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Wooden vats used to collect saltpeter during the Civil War remain at the Organ Cave.
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The Greenbrier River
The Greenbrier River makes a good place to cool off on warm days.
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The Greenbrier’s majestic front door.
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Cody Morgan teaches falconry at The Greenbrier.
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Fayetteville’s claim to fame
Signs note Fayetteville’s claim to fame.
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Our Lady of the Pines
Our Lady of the Pines claims to be the smallest church in 48 states, next to the “Smallest Mailing Office.”
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The Summit: Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve opens in 2013 along the New River Gorge.
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National Bank of Thurmond
The long-closed National Bank of Thurmond advertised paying “3 percent interest on savings.”
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Coalwood West Virginia
Coalwood, W.Va., is the home of the “Rocket Boys.”
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The Exhibition Mine
A trip through the exhibition mine at Beckley, W.Va., can be a thrill.
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Used at the company store, scrip is part of the museum exhibits at the exhibition mine in Beckley, W.Va.
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Gold-Capped Capitol Building
The gold-capped capitol building of West Virginia can be seen from the Kanawha River.
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Dolly Sods Wilderness
Autumn begins to shine at Dolly Sods Wilderness.
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Top Kicks Military Museum
Gerald Bland operates the Top Kicks Military Museum at Petersburg, W.Va.
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Randy Ours leads tours of Fort Mulligan in Petersburg, W.Va.
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Blackwater Falls, near Davis,tumbles about 57 feet, in the state park of the same name.
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Winterplace Ski Resort
Winterplace, near Ghent, W.Va.,is one of several Mountain State winter resorts.
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A statue of Abraham Lincoln stands outside the capitol at Charleston, W.Va.
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New River steel-arch bridge
The steel-arch bridge over the New River near Fayetteville, W.Va., is 3,030 feet long, the third-longest steel-arch bridge in the world.
The wonder of West Virginia – well, one of its wonders – is that its broad, rugged, mountainous geography offers nearly equal measures of places that still carry at least traces of the state’s 1863 birth, and places that are ready to welcome you with the best of 21st-century hospitality. Put another way, how can frozen-in-time Thurmond be so close to the reaching-for-the-future Greenbrier Resort?
Randy Ours walks among the earthen walls of Fort Mulligan, a military battlefield on the high ground of Petersburg, W.Va., and calls the mound “a hidden treasure.”
“For years, it was overgrown with multiflora rose,” says Ours, a bus driver and Civil War historian. “Nothing could get into the dirt. It was so protected; you can see where the cannons sat.”
Union troops under the command of Col. James Mulligan constructed the earthen fort some 150 years ago in Grant County, roughly the same time that West Virginia came into being.
“You hear people talk about the Civil War and they talk about brother against brother? Well,” Randy Ours says, “this area was totally divided.” The towns of Petersburg and Franklin sided with the Confederacy, Ours says. “But the farmland in between was Union sympathies.”
This year marks the Sesquicentennial of West Virginia – the celebration of 150 years since the Mountain State originated, breaking away from Virginia. And today, during what is also the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Ours stays personally at odds. He belongs to both a Sons of the Confederacy chapter and Sons of Union Veterans. He claims ancestors on both sides of the conflict that led to the creation of West Virginia on June 20, 1863.
“I had a T-shirt one time of a Union soldier and a Confederate soldier fighting,” Ours says, smiling. “And I told people that was my inner self.”
I AM STRUCK by both the beauty and history of West Virginia. After touring Fort Mulligan, I stay similarly engaged at Petersburg’s Top Kicks Military Museum, where the 80-year-old owner, Gereald Bland, a U.S. Army veteran, shows off his collection of 25 Jeeps, a tank – even a camouflage-colored latrine.
Next, I march off on a mission. Consuming months and many miles, I aim to see and celebrate what’s so great about the Mountain State – from the outdoors to the underground, the high life and high mountains.
As summer becomes autumn, I drive through Dolly Sods Wilderness, where Grant County merges into Tucker and Randolph counties. All kinds of casual cruisers find these forest roads, step out of their cars and shoot scenes of big boulders like the Bear Rocks, among other overlooks.
Elevations range from 2,500 feet to over 4,700 feet at this (true) wilderness, which spans 17,371 acres of bog and heath eco-types that are commonly typical to southern Canada. Forty-seven miles of trails follow old railroad grades, logging roads and primitive paths containing creeks that must be forded.
“This forest provides a range of experiences,” says Julie Fosbender, the north zone recreation manager for the Monongahela National Forest, while trodding an unmarked-yet-mapped path called Fisher Spring Run.
