ST. CHARLES – There are a lot of used-to-be’s in the town of St. Charles.

The vacant building with its windows covered by sheets of metal used to be a candy store. The brick building next door used to be the sewing factory. The black lung clinic used to be a hardware store.

There used to be a bowling alley, a hotel, a Kroger, a Piggly Wiggly, a firehouse. Clothing stores. Movie theaters. Restaurants. A couple of beer halls. Dozens of taxi cabs. A bus to Pennington Gap.

There used to be thousands of people living in and around the Lee County town, miners and their families and the people who owned the businesses that catered to them. On Saturdays, there used to be so many cars parked along the narrow main street and so many people crowding the sidewalks that it felt like a slice of New York City.

Map by Robert Lunsford.

But in the coming months, St. Charles is likely to add another used-to-be to its list: It will become a used-to-be town. Lee County officials are asking the General Assembly to “terminate” the town, in the blunt language of the bill filed earlier this month. 

“It’s just a tough decision,” said Dennis “DD” Leonard, who’s in his second term as county supervisor for the district that includes St. Charles. “I really hated to be part of that call, because I hated to see them lose it.

“I think I would have definitely opposed it, if I thought there was any way possible that there would’ve been some interest and things could’ve been reversed and turned positive over there,” he said. “But I just don’t think there’s any way forward for them. I think they’re best suited to be brought on into the county.” 

The last census counted just 73 people in St. Charles, down 43% from 2010, when the town had 128 residents.

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The once-bustling commercial buildings have burned down or stand vacant.

No one has run for town council – or voted – in the last two town elections. 

“It’s still a lot of good people in St. Charles, but most of them are baby boomers, got a little age on them, got a little sickness,” said Teresa Webb, whose husband worked in the mines and whose extended family lives in and around St. Charles. “I don’t fault them for that. They just can’t really do much no more.”

***

On Nov. 5, 1913, just a few years after the first coal mines opened in Lee County, 20 residents of a community called St. Charles asked the court to make them a town.

“Petitioners represent that it would be to the best interest of the inhabitants of the town to have said community incorporated, and that the general good of the community will be promoted thereby,” the petition read. 

Two months later, on Jan. 10, 1914, by order of Judge H.A.W. Skeen, the town came into being.

The community’s population at the time was about 300, “as nearly as can be ascertained,” the petition read. 

It was the beginning of the coal boom in Lee County. According to a 1925 report by the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Virginia, the first mines to open in the county were in the area around St. Charles.

By the end of 1910, eight coal companies were producing large quantities of coal for shipment. By the time the report was written 15 years later, Lee County was home to “a number of large mining operations … with mines modern and fully equipped in every respect.”

Companies including Virginia Lee, Blue Diamond, Black Mountain and Benedict were putting hundreds – and eventually thousands – of men to work in the growing business of coal extraction. 

The companies built coal camps where the men could live with their families. The camps offered commissaries where groceries and appliances could be purchased for company scrip. Some of the camps had their own elementary schools and movie theaters.

St. Charles was centrally located to the camps, and as the coal business grew, so did the town. Banks and grocery stores opened, and a fleet of taxi cabs sprang up to carry passengers between the coal camps and the town. St. Charles had a town council and supported a fire department and a police force. Kids could go all the way through high school without having to leave town.

By most accounts, the 1940s and ’50s were the town’s heyday, with businesses lining the narrow main street and houses reaching up onto the hills flanking the two sides of the town. 

The town hit its peak population in the late 1940s; the 1950 U.S. Census put St. Charles at 550 residents. 

Richard Hubbard grew up on the outskirts of St. Charles. He remembers being sent to the grocery store to buy a gallon of milk one Saturday, and having to walk in the road because the sidewalks were so crowded.

“The saying was in the ’40s and early ’50s, if you could drive through St. Charles on the weekend, you could drive anywhere in the world,” he said.

But it was close-knit, despite the bustle.

“It was a good community to grow up in,” he said. “Just about anybody, if you went in their house, had a pot of beans and a big old skillet full of cornbread and would expect you to eat if it was mealtime. It was an open community.”

A couple of beer joints catered to the miners and the townsfolk, and things could get rowdy on Saturday nights, said Terra McDavid, who grew up just outside St. Charles and has spent years researching the town’s history. The town logged several murders over the years, she said, including the fatal shooting of a police officer. 

Her grandmother, who had visited New York before she died in 1985, used to say that being in St. Charles on a busy weekend was like walking in New York City. “You’d have to move to the side, sometimes even stop, to be able to get through,” McDavid said. “That many people on those little streets.”

She recalled town characters, the ones who went by names like Mainline and Cartwheel, and the man who would sit by the tracks all day (except, she clarified, when he and his buddies were drunk) and record in a book every train that passed through St. Charles.

