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In September 1977, the Soviet Embassy in Washington received an unusual request from Vulcan, a tiny town located on the West Virginia side of the Tug Fork in Mingo County, asking if the Soviet Union could help build a bridge there.

Vulcan had once been a thriving coal camp, but the population dwindled with the local loss of mining jobs. The town was built on the main line of the Norfolk & Western Railroad (now Norfolk Southern) at a time when passenger trains served transportation needs. No road was built on the West Virginia side of the river and only a footbridge connected Vulcan to the road on the Kentucky side. After rail passenger service ended, this bridge was the only access to the community.

As John Robinette, Vulcan’s unofficial mayor, explained in his letter to the Soviets, the wooden bridge over the Tug Fork to Kentucky collapsed in 1976, leaving residents with no public route in or out. They had been using the railroad right-of-way ever since, an illegal and sometimes dangerous practice.

Robinette said that when the town’s pleas to state and federal officials to build a new bridge were unsuccessful he resolved to ask the Soviet Union if its foreign aid program could help build a new bridge for Vulcan. His letter made headlines across the nation. The official Soviet response is not recorded, but shortly afterwards a New York-based Soviet journalist, Iona Andronov, asked the U.S. State Department if he could visit Vulcan to talk with Robinette and other townspeople.

Andronov visited Vulcan on December 19, 1977 – and almost simultaneously West Virginia officials announced that a new bridge would be built at Vulcan. The bridge had long been planned, the state said, a claim that some in Vulcan doubted. Robinette welcomed the announcement of the new bridge but told reporters he was convinced the state “was embarrassed into it.” It was more than two years before the one-lane bridge was completed, but Vulcan finally got its link to the outside world.

They’ll Cut Off Your Project, author Huey Perry’s classic 1972 study of the Mingo County poverty wars, devoted several pages to unsuccessful earlier attempts to resolve Vulcan’s isolation.

This Article was written by James E. Casto

Last Revised on May 27, 2015


Cite This Article

Casto, James E. "Vulcan Bridge." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 27 May 2015. Web. 23 May 2017.

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