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Almost Heaven: 1938

September 1938. "Section of coal mining town near Welch, West Virginia." Possibly the mountain hamlet of Eckman. Medium format negative by Marion Post Wolcott for the Farm Security Administration. View full size.

September 1938. "Section of coal mining town near Welch, West Virginia." Possibly the mountain hamlet of Eckman. Medium format negative by Marion Post Wolcott for the Farm Security Administration. View full size.


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The picture is Hemphill, WV.

Space X

If you travel a short distance to the north west along these tracks using the magic of Google Earth, you will find this secret missile launch pad disguised as an old steam locomotive coaling tower.

Lionel landscape

The clean, simple bridge and the foreshortened look produced by the close and nearly vertical background make this scene look like a very well done model train layout!


First the large white building with the top balcony leaning a bit; and then the male undershorts flying in the wind.

Tug Fork

Based on Timz' ID of the trestle, it is over the Tug Fork, which flows northwest into Hatfield and McCoy territory. Based on the shadows, the shot was likely taken from the north bank looking southwards in the early morning. I guess the Google crew couldn't make it up the road.

RR Safety Procedure

This being 1938 and not 1838, railroad safety procedures dictated that whoever was in charge of whatever work was being done had undoubtedly coordinated with the dispatcher, who issued "time & track" orders to all concerned, including train crews.

In-house wire work

This is certainly a railroad crew working on the catenary. Note the short "train" in the left background. The enclosed car is what powered them here from their starting point, typically with a one-lung gasoline engine and perhaps built by Fairmount; the several four wheeled trailers carry their tools. This sort of RR maintenance crew transport is about nonexistent today, being replaced by high rail-equipped highway vehicles.

These guys are not here on their own; the dispatcher knows of their presence, and likely has given them train orders advising them of the limits they can work, and when they have to be clear of his railroad, or check back with him for further orders.

Tall short

I know Shorpy. Is the guy on the ladder his brother Shorty?


So, Dave, where is it?


Looks like the bridge is the one over the Tug Fork at 37.44116N 81.5931W. The railroad is the Norfolk & Western, and the bridge is 893-B, as the white-lettered marker probably says, just left of the catenary pole left of the bridge.

The track behind the workmen must lead to the coal hoppers in the other pic:

In the days before cherry-pickers

You had to use huge ladders to get up on the poles if you didn't have those pegs that were mounted on some poles.

Stairway to Heaven?

Are those steps in the left hand of the photo leading up the hill? Covered drainage? If they are stairs they might be more precarious than that ladder the lineman is using! In the words of an old Bugs Bunny cartoon, "Watch that last step, it's a lulu!"

Why OSHA exists

The guy working on the power lines is putting himself in peril by 1.) possibility of electrocution from the electric lines themselves, and 2.) the possibility of a train coming through and taking out both him and his crew. Meanwhile, up the side of the hill, we see several very nice homes, and, knowing what I know about how plumbing works, and how **it flows, I'd probably rather own one of the homes higher up on the hill, thank you.

[If only we had been there to guide them! The worker's ladder is next to the tracks, not over them. - Dave]


The Virginian Railway electrified about 130 miles of their railroad in the 1920s using 11,000 volts AC. Presumably the power was off during the operation captured in the photograph.

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