Helen, West Virginia once a bustling coal mining town now rests relatively quiet and almost forgotten. Helen like the various other coal camps of the Winding Gulf, experienced rapid expansion and growth throughout the early 20th century. During the 1920s, the mines at Helen produced some of the highest quantities of coal in the state. The small town was once home to hundreds of miners and offered amenities such as a movie theater and baseball field in addition to a variety of housing arrangements, a company store, a school, and two churches. In 1940, the U.S. Census reported that there were 1090 people living in the town. Through a combination of factors, including the Depression, Word War II, and mine mechanization, the mining operations and population of Helen began to decline throughout the 1950s. With the remaining mining operations ending in the 1980s, the historic town of Helen, as of 2014, was home to approximately 126 people. Despite the significant loss of population and its historic assets, organizations are working together to preserve this history and promote it for educational and heritage tourism purposes.
During the 2017 and 2018 service years, Preserve WV AmeriCorps member, Kyle Bailey, conducted projects to preserve the history of Helen. Through the joint efforts of the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia, the National Coal Heritage Area Authority, and the Winding Gulf Restoration Organization - a local nonprofit - Helen’s local history and cultural heritage might be saved. Kyle’s projects included an historic survey to determine the eligibility for a proposed historic district to be nominated on the National Register of Historic Places - the official, honorary list of historic properties designated by the National Park Service. If eligible, property owners within the district could receive financial benefits including grants and tax credits.
In addition to the survey, interpretive signs were installed by local volunteers and AmeriCorps members at the Coal Miner’s Memorial Park in Helen. The park, a result of the work completed by the Winding Gulf Restoration Organization, is yet another local project to help promote heritage tourism in and around Helen. In 2015, the Preservation Alliance and the restoration organization secured and mothballed the town’s historic apartment building and made plans to preserve the structure. Helen was also selected as a stop along the African American Heritage Auto Tour sponsored in part by National Coal Heritage Area Authority. Furthermore, historic sites throughout Helen have been added to the increasingly popular website and mobile application, Clio.
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