Pardon the repetition, but Dolly Sods is truly a wild wilderness. “And the wilderness experience is not just for the users of wilderness,” Fosbender says, “but also for us to maintain it as wilderness.”
Rolling north, you can take it easy – relatively, speaking – if you want to see the natural beauty of Blackwater Falls, a 57-foot-tall drop reached by 214 steps on a tiered boardwalk. The waterfall is surrounded by a state park. Yet, prior to 1961, you would have had to scramble over boulders and climb over fallen trees to reach this large and frothy cascade.
GOING OUTDOORS should be a mandate for anyone breathing the air of West Virginia. Virtually every corner of the Mountain State has been blessed with some outdoor jewel – from the velvety white slopes of Winterplace Ski Resort of Ghent, just off I-77, to the Kanawha State Forest, a former mining and timbering area spanning more than 9,000 acres, just outside Charleston.
The Kanawha State Forest sprawls into thickets on treks called Rattlesnake Trail, Spotted Salamander Trail, Logtown Trail, and my favorite, the Alligator Rock Trail, a short but moderate hike named for an outcrop that looks like an alligator. You can also reach the remains of a coal mine on the CCC Snipe Trail.
While in Charleston, I take a boat ride on the Kanawha River, coursing past grassy banks. I also pay tribute to Abraham Lincoln, the president of the United States during the Civil War, and one who stands tall, as a statue, outside the gold-capped capitol building.
A state capital for West Virginia was housed at Wheeling, initially, in 1863. Then, in 1870, it moved to Charleston. The capital returned to Wheeling a few years after that – until, finally, it came back to Charleston, where it’s remained ever since.
Charleston provides a gateway to southern West Virginia’s coal-mining country, a land of proud people plus a tradition pouring out a promise to keep cool. Bluefield, the border town of Mercer County, prides itself so much as “Nature’s Air-Conditioned City” that the chamber of commerce still serves free lemonade on any rare day that the mercury tops 90 degrees.
Coal is what built towns like Bluefield as well as Beckley and nearby Bramwell, a tiny place where several millionaire coal mine owners lived. Coal also provided the foundation of the aptly-named Coalwood, W.Va., a quaint place where I spend a day hunting down the real-life setting of “Rocket Boys,” as depicted in Homer H. “Sonny” Hickam, Jr.’s novel of the same name.
Travelers to Coalwood, W.Va., yearn for the nostalgia of the 1950s, when Coalwood’s “Rocket Boys” dared to dream beyond the dark and deadly challenges of chiseling black gold. These boys – six teenagers who built and launched model rockets – included Hickam, a retired NASA engineer whose best-selling memoir was made into a big-screen movie, “October Sky.”
So many fans have since read “Rocket Boys” or watched “October Sky” that they wanted more, tour guide Bill Bolt tells me, and they love to find surviving buildings that give them ideas of what the real Coalwood was like. Still, the movie was not filmed at Coalwood, Hickam says, because McDowell County’s straight-up mountains would have cast too many shadows during production.
Movie producers did find the tiny town of Thurmond when shooting scenes for 1987’s “Matewan,” a dark, coal-themed movie.
“They utilized a lot of these houses,” says Tom Dragan, who lives near Thurmond. “They used the church up top.”
This railroad town takes its name from W.D. Thurmond, who acquired 73 acres on the banks of the New River in 1873. Thurmond shipped out its first loads of coal on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway main line in the 1880s. But the Great Depression, years later, coincided with a fire at Dunglen Hotel in 1930 and the collapse of the National Bank of Thurmond in 1931.
Today, the National Park Service owns a big chunk of Thurmond’s land, including the restored railroad depot, featuring Amtrak service. As for the town, it remains incorporated, though it has only five – yes, five – residents.
“Everybody didn’t leave yet,” says Tom Dragan, whose wife, Cindy, serves on the town council.
“We’re trying to make this a quality experience,” Cindy Dragan says as she walks past empty buildings stretching four stories high.
Today’s travelers to Thurmond include rafters on the New River Gorge. Visitors might also include members of the Boy Scouts, as The Summit: Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve opens nearby in 2013.
“You have people who are train enthusiasts who may not have a large amount of time, who want to see one of the towns in the gorge,” says New River Gorge park ranger Leah Perkowski-Sisk.
And, says Tom Dragan, “There are a lot of people who stop their river trips and walk up here, just to see the old buildings.”
LOOK AROUND WEST VIRGINIA, and you’ll see more than just what’s wild but, oh, so wonderful.
