Matoaka Ranks as Most Ghostly|
February 10, 2014
At the time of this writing, the country seems to be in the grip of a deep freeze—even in normally reasonably temperate Baltimore, the thermometer hovers in the teens—and much of the Midwest suffers under some of the worst cold in recent memory. I hope you are all managing as best as possible.
After last month’s article on Anawalt and Gary, W.Va., I got a few emails asking about other ghostly West Virginia towns I’ve visited. To that effect, I thought I would take you to a town I visited many years back, but one which still ranks high for pure abandonment—Matoaka.
From Princeton, W.Va., almost at the very bottom of the state and a few miles north of Bluefield, Va., one heads north on State Route 10 toward Matoaka. This is really hardscrabble country, with run-down dwellings and abandoned schools. After 15 miles or so, the road curves around a hairpin bend and down into Matoaka. At first, there isn’t much to see: a few old houses, an abandoned gas station, a closed hardware store, etc. However, there was much more to Matoaka than I then realized.
Matoaka, a small town in southeastern West Virginia’s Mercer County, was incorporated in 1912 and named for Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan. Her birth name was Matoaka, but her father gave her the nickname of Pocahontas, which means “dancing little princess.” Its location on the Norfolk & Western Railroad (as well as on a spur of the Virginian Railway), and nearby coalfields gave it a reason to exist; Matoaka station has long since been demolished and the freights that still run through the area no longer stop at the town. With the loss of its rail stop, and with local business declining, Matoaka has been slowly dying.
The First National Bank of Matoaka, charter 11264, was organized in November 1918, when the Bank of Matoaka converted to national status. The bank operated less than seven years before being closed by the receiver in 1925 due to failure of assets. Its total issue during this period was a mere $286,000.
The Matoaka National Bank, charter 12839, immediately succeeded it, with basically the same management. This successor operated until liquidation in 1932. Its issue was $162,000, of which most was in small-size notes.
I had been fortunate enough to obtain a note from the First National Bank some years before, and am always eager to check out small-town banks represented in my collection. Notes from Matoaka are just plain rare—only three notes are reported from the First National Bank and a mere single large note and five small notes from Matoaka National Bank. They are quite desirable, though rarely available—the last time a note was publicly available from the First National Bank was back in 1992. I have included a photo of the note from my collection, bearing excellent stamped signatures of J.E. Clark, cashier, and M.C. Hingham, president.
As one continues down State Route 10 (known as First Avenue in town), one spots an abandoned three-story building with a corner entrance facing onto the street. The faded whitewashed words “BANK OF MATOAKA” still crown the top pediment. The entrance is boarded up and many of the upper floor windows are broken out. A small park sits next to the bank.
From the old air conditioners poking out of a couple windows, it appeared this building at one time housed some apartments, but the entrances are now blocked with NO TRESPASSING signs. At one time, many more structures were adjacent to the bank, virtually all are now gone. Take a look at an early photo of the bank included with this article.
I took some photos and looked around the town. Behind the bank, a small residential street ran up the hill; an attractive white clapboard church appeared in regular use. Farther down First Avenue, I spied a smattering of old brick buildings off to the side. It looked like the business district.
I should point out at this time that I have spent quite a bit of time traveling around the United States looking at small towns. I have a particular (some say, peculiar) interest in ghost towns, and have spent considerable time in Colorado and Nevada investigating the ghost towns that I have read about in books. Some, like Rhyolite and Goldfield in Nevada and St. Elmo and Ludlow in Colorado, were quite rewarding. But most were disappointing, especially if one’s view of a ghost town is one that includes many abandoned but well-preserved brick structures. Such is a rarity in the ghost town world. I had always thought I had to go west to find the best ghost towns. I was wrong.
At the next corner of First Avenue was Bridge Street, the whole of which consisted of one abandoned two-story building. The next block down, Barger Street, had an old red caboose set up on a lot where an old building must have stood. It seemed to be a little memorial to the railroading days the town once enjoyed. Barger Street had once been the main business street, and I was amazed to find an entire block of two- and three-story buildings lining both sides of the street.
What an incredible find this was. I walked down Barger Street in utter disbelief. Here was ghost town extraordinaire.Every building, on both sides of the street, was abandoned or boarded up. Some of the buildings bore construction dates on them, one as late as 1947. (See photos.) Yet all were abandoned, more or less, as a few contained upper floor apartments, most with “For Sale” signs attached.
The only sign of life was in one ground level store front, which was being cleaned out by two frumpy women and a small boy. I learned that they were trying to start a very small grocery, inasmuch as the residents of Matoaka had to drive to Princeton to get any food. They also told me that previous attempts to open a small food store in Matoaka had failed. The boy, about eight years old, swept broken glass and debris from the long abandoned store. Looking at the state of the building, store and workers, I had a hard time believing this venture was going to succeed.
I wandered up and down Barger Street, looking at the old buildings; several of the storefronts were open to the air and still had rubbish and old books strewn about the floors. I really thought that a Hollywood studio should just buy up the whole block—it would make a great film set. Matoaka today is far from abandoned though, as the most recent census showed 226 residents. Given how many substantial buildings remain (and how many must have been demolished) makes one pause at the thought of how bustling a town Matoaka once was.
Matoaka was the kind of place that makes the heart of an intrepid ghost town hunter like me palpitate with excitement. You just never know what you will find in an old town, especially one as far off the beaten path as Matoaka.
Readers may address questions or comments about this article or National Bank Notes in general to Mark Hotz directly by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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