfriend Brianna, 26, are waiting for their first daughter. “We chose to stay because we only want to raise our daughter here in Williamson. Growing up here gives you something, a personality that we haven’t found in other places. I want her to have that,” says Fields.
Garret Gregory, 31, was born and raised in Williamson, WV. He has four children and has been working as a full-time fireman for the past eight years. Even though he has strong roots in the community, he is planning to leave. “You can’t buy anything to put on a loaf of bread because there aren’t stores in our town. There are no places for our children to play. To be honest with you, we’ve already been looking for jobs in Ohio.”
Williamson is located in Mingo County in the southern part of West Virginia, bordering Kentucky and at the heart of the Appalachian Mountain Range.
There’s a deep pride in the community about its rich history and its relationship with coal, but many people are already talking about the alternatives they need to adopt in order to revitalize the community. The process is just starting.
To see more of Jorge’s photography visit his Flickr.
Colombian Fulbrighter Jorge Caraballo connects with a local musician in Williamson, West Virginia, in the heart of a billion dollar coal field. Photo by Eric Jenkins-Sahlin