Littleton, W.Va., is a town decimated by poverty, drugs
May 31, 2015 12:00 AM
Roshelle Piper, 29, left, and Tonya Tedrow, 27, have lived in the Littleton area all their lives. “I wish that somebody would come around and just wipe it out,” Ms. Tedrow says of her hometown.
Margaret Derby, above, has lived in Littleton, W.Va., for 10 years. She and the other residents have seen the town’s population dwindle and its business district crumble
Just a mile from the end of the Mason-Dixon Line, Littleton came to life with the railroad in the late 1800s only to wither when the trains quit passing.
Juanita Bissett, 81, has lived in Littleton since moving there with her husband in the 1950s. Some of her family has stayed; others left in search of work. “It was a pretty nice little town,” said Ms. Bissett. “Here lately it’s just went to junk.”
The path, above, once cut by the former B&O Railroad still makes its way through Littleton above U.S. Route 250, just as it did when Franklin D. Roosevelt rode the train in 1932 and 1940.
Once a bustling station, below, the trains stopped coming through Littleton in 1960.
By Dan Majors / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
LITTLETON, W.Va. — U.S. Route 250 is pretty much the only road into this tiny but once-thriving town. Narrow, winding and rough, the highway follows the path of the creek through the bottom of the valley, past the Country Cupboard market and the post office.
It’s the road along where the railroad tracks used to run. The road lined with collapsed and burned-out buildings.
It’s the road that brings the heroin in.
It would be nice to tell the story of Littleton without talking about the drugs. How a small Wetzel County community at the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, just a mile from the end of the Mason-Dixon Line, came to life with the railroad in the late 1800s only to wither when the trains quit passing. How the people live here survive despite devastating economic odds, making ends meet with a meager mix of gas-well jobs, government assistance and chickens in their yards.
The poverty is as plain to see as the rusting cars on cinder blocks. The 2010 census pegged Littleton — then with a population of 198 — as the poorest town in the nation’s second-poorest state, ranking it 281st in West Virginia with a per capital income of $6,036.
But the biggest challenge today in Littleton, the residents here and in neighboring communities will tell you, isn’t the hard times. It’s the hard drugs.
“I do drug awareness classes because drugs are so prevalent now in our area, especially heroin,” said Carla McBee, the medical examiner for Wetzel and Tyler counties for 15 years. “A lot of the young men have died in the past couple years. It’s really shocked the community.”
The most recent casualty was James Tedrow, 26, who died of an overdose April 18 at his home overlooking U.S. 250. His cousin, Tonya Tedrow, stood along the highway with her friend, Roshelle Piper, a few days after the funeral and talked about his death. And about life in Littleton.
“It sucks,” said Ms. Tedrow, who has lived in Littleton for all of her 27 years. “I wish that somebody would come around and just wipe it out.”
“Everybody around here is drug heads, drug addicts, and that’s all they’re ever going to do,” said Ms. Piper, 29. “It’s gotten a lot worse, the last 10 years.”
“It’s real sad because there’s no jobs around here. There’s no opportunities,” Ms. Tedrow said. “Something needs to change around here because if it doesn’t, then a lot more people are going to end up in the graveyard.”
• • •
There aren’t that many people left in Littleton, a community of less than a square mile scratched into the hills of Wetzel County, which borders both Pennsylvania and Ohio at the base of West Virginia’s northern panhandle. Incorporated in 1892, Littleton was a stop along the B&O Railroad. The 1900 census put the population at 1,000. Records show there were four hotels, each with a saloon, a few factories and a mill. There was a school, a handful of churches and a couple of banks.
The decline started while the boom was still echoing. On Feb. 9, 1906, a fire swept through the town’s wooden structures along U.S. 250. By the time they were replaced with brick buildings, the population had dipped to 725. Then the Great Depression of the 1930s closed the banks.
Geraldine Eichberg, 91, grew up in Littleton, but now lives in Towson, Md. She said she can still remember when her grandmother — “a strong suffragette” — dressed her and her sister in special black velvet dresses to go down to the railroad tracks to see Franklin Roosevelt on his whistlestop campaign for president in 1932.
“He stood on the back of the train and made a little speech,” she said. “The whole town came out. Oh, it was a very busy little town. I remember you could tell the time by the passing trains.”
But the railroad discontinued passenger train service through Littleton in the 1950s. The last freight train rumbled through a decade later, after the 1960 census counted the population at 324.
(Click image for larger version)
“It was a pretty nice little town,” said Juanita Bissett, 81, who raised three children in Littleton after moving here with her husband in the 1950s. “Here lately it’s just went to junk.