Her uncle was one of those drinking buddies, she said, and he’d earned the nickname Cartwheel because he’d get drunk and then start turning flips on the tracks. 

“Sometimes those characters are the character of the town, and you don’t realize it until it’s too late,” she said.

***

The St. Charles Community Health Clinic and the adjacent black lung clinic, operated by Stone Mountain Health Services,are the only businesses that remain in town. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

No one ran for town council, or voted, in St. Charles in the 2018 or 2020 elections.

In 2016, seven people were on the ballot, all with the same last name, according to the Virginia Department of Elections. A total of 47 votes were cast for six town council candidates. The top vote-getter in the mayoral race got eight votes. None of the seven was ever sworn in, said Dane Poe, Lee County’s administrator.

The elections are what finally forced a decision about St. Charles; even if no one turns out to vote, the county still has to hold, and pay for, elections, Poe said. But well before that, he said he’d been thinking about what should happen to the town, and he had come to the conclusion that it needed to be folded back into the county. 

For Poe, it was personal. He’d grown up just outside St. Charles. His dad ran a store in town from the mid-1950s through the ’70s, when he sold it to Poe’s sister. Poe worked in the store growing up, and he attended St. Charles schools.

He’s been watching the town’s population decline and its commercial core wither for decades, as the coal booms of the 1940s and ’70s faded into history and people moved away in search of jobs.

In the 1960s, he figures there were still 20 or so businesses operating in St. Charles.

Today, the only commercial enterprises in town are the St. Charles Community Health Clinic and the adjacent black lung clinic, both operated by Stone Mountain Health Services.

It’s been quite a while since the town sent out property tax bills, Poe said. It wouldn’t have generated much money anyway, he said; a lot of what’s in the town is nonprofit or otherwise not taxable, like churches and the post office.

“There’s not much revenue there to run a town,” he said.

The county treasurer’s office is sitting on about $18,000 in county sales tax revenue that should go to the town, Poe said. “But they have no post office box, and nobody to go check the box if they did, to pick the check up,” he said.

Old Dominion Power Co. has called him numerous times, wanting to know what to do with utility tax revenue that’s due to the town. 

The challenges just kept mounting, he said.

About a decade ago, a couple of town council members left the town checkbook in Poe’s office, saying they were done with it, and he could have it. The county attorney persuaded them to take it back, Poe said. 

“I’ve toyed with some of this for a few years,” he said. “I didn’t want to drag the supervisors into it because I didn’t want them to be vilified. It wasn’t that they wanted it to happen, it was just something that was going to need to happen, eventually. The election deal has just pushed it to that point.

“There’s been no structure or no real organization to the town in 10 years or more. And so, where do you start?”

But it turned out that closing the books on St. Charles wouldn’t be as simple as the county had hoped.

According to a list of town charters compiled by the state, St. Charles is one of just 37 towns in Virginia – out of 154 – to be created by circuit court order rather than through government channels. 

St. Charles never received a charter from the General Assembly; whether that was unusual in the early 1900s is unclear, although today it would be required by state law. 

It had never really mattered – until now.

Now, there’s no town council to petition the Lee County Circuit Court to disband the town, and the county doesn’t have standing to make that request. That’s why the county has taken the issue to its General Assembly delegation.

Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, and Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, introduced legislation that would bring an end to St. Charles and turn over to the county any property – or debts – held by the town. The bill has been referred to committees in both houses.

Leonard, the county supervisor, said his goal is to see that any money that comes to Lee County from St. Charles be earmarked for the community.

None of his constituents called him with concerns about the process, he said. Nor has he heard from his fellow supervisors about any complaints.

“Nobody’s contacted me with any negativity, as far as that goes,” he said. “Or positive. It’s never brought up. There’s just not a whole lot of interest.”

It’s the end of an era in some ways, Poe said.

“You don’t see a town disappear that often, have the charter done away with,” he said. “But it’s time. We just reached that point. Other than in name, that’s about the only identity it has anyway right now. I hate it. That’s still where I’m from. But I can’t make the town stay there.”

***

Other than the cars pulling in and out of the health clinic, and a few people checking for mail at the post office, downtown St. Charles is quiet on a near-freezing January morning. The road through St. Charles dead-ends at a couple of mine sites; there’s only one way in and out of town, so there aren’t many people just passing through.

Webb and her daughter, Rhonda Webb, are at the St. Charles Community Center, which they open on Wednesday and Thursday mornings if the weather allows.

The center, which runs on donations, is housed in what used to be a hardware store and a bath house for miners. It’s next door to a now-vacant building that used to be a sewing factory where Rhonda Webb worked for 16 years, making golf shirts, until the business moved away.

She was born and raised in St. Charles, and her family is part of its coal mining heritage; her father was a miner.

