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In the Shadow of Legendary John Henry
By Mark Hotz

From Alderson, W.Va., which we visited last month, my friend Nathan and I continued down State Route 63 into Summers County. We were headed to Hinton, the seat of Summers County, and a lovely little city along West Virginia's scenic New River.

High above the New River just outside of Hinton, along State Rt. 3, at Talcott, we crossed over the Big Bend Tunnel of the old Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. This is where the legend of John Henry was born. A statue of John Henry wielding his hammer stands along side the road. The statue commemorates the legendary "contest" between a man and a steam-powered drill in digging out the Big Bend Tunnel.

Railroad historian Roy C. Long found that there were multiple Big Bend Tunnels along the C&O Railway. Also, the C&O employed multiple black men who went by the name "John Henry" at the time that those tunnels were being built. Though he could not find any documentary evidence, he believes on the basis of anecdotal evidence that the contest between man and machine did indeed happen at the Talcott, W.Va., site because of the presence of all three (a man named John Henry, a tunnel named Big Bend, and a steam-powered drill) at the same time at that place. The town of Hinton sponsors a "John Henry Days" festival annually.

The town of Hinton was a sleepy hamlet along the river until 1871 when the C&O River Railroad Co. blasted a path through the New River gorge and made Hinton the division terminal. The town then started to grow and was incorporated on Sept. 21, 1880. The town was named in honor of John Hinton, on whose land the original town site was laid out in 1831.

Summers County was created by an act of the Virginia General Assembly on Feb. 27, 1871 from parts of Fayette, Greenbrier, Mercer and Monroe counties. It was named in honor of George W. Summers (1804-1868), an attorney, politician and jurist from the area who was an ardent opponent of Virginia's secession from the Union.

Hinton was home to three note-issuing national banks: the First National Bank of Hinton, the National Bank of Summers of Hinton, and the Citizens National Bank.

As a busy railroad center in active coal country, most of Hinton's banks were fairly large, and surprisingly, two survived the Depression and end of the National Currency era intact.

The First National Bank opened its doors in 1900, and put out a circulation of $2.2 million over its 35 years of note-issuing life. It was the only one of Hinton's banks to issue Brown Back notes, and one is reported, though in very low grade. It also issued a range of other 1882 and 1902 Series notes as well as small notes. Currently, 11 large and 35 small are reported. I have attached a photo of a quite attractive large-size $20 note issued by this bank.

The National Bank of Summers of Hinton was chartered at the end of 1905 and its total issue was also $2.2 million. Its first issue was Series of 1902 Red Seal notes, of which none are known, and it also issued other 1902 types and small-size notes. Notes from this bank, despite the similar issue to the First National Bank, are much harder to find, with just nine large and 11 small reported. I have included photos of a large-size $20 note and a small-size $10 note issued by this bank.

Hinton's last bank was the Citizens National Bank, which converted to national status in 1913. It had previously been one of Hinton's larger banks, known just as the Citizens Bank. As a national bank, it issued $717,000 worth of notes before succumbing to poor management and liquidating in 1931.

It was absorbed by the First National Bank, which also assumed its circulation. It is quite a rare bank, and despite four large and five small notes currently reported, I have never seen one and it has been some time since any were available for sale.

Driving into Hinton along State Route 3 involves a meandering descent from the heights above the Big Bend Tunnel down to the scenic bridge across the New River into town. As we made our way toward the business district, we passed the attractive Summers County Courthouse, built in 1875 of local red brick with imposing medieval-style towers at either side.

We soon found ourselves in the still bustling business district, with many well-preserved period buildings along several blocks. The First National Bank of Hinton originally occupied the ground floor of a five-story structure on Third Avenue, but when that space became too cramped, it erected a more modern building in 1941, diagonally across the street. I have included a set-up photo showing the new building taken from the old one, and showing the stained glass clock that still stands in front of the original building.

We drove on further down the street and I found a parking spot directly in front of the old National Bank of Summers building at the corner of Temple Street and 2nd Avenue. The original bank building was demolished when the newer bank structure was completed in the 1920s. It is very imposing with a faux columned façade. Today it serves the community as the Hinton Public Library.

A little farther down 2nd Avenue we came across the pretty much abandoned large corner block, with the word "BANK" at the top cornice, that housed the old Citizens Bank of Hinton, later Citizens National Bank, and Elks Club. The building still bears the same appearance as it did in 1906, but as is evident from the photo, is underused and partly boarded up. I have included a period photo postcard, circa 1910, showing this block, which included the bank and the local Elks Club. Compare this view with the modern view of the same building today, little changed but considerably neglected.

After taking some photographs, we meandered our way out of town on State Route 20 and headed south toward what turned out to be perhaps the most ghostly town I have visited almost anywhere, Matoaka, W.Va. But you'll have to wait until next month for that&but I guarantee it will be worth the wait.

 



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