The Story of Mullens, West Virginia

Mullens, West Virginia is the epitome of America’s stereotypical coal town. The once bustling metropolis is a shell of its former self, with many of the buildings sitting abandoned, decaying further with each passing moment. Walking the streets of this shell of a city is an almost surreal experience, but things haven’t always been this way in Mullens. Let’s take a step back and see how we got here.

Sights like this are common when walking the streets of Mullens. Taken during a visit in the summer of 2021.

The Beginning

Mullens was first settled sometime in the 1890s by A.J. Mullins, before the coal industry exploded. The town was incorporated on September 17, 1912, but due to a clerical error, the town became Mullens with an “e” instead of an “i”. The mistake was never corrected.

The early 20th century saw a great deal of growth for Mullens as the Winding Gulf Coalfield was opened. This brought an explosion in development within the Mullens community. By 1914, Mullens had the first, and only, accredited high school in Wyoming County. The growing coal industry was a boon for Mullens.

The Depression and War

During the years of The Great Depression (1929 – 1939), Mullens fell into hard times. Many of the coal mines were reduced to only working two or three days a week. Others closed down completely. Additionally, the railroads weren’t running. Many of the employees in the area had been laid off and the economy was in a downward spiral.

In an attempt to combat the economic crisis, the Roosevelt Administration created The New Deal (1933 – 1939). These projects began to bring about a recovery in the economy.

Once World War II broke out, the demand for coal skyrocketed. The once-shuttered coal mines were now on a hiring spree and new mines were opening up. To combat the demand, many of the mines and railroads began to operate two or three shifts a day. All of this activity caused the Mullens economy to explode and skyrocketed the town to a bustling metropolis.

The Decline

These were truly the golden years for Mullens. This prosperous time period lasted all the way through the period of The Korean War (1950 – 1953). Sadly, these times would quickly begin to end.

New advancements in technology meant that, more and more, machines were replacing men in the mines. In some dramatic cases, a continuous miner machine, manned with just 5 men, could replace 50 men.

An example of an early Continuous Miner Machine. Source: Komatsu History.

While the Vietnam War (1955 – 1975) brought about increased demand for coal, it wasn’t enough to save Mullens. Strip mining became common, causing coal to wash into the streams and for dried coal dust to fill the air. This, of course, made Mullens an even less desirable place to live.

The construction of a brand new, high-speed railway between Mullens and Beckley gave the residents of the area easy access to shopping in Beckley, resulting in a dramatic decline of merchants in Mullens. The construction of the West Virginia Turnpike further exacerbated the problem.

The population of Mullens went from 3,470 in 1960 to 2,200 in 1990.

The Final Nail

Mullens was already a shell of its former self by the end of the ‘90s, but the final nail in the coffin was yet to be dealt. In July 2001, Mullens was devastated by flash flooding. The majority of buildings in the town were inundated with several feet of water. The extent of the damage was immense, further accelerating the decline of Mullens.

The West Virginia National Guard responding to the flooding in Mullens, West Virginia. Source: Beckley Register-Herald/Rick Barbero.

The 2010 census showed only 1,559 residents remaining in the town. Today, many of the buildings still stand, abandoned and falling into further disrepair with every day that passes. While a few businesses cling on in the area, there is little left in the town. It will be curious to see what the future holds for the once bustling town of Mullens, West Virginia.

These apartments bear clues of the past. Taken during a visit in the summer of 2021.

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