The coal mining era was ending in the New River Valley, in Appalachian Virginia, by the mid-twentieth century.  Now, highways, shopping centers, and new housing subdivisions are changing the area, leaving few traces of mining to educate younger generations about their cultural heritage.  Only the foundations of industrial buildings and houses mark the sites of once-active mines and mining communities.  This was the situation at the site of the former Merrimac Mine, a mine made famous because its coal was used to power the ironclad Merrimac in its Civil War sea battle against the Monitor.  The Merrimac Mine closed in the 1930s.  In the 1990s, a rails-to-trails project turned the old railroad tracks that ran through Merrimac into a modern

Merrimac Coal Mining Heritage Park Project,

  1. -A RU Applied Anthropology Class Working in Partnership with the Montgomery County Planning Office and the regional Coal Mining Heritage Association of Montgomery County

  2. -Development of a Consulting Report, Coal Mining Heritage Park, Montgomery County, Virginia: Study, Plan, and Recommendations (2000).  Click here to read the report Coal Mining Heritage Park Consulting Report  .pdf

  3. -Adoption of the Plan by the County; Park Dedication Held September 2000

recreational trail named the Huckleberry Trail.  As hikers and bikers passed along the trail, all they saw were brambles and weeds covering the foundations of the industrial complex and the mining community nearby. 

A university-community-regional partnership was formed to solve this problem at Merrimac – to revive it as a mining heritage park. The "Coal Mining Heritage Park Project" began in Spring 1999 with the formation of a four-way partnership linking Radford University's Anthropology Program with the Montgomery County Planning Office (the Merrimac property owners), the community-based Coal Mining Heritage Association of Montgomery County, and the state archaeologist in the region's heritage preservation office. 

The research/teaching partnership served as the foundation for a Fall 1999 Applied Anthropology class project.  The class, working under the professor's direction, assumed the role of an applied anthropology consulting team and was charged with tackling a real-life assignment in applied anthro-planning.  The team's challenge was to design a place/space at Merrimac that would be used both for community recreation and heritage education.  As part of the process, the oral history data collected in the "New River Valley Coal Mining Heritage Project" was put to work for the heritage interpretation aspects of park planning. 

The project design started with a series of orientation sessions, including tours of the Merrimac Mine site in which former miners, county planners, and the state archaeologist oriented the research team to the layout and history of the site and the planning considerations.  It also included a visit to a heritage park to gain visual examples of park layout and

Photo above: Merrimac Mine, circa 1922 (courtesy of Mr. Fred Lawson).

facilities, and the ways that signage, outdoor exhibits, and reconstructed buildings are used for historic interpretation.  Research included the mining oral histories along with literature on heritage preservation and tourism, park planning, and applied anthropology.
The project became a magnet for community participation.  The research team organized two community meetings for the purpose of gaining citizens' input and participation in the park planning.  It also mailed a survey to residents in the area, asking for input on activities and amenities for the park.  Mining association members, school teachers, senior citizen groups, railroad buffs, residents living near the proposed park, and a wide variety of Huckleberry Trail user groups became involved in the community meetings and offered further input.  The research team acted in the role of a liaison between the community and the county government.

The team worked to strike a good balance between public use and protection of the archaeological record at the site.   As the final step, the team prepared a consulting report, Coal Mining Heritage Park: Study Plans, and Recommendations, with the following scope and coverage:

· Presentation of an overall design for the park (see below) and recommendations for phasing-in the park's development;

· Recommendations for mining heritage education through signage, a self-guided walking tour around the mine site, outdoor interpretive exhibits, a replicated miner's house, a mining museum and visitors center, and heritage-based educational activities such as archaeology schools for community participants to foster public awareness of site and heritage preservation;

· Ideas for a system of low-impact trails and a community recreation area that includes picnic shelters, a playground constructed with a mining theme, and an open-air pavilion for staging community events;

· Ideas for nature-based education, including a signage and a nature education center housed along the old railroad line in a caboose;

· Discussion of facilities and conveniences needed to make the park user-friendly, including restrooms, drinking fountains, trail benches, parking, security, and accessibility for disabled and elderly visitors.

Impressed by the plan presented in the consulting report and the community participation, the County Board of Supervisors voted to create the Coal Mining Heritage Park at Merrimac.  The park that began as an idea in spring 1999, became a reality a year and a half later, with its dedication ceremony held September 9, 2000. 

This project provided an opportunity for students to learn applied anthropology experientially, while working with the public in an effort to revive the Merrimac site as a mining heritage park, converting it into a community focal point for heritage education and recreation. 

Click here to learn more and to contact the
Coal Mining Heritage Association.

Map prepared by the Montgomery County Planning Dept. and the Radford University Applied Anthropology Class, Fall Semester 1999.

Project Director/Professor: Dr. Mary LaLone

Student Research Team:
Karen A. Barnes, Bobbi Jo Burnett, Rehana G. Durrani, Jacquelin T. Graham, Melissa E. Lamb, Daliah G. Macon,
Matthew D. Schrag, Elaine G. Staab, & Jennifer K. Zelinski


For Further Reading:
LaLone, Mary B.
2000 (ed.) 
Coal Mining Heritage Park, Montgomery County, Virginia: Study, Plan, and Recommendations. Radford, VA: Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Radford University. Technical consulting report prepared for Montgomery County and the Coal Mining Heritage Assoc. of Montgomery County. Coal Mining Heritage Park Consulting Report  .pdf
2001 "Putting Anthropology to Work to Preserve Appalachian Heritage." In
Practicing Anthropology 23(2):5-9, Spring 2001.

2005 "An Anthro-Planning Approach to Local Heritage Tourism: Case Studies from Appalachia."
NAPA Bulletin (National Association for the Practice of Anthropology), Vol. 23:135-150.

2005  "Building Heritage Partnerships: Working Together for Heritage Preservation and Local Tourism in Appalachia. 
Practicing Anthropology 27(4):10-13.

2009 "Guidelines for a Partnership Approach to Appalachian Community and Heritage Preservation Work." IN
Participatory Development in Appalachia: Cultural Identity, Community, and Sustainability, Susan E. Keefe, ed. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. Pp. 201-229.

Photos above:
Members of the university-county-regional partnership.
Old hoist equipment becomes an outdoor exhibit.