Helen in its heyday was home to over 1,000 people.
The Raleigh County coal camp bustled with multiple mines, a company store, a miner’s clubhouse and even a movie theater.
Today, like many of the coal camps in the area, Helen’s population has nearly gone away altogether, along with some of the prominent buildings of the town.
What is left are memories and a group of people who would like to see those memories preserved.
Some of those folks were at the town’s Miners Memorial Tuesday morning to install interpretive signs discussing Helen and the surrounding area’s history.
Six signs in total were installed thanks to a cooperative effort between the National Coal Heritage Area Authority, the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia and a local nonprofit, the Winding Gulf Restoration Organization, commonly called We Grow.
"This has been a long time coming,” said Traci Lewis, president of We Grow.
According to Lewis, the signage was years in the making and she hopes that it will help draw more visitors to the area.
Founded in 2004, We Grow aims at keeping alive the history and heritage of the Winding Gulf Coalfield region and has organized many events and projects, including the installation of the Miner’s Memorial on the site of Helen’s old company store.
Lewis isn’t the only one in her household involved; her husband John L. Lewis Jr. has also been part of We Grow since the beginning.
John Lewis was raised in Helen and the project is very personal for him.
“People don’t understand throughout this nation what a true coal mining community meant,” he said. “This was all family.”
According to John Lewis, families in the town traded each other for individual family specialties, often based on their nationalities, and relied on each other for support.
In the case of Lewis’ own family, which was Greek, it was baking bread.
According to the Helen native, the community involvement and the self-sustaining nature of a coal camp meant a tighter community bond. A fact that he reminisces about.
“I remember the vibrance as a young man,” John Lewis said.
Many of Lewis’s memories are based on his time with his grandfather who is featured on one of the interpretive signs.
“I remember as a child, I couldn’t have been 5 or 6 years old, going to that company store with my grandfather. I can remember it clear as day, an orange creamsicle Popsicle walking across this bridge and eating it with my grandfather,” John Lewis said in the exact location of the memory.
While personal, Lewis also views the region’s coal heritage as a central part of the American story.
“It wasn’t about coal-fired electric,” Lewis said. “It was about steel. Steel was what built this nation. All the big warships. All the tanks.”
Read the rest of this story at the Register Herald website.
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