Appalachian Landscape and Architecture through the Lens of Extraction

Peter Butler, Charlie Yuill


Long considered by many historians as an “internal colony” (Haynes, 1997), the cultural landscape of the coalfields of McDowell County, southern West Virginia (USA) displays a palimpsest of political, social, cultural and environmental history. Drawing out some of the most valuable coal in the world, Pocahontas “smokeless” (McGehee, 2012), the grip of absentee landholders (Myers, 2008) on the region is reflected in legible traces on the land. Investigating remnant industrial terrain, modelled using LiDAR, brings patterns to the surface for interpretation and typological analysis (Opitz, 2012). From early mining forms, wildcat and prospect mines, to tunnel and later Mountain Top Removal (MTR), the morphology of the landscape evolved in line with machine technology and reflects the history of place. Communities constructed as work camps reveal an ordered geometry of control, a mnemonic of “corporate paternalism” (Garay, 2011); while the buildings of Gary, West Virginia, a US Coal and Coke Company model town evoke a Utopian efficiency and economy. Post-1950s boom time McDowell County counted 100,000 residents with cluttered Main Streets and overflowing rail lines. Today the population has dwindled to near 20,000 and the memory of early twentieth century industry in the “Free State of McDowell” is fast being erased either through neglect, abandonment or conscious elimination. MTR mining and the practice of filling valleys with waste rock obliterates topography at an unprecedented scale. Abandoned camps are washed away from the floodplain or intentionally removed. Smaller scale mining operations are swept away as new technologies raise the economic viability of thin coal seams. As the landscapes, communities, and buildings of McDowell County are reorganised and reshaped, a methodology for analysis through remote sensing and ground-truthing (Doenus et al, 2008; Gallagher & Josephs, 2008; Horne, 2009) informs interpretive strategies in capturing narratives of place.


Cultural Landscape, Industrial Landscape, LiDAR, Interpretation

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Copyright (c) 2016 Peter Butler, Charlie Yuill

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LAC 2014 proceedings - ISBN 978-90-825296-0-9 - is an open access initiative supported by the University Library, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.