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Alum Creek native recalls homemade gondola family used to cross river

JOHN McCOY | Gazette-Mail photos
Becky Hager’s old home place is gone now, replaced by thick bushes and trees along the banks of the Little Coal River. She maintains the memory of her childhood home through a 64-year-old newspaper clipping that told how she and her family used an improvised cable tramway to cross the river.
The article, written in 1953 by Charleston Daily Mail reporter Charles Connor, included photos that showed Hager and her family riding the tram.

ALUM CREEK — For Becky Hager and her family, practically every day was a carnival ride.

To get from her home to the school bus, for example, Hager and her young siblings had to ride a makeshift cable tramway across the Little Coal River to the road where the bus ran.

“We called it ‘the high line,’” said Hager, now 80. “It was powered by a 1-horsepower electric motor, and it took 68 seconds to carry us across the river.”

Hager’s family lived in a house on what is now the Forks of Coal State Natural Area. In the 1940s and ‘50s, that part of Kanawha County was pretty isolated. Hager and her neighbors lived on the south side of the place where the Little Coal flows into the main Coal River. The nearest road was on the north side.

To get to the road, residents on the south side had to follow a path along the river to a swinging bridge. Hager’s stepfather, Joe Miller, got tired of making the hike. Rather than construct a bridge of his own, he built the tram.

He strung 400 feet of 5/8-inch steel cable from a large beech tree at one end to a big elm at the other. A 32-gallon oil drum, cut in half along its length, served as the gondola. Miller salvaged the tram’s pulleys and swivel from a junkyard.

Hager’s family used an electric doorbell to signal for someone in the house to send the tram across to the far bank. Their dog didn’t need the bell.

“The dog would come up to the tree on the far side of the river and bark,” Hager said. “We’d send the bucket across the river and the dog would jump into it and ride home. He refused to wade the river.”

With the Little Coal at normal levels, the tram hung about 15 feet over the water at midstream. But not always. “One time, when the river was way up, you could actually reach down and put your hand in the water,” Hager recalled.

When Hager’s mother returned from the grocery store, she’d honk the horn of her car to signal for the tram.

“We’d send the bucket across and she’d put the groceries in it. We’d bring the groceries across, then send the bucket back for Mother,” Hager said.

The tram was surprisingly strong. It was built for a single passenger, but could accommodate up to four if needed.

“It was strong enough to hold a big appliance, like a refrigerator,” Hager said. “I think my uncle took his stove over the river on it. If you unhooked the barrel, anything you hooked to the cable would go across.”

As one might expect, kids loved the tram. Hager said that during the summer, boys from Union Carbide’s nearby Camp Cliffside and Girl Scouts from Camp Roof Rock would drop by and ride the high line.

The tram stayed in operation for more than 20 years. In 1953, reporter Charles Connor of the Charleston Daily Mail wrote a feature story about it. Sixty-four years later, Hager still has the clipping.

She said she has “tons of stories” about her family’s unique conveyance, but one stands above the rest.

“In our teenage years, we had an uncle who was crazy about a girl — absolutely loved her to death,” Hager recalled. “One time, when he was ready to go on a date, we sent him across the river. When he got halfway across, we stopped the tram and refused to let him out. That was pretty mean of us.”

Remnants of the footbridges can still be found along the Forks of Coal Natural Area’s riverside trail, but the high line is long gone, along with the trees that supported it. That’s fine with Hager. She has memories, and no one can take them from her.

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1231, or follow @GazMailOutdoors on Twitter.

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