Long before the town of Glen Jean became the New River Gorge National River (NERI) headquarters in 1978 and prior to its post World War II economic boom and bust, the area was a thriving industrial region rich in coal and timber. The workforce necessary to run the engines of such industry was sizeable, and soon workers and families dotted the countryside. As other mines opened and the population grew, so did the need for a more sophisticated school system. This eventually led to the construction of the Old Glen Jean High School.
In 1880, Thomas McKell and his bride, Jean Dun, both of wealthy Ohio parentage, visited the New River to survey property they received as a wedding gift. Realizing its potential wealth, McKell purchased additional land bringing their holdings to 25,000 acres. He then leased the coal to the Collins Colliery Company, and established the towns of Glen Jean, Dun Glen, and the Glen Jean Bank. To transport the timber and coal, McKell constructed a seven mile railroad connecting Glen Jean to the C&O mainline at Thurmond. In addition to hauling freight, a half-million passengers rode the mainline yearly. To capitalize on this, McKell built the one-hundred-five room Dun Glen Hotel and gambling hall as well as a bridge across the river from the train depot.
To manage such a large workforce, McKell’s needs required the creation of whole communities to house workers and their families as well as facilities to educate the children. For years, small schools populated the region, but in 1921, Fayette County purchased a tract of McKell land and constructed a school building, which burned in 1924. In 1925, a one story structure was built adjacent to the first building, and in 1926, the two-story building now listed as a 2014 PAWV Endangered Property was constructed on the original site.
Located about a quarter mile from NERI headquarters on State Route 25 and the Dunloop Creek, the building is constructed using polychromatic (multi-colored) brick. The front façade sports a Moorish style bell tower, an arched entrance, and a Palladian style opening above the arch. Along with the McKell Bank, it one of the few remaining structures dating to the early New River mining era.
The school remained in continuous operation until 1997. The building was purchased in 1999 to serve as business offices and visitor center for the Thurmond, Glen Jean, and Great New River Railroad, and was closed in 2006. Since that time, the school has suffered large-scale vandalism. The owner’s plan is to temporarily mothball the building in an effort to better secure it, with the future goal of adaptively re-using it as a higher-end living facility for the elderly, or for other mixed use purposes.
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