A memorial to miners sits across the road from the community center, its bricks displaying the names of men who were lost, and of the residents and local businesses who helped pay for the monument. “In memory and appreciation to all coal miners that worked in St. Charles coal fields,” the central plaque reads.

Webb points to a brick that features her grandparents’ names, and another with her uncle and his wife, and yet another with her cousin. Other bricks carry messages from, and to, the town: “St. Charles a small town with a big heart,” “God bless this town,” “In honor of all Lee County UMWA members.”

The old United Mine Workers of America building is right up the street, “U.M.W. of A. BUILDING” in big block letters still visible, but fading, over the front door. “I remember when I was young, we used to take my Papaw,” Webb said. “He’d come down and stay with us for a few days, and he’d always go to them UMWA meetings.”

Just up from the community center is the rescue squad, housed in what used to be the town hall; the basement in the jail is storage space now. 

The squad runs three or four calls a day, said Harold Miller, who drives the ambulance. He lives in Pennington Gap but spends 10 hours a day, five days a week, at the squad hall. He used to work at the fire department, but it shut down a few years back.

“We try to stay up here as much as we can,” said Capt. Jeff Oaks, who took over the squad about seven years ago. “Can’t be here all the time, but we try to stay as much as we can.”

It’s a big improvement from years ago, Rhonda Webb said, when the squad had stopped running ambulance calls and residents had to wait for crews from Pennington Gap when they needed help.

Oaks said when he came to the squad, the coffers were just about empty and the bills were piling up. He wrangled some grants to buy new equipment and help pay for volunteer training.

Last year’s budget was about $68,000, he said. They got $10,000 from the county and made up the rest by charging for calls. “If we didn’t bill, we’d sink, he said.

The county bought them a new ambulance recently, at a cost of $240,000, Oaks said. The squad needs a new EKG machine, but that’s $40,000 that no one seems to have.

Other than the rescue squad, the town doesn’t have much infrastructure to speak of these days. Water and sewer are handled by the county’s public service authority. Old Dominion turned off the streetlights after the town hadn’t paid its bill for about two years, Poe said. 

There’s a post office that’s open half days and, a block away, St. Charles Elementary School, home of the Midgets.

The school has about 130 students in grades pre-K through four, said Kellie Leonard, its principal. It’s in the building that used to house St. Charles High School; the lower grades moved into the building after a fire destroyed the elementary school 50-plus years ago, and the high school was consolidated with Pennington Gap. That school later closed in a further round of consolidation; students from St. Charles now go to high school in Jonesville, the county seat.

Poe was one of the students who had to finish his high school years in Pennington. He went on to study accounting at East Tennessee State University, then came back and worked for a couple of coal companies. In the mid-1990s, he took the job with the county.

There are no active coal mines in Lee County now. A couple of years ago, some strip mining was done on the Lee-Wise county border. It was the first coal that had been mined in the county in probably five years, Poe said.

“It’s all over – all your old coal towns, most of them are gone,” he said. “Some have reinvented themselves to some extent, but they’ll never see the days they saw in the ’40s. That was their heyday.”

***

The used-to-be St. Charles lives on online. 

There’s a Facebook page dedicated to the old St. Charles High School, and a St. Charles Virginia Facebook group that McDavid started as a place where St. Charles natives can share memories: snapshots from the Class of ’66 reunion, photos of wild horses wandering through town, obituaries, prayer requests.

“It’s not to keep it alive for other people as much as to keep it alive for themselves,” she said. “They know that town is dying, and they’re trying to hold on to what they can. Because that’s part of their life. I mean that literally – part of their life. 

“A lot of it is abstract for me, because I’m much younger than they are, but they lived it, and I think that’s what makes it precious to them,” said McDavid, who’s 54 and moved out of St. Charles about a dozen years ago. She lives in Big Stone Gap, 20-odd miles away in Wise County.

Hubbard, who’s 70 and lives in Pennington Gap now, doesn’t expect his three kids to ever move back. “They went where the jobs were,” he said – Richmond, Northern Virginia, Knoxville, Tennessee. “I can understand that.”

He thinks his dad, who broke his back in a mine when Hubbard’s older sister was a baby, purposely pushed him and his four brothers away from the mining business by offering to pay for a year in college.

Hubbard went into the military and got a degree from Clinch Valley College, now the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. For years, he was a teacher. 

“I get sick every time I drive through St. Charles. If we had been more diversified,” he said, “we would be a thriving community.”

Teresa Webb, who raised her children in St. Charles and is still surrounded by family, said she has no plans to leave, regardless of what happens to the town’s legal status.

“It’s sad to watch it go down, especially when it’s your own town,” she said. “But to me, it’s still home.”

Megan Schnabel

Megan Schnabel is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org.