RICHWOOD - Trains used to roar through this quaint Nicholas County town, dropping passengers downtown to visit the mill, tannery and wholesale bulk store.
Now the former B&O Railroad depot in Richwood serves as a different sort of visitors' hub.
The historic depot had fallen into shambles in recent years, accumulating mold and termites.
But several city officials set out to save the 103-year-old landmark that was partially responsible for Richwood's growth in the early 20th century.
The city stripped the rotted walls, shored up the depot's weakening foundation and installed new doors, antique lights and a paved parking lot to the tune of $231,000. The former depot now houses the city's convention and visitors' bureau and county magistrate's office.
It's an accomplishment Mayor Bob Henry Baber likes bragging about.
"This is symbolic of Richwood's slow resurgence as a tourist town," said Baber, a poet, teacher and former gubernatorial candidate.
Richwood obtained a $200,000 federal highway grant for the renovation project in 1998. After the trains stopped rolling into Richwood about 15 years ago, the depot became People's Bank, which provided drive-thru services. Richwood Pharmacy then used the building and when it left, the building fell into disprepair.
Most of the renovations took place this year, and the finished product gives residents a glimmer of hope.
"Richwood is having it tough, like any other small town in the nation," said Jim Fitzpatrick, vice president and director of the visitors' bureau.
"Drive down Main Street and you won't see much business or activity, but it's coming.
"When you look over at this building, it's like a ray of sunshine in the town."
Unharmed by the decay and termites, a Norman Rockwell-style mural remains inside the former depot. Cleve Peyton and the late Dana Sherman painted it when they were high school students in 1982. In true Rockwell style, they included their likenesses in the painting.
It now serves as a side attraction in the magistrate courtroom.
On the visitors' bureau side, Richwood T-shirts, homemade jellies and other memorabilia are offered for sale.
There also is an odd display of two aluminum trashcans attached to a set of wheels - a tribute to the city's late street cleaner, Sammy Frame.
Glancing around the interior and exterior of the building, one wouldn't realize it nearly succumbed to deterioration.
"It was rotten up to the windows," said Fitzpatrick, who also volunteers on several boards and committees in Richwood. "The gutters hovered down and water was splashing everywhere."
Richwood officially purchased the building in 2001 from First Community Bank. The project sat idle for a few years because the city struggled to meet its 20 percent match on the $200,000 grant.
Baber, who was elected mayor in 2004, and Fitzpatrick helped nudge the renovations along in recent years.
For a while, Baber feared Richwood would have to return the grant money.
"For an Appalachian town, you can't let $200,000 get away from you," said Baber, a Sonny Bono-looking 1970s throwback who's upbeat and progressive-minded about the city. "It's bad on the reputation of a town if it returns money to the state. There's a serious credibility issue there."
Baber said the city experienced troubles with the bidding process and damage to the building was worse than initially thought.
"The project languished for a period of time," Fitzpatrick said. "The deadline (December) was coming up and we had to pull this thing out of the fire."
Baber recalls passengers hopping off the trains to shop at Richwood Wholesale, which the mayor calls the Sam's Club of yesteryear.
"Everyone within a 50-mile radius came here to get their bulk supplies like candies and tobacco," Baber said. "That sustained the Main Street mom-and-pop stores."
Baber, 55, a New York native, spent much of his childhood on his grandparents' farm a few miles outside of Richwood.
As a child, he was excited when his grandparents took him to town. It meant he'd go to G.C. Murphy, and toys, fountains and soda would usually be involved.
"I always had a warm feeling in my heart for the town," he said.
Baber, a father of four, wants to re-create that ambiance in Richwood. But he knows the city can never compete with the slice of modern Americana that's flooded with big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart and Lowe's.
It's one of the factors that contributed to Richwood's downfall.
Neighboring Summersville, about 25 miles away has emerged as a regional retail hub in recent years, Baber said.
Most residents shop at the Wal-Mart in Summersville, which has a population of more than 3,000, about 1,000 more than Richwood.
Richwood was on the verge of hitting a population of 10,000 during its heyday as a coal and lumber town. But the closure of coal mines crippled the town's economy in the 1980s.
"In the mid-80s, we lost 4,000 coal jobs," Baber said. "Then Summersville emerged and the railroad left. It's like the towns of Richwood and Summersville traded places in the 1980s."
Richwood is still known for its ramps festival and timber. Baber calls it the Cherry Hardwood Capital of West Virginia.
He hopes the city is able to capitalize on its recent improvements, including the train depot renovation and the demolition of the old city hall. At city hall's former site, Baber wants to build an outdoor entertainment stage with murals, wooden decks and picnic areas.
Empty storefronts dotting the downtown streets await occupants. But visitors can find a few treasures, such as independent artisan shops and a home-cooking spot called C&S Restaurant.
Richwood's proximity to Monongahela National Forest could also be used to promote the town.
Baber is flirting with the slogan, "The front porch to the National Forest," for Richwood.
"We need to get some of these stores filled up for the fishermen passing through," Baber said. "You've got to give them a reason to stop."
The Cherry River runs through the town. Three tributaries of the Gauley River also flow within the forest.
The interstate, however, is far from Richwood, and that's a hurdle to tourism. But it serves as a getaway from bustling larger cities as out-of-town folks have purchased second homes in Richwood, Baber said. In 2008, the city plans to upgrade its sewer system.
Contact writer Jake Stump at email@example.com or 348-4842.
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