Appalachian Tourism Works to Bring Residents Out of Poverty< < Back to
You walk upon it, and it doesn’t appear to be much. It is a semi-circle in the middle of nowhere. It has no cell service. When you go closer to it, you can see MOONVILLE spelled out above it. When you walk in this tunnel it is nothing but graffiti and littered beer cans.
The Moonville tunnel is not much at first.
“It is just a tunnel,” says long-time Vinton County resident Diane Batey.
It is but an abandoned rail tunnel deep in the woods of Vinton County, the most rural county in Ohio. Yet, to that county, the tunnel is much, much more. It is what local leaders advertise as a beacon of tourism and one of the top hits on their website.
The importance of bringing people into areas like Vinton County can’t be overstated. The entire county’s population is a little more than 13,000. There is a need to bring people in to shop and help keep storefronts open.
A Regional Issue
Bringing people into town is an issue impacting areas other than Vinton County. New Straitsville, located in Perry County, has a population of around 750. The community tries a little bit of everything to drum up business. The town recently started selling ATV and dirt bike passes. With a purchase of one $45 pass anyone can drive an ATV or dirt bike on village roads. More than 20,000 people purchase passes annually, bringing money to town.
“Bringing people into town is the only way this place is going to survive,” Nichole Neal, the Village Council President of New Straitsville says.
New Straitsville is a former coal town that shares the same fears as other former coal towns: disappearing. The town’s population has been under a thousand for the past decade. Neal understands the importance of bringing people in.
“You have to bring people in order to have the revenue to support businesses. If that doesn’t happen this place is going to become a ghost town,” Neal says.
New Straitsville utilizes more than just ATVs to bring folks into town. The town also showcases its history to drum up business.
In the 1840s, striking coal miners pushed a cart of burning coal down a mine shaft. That fire, which is still burning to this day, helped moonshiners conceal their distilleries from authorities during the prohibition era. This helped turn the village into the moonshine capital of the Midwest. It is rumored that Al Capone himself only drank moonshine that came from New Straitsville.
The village plays up this history once a year during the summer months when it hosts The Moonshine Festival. The event is designed to bring thousands into New Straitsville in hopes that visitors spend money at local shops.
History in the Area
History isn’t exclusive to New Straitsville in Perry County. Meigs County celebrated its bicentennial in 2019.
As part of the celebration, communities planned a series of small events to bring people into their towns, such as the Meigs Heritage festival in Chester.
David Schatz, treasurer of the Chester-Shade historical society says many events showed people around parts of their own county they hadn’t seen in years.
“It was intended to get people into the county. People who lived here there entire lives didn’t know what was happening over the next hill,” Schatz says. “One of the women, who was well into her 80s, participated in the treasure hunt and said she saw places she hadn’t seen since she was a kid.”
The festivities didn’t get a large number of attendees, partly due to the hot weather.
“This year it was very hot, and the attendance was down due to that hot weather…I think we are going to change that date to an October date,” says Jim Smith, Chester-Shade Historical Society Board Member.
While the weather may have impacted Meigs County celebrations, overall, the trends for tourism dollars in Appalachia are on a major upswing, increasing by more than a billion dollars in 2017, the most recent figures available.
Right across the Ohio River from Meigs County in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, they use their own history and rumored hauntings to bring people in.
The legendary villain “Mothman” is said to have visited Point Pleasant in the late 60s. Mothman is believed to be a harbinger of death who foreshadowed the Silver Bridge collapse of 1967 that killed 46 people.
While the legend terrified the area for the latter part of the 60s, residents turned that terror into tourism.
In 2002, Point Pleasant hosted the first-ever Mothman Festival and in 2003 the town erected an 8-foot tall Mothman statue in the center of town. The festival and statue now bring hordes of tourists into town the third weekend of September.
On average the festival brings in thousands of people from across the country to Point Pleasant, a town with a population of about 4,300. Marcia Finley, who owns the Lowe Hotel just across the street from the statue, says the festival has a massive turnout.
“This past weekend [of the festival] we had over 15,000 people in town,” Finley says. “People get to see the whole experience of how a small town had a small event in the 60s that turned into an event, an aura.”
Turning tragedies into tourism dollars isn’t exclusive to Point Pleasant.
Part of the attraction Vinton County promotes for the Moonville Tunnel is that it’s reportedly haunted by the ghost of a man who died there. The county website also advertises the Hope Furnace, another location a man is said to haunt following his death.
Though neither place is large, they still manage to bring people in, according to Vinton County resident Diane Batey.
“It has a lot of legends and spooky little stories with it, it draws people in from all over the country,” she says.
Making a Difference
Every community is trying something small to bring more money into town. The question now–is it working?
Forty percent of the population in New Straitsville lives in poverty. One in five people in Vinton County live in poverty, and it’s one in four in Point Pleasant.
Local leaders have noticed that people are trying to find some way to make a profit for both themselves and the area.
“People are looking for the next big thing, something they can do that will A.) be profitable and B.) bring people into town,” Nichole Neal, the Village Council President of New Straitsville, said.
Batey believes that Vinton County is succeeding in bringing more people into town.
There are a lot more people coming to Vinton County,” she says. “We have some new businesses starting and industry also.”
In Meigs County, they understand that drawing people in at times can be hard.
“Unless you have some major major draws, it’s rather tough to get many people coming in from distances,” Schatz says.
Schatz however, remains hopeful.
“But it has worked and it was successful to a degree this summer.”