On the outskirts of Thomas, I cruise curvy roads to see what’s claimed to be the smallest church in 48 states. Our Lady of the Pines, established in 1958, seats just a dozen inside a room measuring 16 feet by 11 feet. The stone church with stained glass windows, stands aside another miniscule marvel, the “Smallest Mailing Office” at Silver Lake, W.Va., zip code 26716.
Nearby, I enjoy the welcoming walls of the Purple Fiddle, a nightspot featuring both refreshing musicians and beverages near Blackwater Falls. This place feels funky, much like the sculpted craziness inside Gary Bowling’s House of Art in Bluefield or the incredible eatery I discover while in Fayetteville: Diogi’s, a Latin grill and cantina serving Tacos Cangrejo (lump crabmeat in soft tortillas).
Come to Fayetteville, noted on road signs as the “Coolest Small Town,” and peer skyward to find the often-overlooked stone faces on the tower of the brick courthouse in Fayette County. Next, see the plaque, on a library lawn, honoring Hank Williams at nearby Oak Hill, the unassuming place where the country singer was pronounced dead in 1953. Williams, at 29, was only passing through when he passed on. But for him, today, US-19 at Oak Hill remains no lost highway; it now bears his name.
Follow that same road, and you’ll go over the rainbow-shaped trusses of the New River Gorge Bridge, celebrated on coins – and with crowds on the third Saturday of each October during Bridge Day. Built in 1977, the bridge stands 876 feet tall and stretches more than a mile of US-19.
LINGER ONLY ONCE, and you will always long for Lewisburg, an artsy town that takes its name from Gen. Andrew Lewis (1720-1781), a Revolutionary War hero whose name is also honored at a historic hotel. Eclectic and inviting, yet deliciously refined, this town’s history ties to the Civil War: The Battle of Lewisburg was fought on May 23, 1862.
Just outside Lewisburg, near a place called Renick, I hop on a bike and pedal down part of a 78-mile path that once belonged to the Greenbrier Division of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway. It is now the Greenbrier River Rail-Trail. Renick’s railroad tracks are gone, and the rail-trail looks like a quiet country lane with grass growing in the middle.
I cool off in the 402-foot-long Droop Mountain Tunnel near Horrock. Then I scout tiny waterfalls on nearly every mile near Hopper, until, finally, I stop my bike and wet my face in the Greenbrier River – especially inviting at the height of summer.
Waters of this valley have invited visitors much longer than 150 years. The well heeled discovered White Sulphur Springs, an upscale resort now known as The Greenbrier, as early as 1778, when all of West Virginia was still Virginia.
The Greenbrier, as a vacation destination, became a regular getaway for presidents but temporarily morphed into a wartime hospital during the 1940s. Here, in autumn, I spend 26 hours in complete luxury – visiting the casino; learning to drive a Jeep; eating the best of breakfasts; and munching on crab cakes in Draper’s café.
The Greenbrier’s Cody Morgan also teaches me how to take wild birds and use them to hunt wild game; it’s a time-honored tradition called falconry.
“It’s a hunting sport,” Morgan says. “Instead of taking a gun, you are taking a bird.” Morgan uses a hawk or a falcon or an owl. And, at the end of Morgan’s hour-long lesson, I joyously have a bird land on my hand.
GOING UNDERGROUND in West Virginia can range from the clanking, fun-filled ride through the exhibition coalmine at Beckley to the well-narrated, fact-filled saunter through the secret bunker at The Greenbrier.
Originating as a classified project in the 1950s, the bunker at The Greenbrier was built just below the West Virginia wing of the hotel – just in case the U.S. Congress needed to relocate during a time of war. Meeting rooms and an auditorium are part of the space, still guarded by gigantic doors to seal out contaminants.
Today, many such secrets have been declassified, and you can take a tour.
Still, we may never know all the secrets whispered in the walls of West Virginia’s Organ Cave, a nearby cavern system at Ronceverte, only a few miles from The Greenbrier. Tour guide Phyllis Jones leads me for more than a mile at the Organ Cave, and I stop dead in my tracks far below the earth, swearing I can hear the ghostly sounds of boys and men, chatting above rushing water.
Why is that strange? Well, there were no boys and men inside the Organ Cave on this day – only their haunting workplace, with piles of saltpeter that look freshly collected from rock walls.
“It’s not uncommon to hear voices in the cave,” Jones says. “We have one spot over there where we constantly think we hear a woman.”
Beyond a slew of stalagmites and stalactites, the Organ Cave harbors original wooden vats – amazingly preserved pieces of oak, locust and cucumber wood. These appear especially lifelike with mannequins dressed as Civil War soldiers, standing at workstations as if time is frozen. It is almost as if 150 years ago was only yesterday, and West Virginia had just come to be.