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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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Williamson is located in Mingo County in the southern part of West Virginia, bordering Kentucky and at the heart of the Appalachian Mountain Range.
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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.

Photo of Jorge

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

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10 Responses to Faces of Williamson, West Virginia: A Photo Essay

  1. Douglas Imbrogno says:

    Dear Jorge: I am a reporter for the newspaper in the capital city of West Virginia doing a story about the visit of the Fulbright scholars to Williamson and wondered if I might use one of your photos (of the old coal miner holding tools on his shoulder) to go with our story? You can call me, Douglas Imbrogno, at 304-348-3017

    • edmay says:

      Douglas, are you related to Mark or Gene Imbrogno ? If so please let them know Ed May says hello.

    • Jorge Caraballo says:

      Hi Douglas! I hope you had received a mail answering you this comment 🙂
      I would love to read your story. Is it online?
      Best wishes,
      Jorge

  2. Teresa McCune says:

    Dear Mr. Imbroglio, Public defender office in Mingo County is hosting the Fulbright scholars for a luncheon to celebrate national public defense day, Friday, March 18. You are welcome to join us. We will be discussing the role of public defenders in the justice system and how we serve our clients. 304 235 6011

    #tippingthescales

  3. Sheila Innamorata says:

    I wish you had visited Williamson back when I was growing up (50-60’s). I explain to people that they just have to imagine a Norman Rockwell painting of “home”, that would have been Williamson. It was a wonderful place to be raised. Everyone knew who your parents were, who your brother’s & sister’s were. My grandfather was actually killed working on the railroad, my daddy worked there also. We were very proud of our community and the love and respect that each and every one of them had. It’s so sad to go back now and see the drug infested place it has become.

    • Jorge Caraballo says:

      Thank you so much for your comment, Sheila. I would love to see pictures of Williamson back in those days. Do you know how to find those?

      I understand your frustration, but I found a town with a beautiful and strong community. I’m sure there are problems to solve, but after visiting Williamson and talking with some of its leaders, I’m optimistic about the future that they are building. Hopefully you will change your perspective soon 🙂

  4. Diane Maynard says:

    I spent several years of my younger life in this little town, had so many good memories of it. I’m 61, was born just across the river in Goody and as most my parents moved away to the big city. I kept those dreams in my heart and mind of how I loved this little town. Then when I finally got to return again a few years ago. I was heart broken to see what has happened. You can not take away jobs from these small towns and not help to replace them with some kind of industry, not just stores, gas stations etc.. it was truly a sad vacation for me that trip but I will continue to return with hopes it will become a beautiful place once again. We must not abandon our history for there was a lot there!!!

    • Jorge Caraballo says:

      I like what you say Diane! The fact that there are problems should not let you stop visiting Williamson. I share your hope that it will change for good very soon.
      Thank you so much for your comment!
      Jorge.

  5. Gina Starling Gunn says:

    it saddens me to see Williamson in this state of depression. I grew up in Williamson and even though it was not the optimal place to grow up, it was home. Williamson, if it is to grow must find a connection to the outside world, so that it’s residents don’t feel so isolated. Isolation in this community is indicative of how things are in the state of West Virginia. Williamson and all the communities of WVA will not grow until the state can free it’s self from the stigmas associated with this state.

    • Jorge Caraballo says:

      You’re right, Gina, we must go beyond stereotypes to truly reimagine this town and all the other small communities in West Virginia. However, my intention was not to portray Williamson in a “state of depression”, I acknowledge it is having hard times, but I was happy to see how many good people are trying to change that. I want to go back 😀
      Thanks for commenting!
      Jorge.

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