A long time ago, I started exploring the coal mines in Appalachia. I would go down the Tolsia and King Coal highways towards Williamson, West Virginia. The city became popular quickly in the early 1900s when the Norfolk & Western Railway was built there. Williamson was the center of Mingo County ,and its success depended on the coal industry’s growth and decline.
The Williamson Memorial Hospital was founded in 1918 in Williamson. Two years later, a nursing school was established on a hilltop location that eventually became known as College Hill due to the presence of the academy.
On the 12th of January in 1927, a significant fire occurred at the hospital. Thankfully, all 33 patients were able to evacuate safely, despite the intensity of the flames. It is believed that the fire was caused by X-ray films being stored too close to a gas stove and subsequently igniting.
One of the most excitement moments of the fire involved Mrs. Leonard Chafin, who was on the third floor of the hospital with her newborn baby. Desperate to save the infant’s life, she threw the baby out of the window. Fortunately, Raymond Edwards was standing below and was able to catch the baby in his outstretched arms.
Several nurses and Dr. G.D. Conley, one of the owners of the hospital, were trapped on the third floor but were able to escape by jumping onto a stack of mattresses.
On March 3, 1928, a new hospital was opened to the public on College Hill, right next to the nursing school. The hospital was a four-story, fireproof building that had 72 beds, 32 private patient rooms, and seven wards to separate African-American and white patients. The second floor had a maternity ward that included a delivery room, a nursery, and two private rooms for mothers. The fourth floor had two operating rooms that faced north.
The medical center, which was completed in 1988, repurposed the c. 1928 hospital building into a medical office complex until 2014. After that, it was mainly used for storage.
I always dreamed of exploring the old hospital and nursing school on College Hill whenever I visited Williamson. Eventually, after moving around the country for work, I was thrilled to discover that tours of the hospital were being offered.
During the Halloween seasons of 2018 and 2019, Williamson Memorial Hospital joined forces with the Tug Valley Area Convention and Visitors Bureau to offer paranormal tours of the hospital complex. These events were highly sought after and always sold out. In 2020, Tonya Webb and Sabrina Hatfield, local residents, purchased the hospital complex with the intention of making the historic building accessible to the public all year round.
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The old hospital hosted several events, including the Bloody Valentine’s Dinner and Flashlight Tours featuring local restaurant options. In addition, daytime tours, flashlight tours at night, paranormal tours, and photography events were also offered.
On April 11, I had the opportunity to participate in a photography event at the Old Hospital on College Hill, a building dating back to 1928. Along with a small group of individuals, I was granted access to the hospital grounds and met Tonya Webb and the Mayor of Williamson, Charles Hatfield. After brief introductions, we were given the chance to explore the property and even visit the basement of the nurse’s school, which is usually closed to the public due to a damaged roof. The basement had not been used for many years, but it still contained old laundry equipment.
We were taken to the old hospital building and given permission to explore most of the complex, except for a few rooms that were filled with beds and medical equipment from the hospital. The hospital’s history was evident in the scattered items we saw: audiometric testing equipment, old X-rays, infant beds, books, and personal items.
After spending three hours climbing up and down stairs and exploring every inch of the old Williamson Memorial Hospital, I was exhausted. Part of the exhaustion was due to the fact that I had been carrying around 30 pounds of camera equipment, but it had also been a long week of traveling and exploring the Mid-Atlantic. Despite the fatigue, it was worth it to finally have the opportunity to photograph the inside of the hospital after all these years, and the experience was truly exceptional. Additionally, the friendships that were strengthened or gained during this photography event made it a memorable one.
To enter the Old Hospital on College Hill in Williamson, one must have legal permission. The facility offers a variety of tours, including daytime tours with a guide, evening paranormal tours, flashlight tours, and photography events. Additionally, the Old Hospital also hosts special “escape from” adventures.