”We lived down the track. ... People used to come by and look at my yard and say how nice it looked. Them days are gone. It’s almost a shame to say I was from Littleton anymore. [But] I don’t know whether it would be any better for [young people] anywhere else. You know, drugs is so rampant now. They might stand a chance with better jobs.“
“It’s not a good place to raise kids now,” said Ms. Bissett’s daughter, Annette Goodrich, 54, who raised five children in Littleton and babysits some of her grandchildren. “There’s nothing for them here. I don’t trust them to go very far and get out of my sight. So, yeah, I do wish they could get away.”
The drugs are a crime and they breed crime. Ms. Goodrich lost a relative in a January 2014 incident in which three people were found stabbed to death in a burning home in Littleton. Samuel Lee Spencer, 26, of Windridge, Pa., pleaded guilty and was sentenced in February to 40 years in prison.
”I’ve racked my brain on what could be done,” Ms. Goodrich said. “There’s still some good people here, but ... it’s not even every other one. It’s gone downhill a lot.”
By 2000 there were 207 people left, and a 2014 study by the West Virginia University College of Business and Economics projects the decline to continue for the foreseeable future.
Technically, the town itself doesn’t even exist anymore, having unincorporated Aug. 3, 2004, ceding its government and law enforcement functions to the county. But Wetzel County isn’t that much better off. The population, which is 98.7 percent white, ranks in the lower half of West Virginia’s economic rankings and last year had the state’s fifth-sharpest drop in residents.
Mike Koontz, chief deputy of the Wetzel County Sheriff’s Office, has a fondness for Littleton. His mother, Ruth Koontz, owns the Country Cupboard, the only market here. Mrs. Koontz is happy to show you her collection of photos and news clippings from Littleton’s glory days, but she’d rather not talk about the problems.
Her son, on the other hand, does it as part of his job. Last fall, Chief Deputy Koontz started an Addiction Awareness Program, in which he goes to Wetzel County schools to discuss the dangers of drugs. He takes young addicts with him to join in the conversation.
“They agreed to go with me to talk to students,” he said. “These are addicts in recovery. They’re charged with drug-related crimes, property crimes, and they’re involved in a court-ordered drug program or on probation. Most of them are younger, 20, 22, 26. These are people who have been residents, who have gone to these schools. They’re more familiar with the young people and what they’re facing. They tell them how they started smoking marijuana and progressed to pills and then heroin or methamphetamines.”
Chief Deputy Koontz said he started the program in response to a spike in drug overdoses in the past three years. But he stressed his belief that the plague of drugs isn’t local. It’s just that his focus is local.
“I think it’s too early to gauge its success,” he said. “It appears as though [the students] are getting the message. I can see they’re paying attention. They’re interacting and they’re interested in what these young people have to say. You see, I’m 48. When I talk, they kind of get this glazed-over look. When these individuals talk, they’re listening.”
One of the three addicts speaking at Valley High School on Jan. 15 was Devon L. Phillips, 22, of New Martinsville.
“It's real, and it will definitely ruin your life,” Mr. Phillips said in remarks reported by The Wetzel Chronicle. “I don't think there’s one drug in this world you can control. ... I never thought when I picked up drugs, the danger in it. You've got to think about it. You have got to think about what one pill might do. I took my first pill and I was addicted. It’s seven years down the road, and I still fight.”
Mr. Phillips died of an overdose March 21.
Authorities believe that the drugs — most of it heroin and pills — come into Littleton from Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio. While Chief Deputy Koontz reaches out to the young people, Ms. McBee, the medical examiner, conducts classes that target those affected by others’ drug use.
“The community’s trying to stand up against it,” she said. “The classes are to make people aware of the signs and the symptoms that people have when they’re on drugs. Everything from the stealing and the lying and deceptions. The families get all caught up in that and then they become enablers, and it makes the problems worse. It’s an uphill climb every day
“Drug addictions and drug overdoses have no social class. It happens to all families and deaths happen to all families. We set up in places like school gym auditoriums and we invite the parents. We meet in churches. I’ve been invited to industrial plants up and down the Ohio River. They’ve asked for awareness classes. That’s the way we’re fighting it, the best we can. It seems like we’re losing. All we can do is keep trying.”
• • •
Lifelong Littleton resident Judy Moore, 28, waits along SR 250 each weekday for the school bus that drops off the children who live up on Lemley Ridge Road, a steep stretch that offers some safe distance from the more dangerous parts of town.
Most of the buildings in Littleton -- whether they’re occupied or not -- have posted “No Trespassing” signs on them. Welcome mats are scarce.
“It’s changed a lot, for the worse,” Ms. Moore said. “They need to get rid of the bad people and make it a better town. Some of the people here just destroyed it.
”If they actually had a town cop, they might not have all these houses burning down. Ever since the older generation died off, the younger generation has basically just took over the town, and it’s turned into a ghost town.”
Dan Majors: firstname.lastname@example.org and 412-263-1456.
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