KEYSTONE, W.Va. — The hard turn onto the railroad-track crossing off Route 52 North is bumpy and terse. Steel crossing signals punctuated with red lights stand guard against metal behemoths powering down the tracks.
Once across the metal and wood obstacle course, it’s a hard turn right onto Burke Mountain Road. Traveling up the narrow, winding, two-lane path evidence of yesterday’s wealth, glamour and glutton are obvious.
This was a town made on hard labor with the backing of big business. It was one that thrived on cultural diversity, yet indulged in a bit of sin that made the hard day’s work more bearable after the long day was over.
Last week’s focus on the small town of Keystone centered on tragedy and crime in the midst of economic hardship.
On Monday night, Aug 29, officials say four men entered the 30-year abandoned Keystone No. 1 mine in an attempt to steal copper. Three were rescued. One was not.
Steve Cordle, 38, of Northfork, Brandon Collins, 35, of Kimball, and Justin Bolen, 22, of Kimball, were found in the shafts by rescuers and brought out to safety.
Clay “C.J.” Epperly, 30, of Keystone, was not so fortunate. After days of search efforts, the rescue attempt was called off on Thursday, Sept. 1, due to dangerous conditions. The mine was once again sealed without Epperly’s body being found.
Although the theft of copper from the mine is believed to be a criminal enterprise ongoing for months, officials say there is no foul play suspected in the death of Epperly.
“We haven’t had anything come out in the investigation that would lead me to believe foul play was involved,” Senior Trooper B.D. Gillespie, with the West Virginia State Police Welch detachment, said. “All the suspects have fully cooperated and we have found no inconsistencies in their statements.”
However, he emphasized, the case remains under investigation.
Metal thefts at Keystone No. 1 have been a problem for years. In January 2015, another McDowell County man had to be rescued from the same mine after entering it to steal copper, officials said. The injured man and his partner became separated after entering the mine. The partner made his way out, but the injured man did not.
After a two-day search he was rescued. Although initially found unresponsive, he did regain consciousness at the scene.
Low oxygen levels are one of the serious threats copper thieves face when entering abandoned mine shafts. Gillespie said those arrested for the Keystone No. 1 thefts knew the danger, and how to work around it.
“The individuals would wait until around 11:30 p.m., and then they would go in and work the mine until about 3 a.m. the next day,” he said.
Gillespie explained that mine shafts “suck in” oxygen during early-morning hours, a process known as in-gassing. “They had more oxygen then,” he explained.
During normal daytime hours, out-gassing would occur, which resulted in less oxygen in the mine. During that time, the men steered clear of the shafts.
But there were other hazards within the dark depths.
“There were definitely dangerous conditions within the mines other than low oxygen levels,” Gillespie said. “They were also encountering roof falls.”
During the 1960s and ‘70s, it was a much different sight at Keystone No. 1. Owned by Eastern Gas and Fuel, a subsidiary of Boston Power and Light, the mine employed hundreds of workers.
At that time, the company owned all of the Keystone mines and used the coal to fuel its own needs while also selling its surplus across the globe.
Eli Goldstein, then-chairman of Boston Power and Light, was known to often make visits to the mine and to a summer camp for children of company employees located near the New River.
Because the mine was so large — described recently by a current company official as “the size of Huntington” — trolley cars were used to haul the coal out of the shafts.
The mine was “so big and so busy” during this time, that a dispatcher was actually located in the mine to direct the trolley cars hauling cars in and coal out, one long-ago visitor recalled.
During this 1960s heyday, veteran Bluefield photographer Melvin Grubb was often called to the mine to photograph visiting dignitaries, including a group from Japan in July of 1964, as well as visits by Goldstein.
Keystone No. 1 is now owned by Bluestone Coal Corp., a company headed up by coal baron and current gubernatorial candidate Jim Justice.
Justice made headlines in 2009 when as then-owner he sold the properties to the Russian company Mechel OAO for $568 million, according to reported data compiled by Bloomberg.
In an February 2015 interview with the Register-Herald in Beckley after the buy-back was announced, Justice said he would be restarting the Bluestone operation.
“Everything is shut down,” Justice told the newspaper. “I’m going to start it back up as I can.”
Justice said he felt confident that “because we have had Bluestone in the past, that we can make a go of it. I am delighted —and I emphasize delighted — that we’ll be able to call some good coal miners with great families in West Virginia back to work.”
However, along with the potentially profitable properties associated with Bluestone Coal, the package deal also included what some might term liabilities, with one of those being Keystone No. 1.
In its earliest years, Keystone was unique among the typical coalfield communities, according to former Daily Telegraph senior editor and local historian Bill Archer.
Developed in the 1890s by the Steele family out of Pennsylvania, the company was driven by free enterprise.
“When they came in to develop, they didn’t bring in everything like other coal companies — there were no bowling alleys or company stores,” Archer said. “They were more driven by free enterprise, and so entrepreneurship also came to Keystone.”
Archer said Keystone was a very prosperous town that grew very quickly. And one section of the community — Cinder Bottom — became notorious across the U.S. for its prostitution, alcohol and gambling.
“In 10 to 20 years it was one of the most prosperous and wide-open communities in the coalfields,” Archer said. “During World War I and World War II, most importantly World War I, trains often stopped in Keystone so troops could have a final fling before going off to France and and to the trenches. It maintained its reputation through World War II, but World War I was the real deal.”
“Soon it became known as Cinder Bottom because cinder was the ground basis where the brothels and other establishments were built,” he said
The trolley cars that hauled coal during the glory years decades ago are one enticement for criminals of today who risk their lives to venture into Keystone No. 1 to steal metal.
“Someone had to know about this mine portal entry that had trolley cable in there,” Trooper Gillespie said. “That was what they were after.”
After last week’s botched nighttime theft, Gillespie said the three surviving men made a failed attempt at rescuing Epperly.
“Three of them made it back out and stayed our for awhile before realizing C.J. (Epperly) was still inside,” Gillespie said. “They decided to go in and rescue him, so one of the individuals decided to borrow an oxygen tank from a friend to go back into the mine.”
The rescue attempt failed, and soon the three men were being sought by mine rescue experts.
Gillespie said officials were notified of the situation after a family member of one of the men called 911.
Cordle, Collins and Bolen are now facing charges of trespassing, breaking and entering, grand larceny, transferring and receiving stolen property and conspiracy to commit a felony.
Gillespie said additional arrests are also pending.
“Throughout the investigation we developed multiple additional suspects, and more arrests will be made in the future,” he said.
Last week, Keystone No. 1 was resealed without Epperly’s body being found. As tragic as it appeared to residents of the southern coalfields, it was not a unique situation.
In June of this year, three men broke into the Upper Big Branch Mine near the Raleigh-Boone County border. The mine had been sealed in 2012 after an explosion in 2010 killed 29 workers.
Two men, Everett Adkins and William Bennett, were charged with breaking and entering. But a third man, David Lee Adkins, was never found. After an extensive search the mine was resealed.
The copper theft problem is not unique to coal mines. Trooper Gillespie said individuals have been stealing metal from homes and even phone lines for years.
It is a problem law enforcement has been battling for more than a decade. And, unless economic conditions improve, it may be a continued struggle in the ongoing future.
— Contact Samantha Perry at [email protected]