The long range of the Allegheny Mountains is an effective barrier between the rich rolling farm lands and large cities of the eastern seaboard, and the sparsely settled highlands to the west. This was especially true for early Virginia. The ways that people adapted to the mountains are largely a story of transportation and the difficulties of moving into or passing through the area.
The Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike is a key to this transportation story. Native Americans showed the way with their trails. Early settlers created the need for the road. Political and engineering difficulties had to be overcome. During the Civil War both sides fought for control of the road. The economic boom in coal and timber came as a result of the railroads penetrating the territory in the late 1800s.
For at least 12,000 years, Indians lived in these mountains and valleys, leaving evidence of their presence in stone tools, pottery sherds, earthen mounds, and trails. Creative and opportunistic, they forged paths that followed land contours along streams and ridges, crossing them at natural fords and mountain passes.
In addition to campsites along the trails, they built permanent villages at trail intersections and along rivers where fertile land produced corn, beans and squash. Two such villages, 600 to 900 years old, have been excavated at the base of Seneca Rocks on the upper Potomac River. The villages contained 15 to 20 large (20 x 40 feet) houses arranged in a circle, with an open central plaza and fences all around.
By the time European settlers first ventured into this area, all of the permanent Indian villages were gone, but the “old fields” and established trails remained.
The well worn Indian footpaths were used as horse trails by European settlers seeking access to the interior. The earliest roads and 19th century turnpikes followed these same trails. Modern road builders made changes by straightening curves, filling wet areas, and cutting through mountains rather than following the contours of the trails. Many of our historic and modern roads, including the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, closely follow the old Indian paths. The Basic route used for thousands of years still proves to be the best.
Broad river valleys between the mountain ridges, such as the Tygart Valley, upper Greenbrier Valley, the Little Kanawha River valley, and the mighty Ohio River valley were sites of early settlements.
Following the Indian trails, two families settled in the Tygart Valley in 1753, founding one of the earliest settlements on the headwaters of the Monongahela River. Robert Files (or Foyles) built a cabin near the site of Beverly where Files Creek joins the river. David Tygart (or Taggert) and his family settled nearby in the valley and along the river that bears his name, the Tygart Valley River.
While their first encounters with natives were friendly, Indians raided in the fall of 1754, killing the Files family and burning their home. Warned by Files’ son, the Tygarts fled east over Cheat Mountain. Near the top they looked back and saw smoke rising from their burning cabin.
No whites settled in the area during the French and Indian wars, until Captain Benjamin Wilson led a number of permanent settlers into the Tygart Valley in 1772. The early roads, including the Riffle Road into the Greenbrier Valley and over Cheat Mountain, provided access into this remote region. Transportation was unreliable, and the settlers had to be self-sufficient.
Jacob Westfall’s Fort, the first of a series of forts in the Tygart Valley was built in 1772 near the Files cabin site. Other forts included Roney’s and Friend’s on Leading Creek, Currence’s on Mill Creek, and Haddan’s near Elkwater. These stout log homes generally featured inside chimneys and holes between the logs for firing rifles. Rarely assaulting such forts directly, the Indians preferred to attack parties of settlers caught away from shelter. Hostilities continued through the Revolutionary War years, with 1777 becoming known as the “bloody year of the tree sevens.” The last Indian raids in the area were in 1795.
Randolph County was formed from Harrison County in 1787. At the first court session, held in Colonel Benjamin Wilson’s house on Chenoweth Creek, a town and courthouse were planned on James Westfall’s land. Beverly was established there in 1790 as the county seat, and became the trading center of this rich farming valley.
Huttonsville and Traveller’s Repose were mostly collections of farming families. In the 1780s the earliest settlers to the upper Greenbrier Valley included John Yeager. Adam Argogast, and Abraham Burner. All Revolutionary War veterans of German descent, they married the daughters of Captain Peter Hull of Bath County.
A fourth settler, Scots-Irish John Slaven, settled at the Durbin end of the valley near “the Narrows”. For his Revolutionary War Service he received a land grant that was known as the Slaven Plantation. The descendents of these settlers established farms through the valley and along the ridges. The Yeager homestead became the post office of Traveller’s Repose in 1813. As settlement increased, the need grew for improved roads to reach markets and communities across the mountains.
The Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike story is framed by a national movement for internal improvements spurred by westward expansion. Before 1800, a lack of reliable roads confined most settlement to coastal areas or along navigable rivers east of the mountains. Once settlers crossed the mountains, they quickly populated the Ohio Valley and spread through the young nation’s interior. Each state strove to gain advantage by building Transportation systems that reached the “western waters” flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.
Virginia got involved in 1816 when the General Assembly created a Fund for Internal Improvement and established America’s first State Board of Public Works. In 1817 Virginia passed a General Turnpike Law outlining a plan for a statewide network of roads. Controversies over the relative merits of roads or canals, the latter favored by many eastern landowners, slowed development of the western turnpikes. Many western residents felt that Richmond had neglected internal improvements in their area, and that the turnpikes were too little and too late. Debate over western improvements was ongoing in Virginia for several decades, provoking lingering resentment in the western counties.
In 1822 Claudius Crozet became principal engineer for the Board of Public Works. The General Assembly passed an act “to survey and mark a road by the nearest and best route from Staunton to the mouth of the Little Kanawha River,” which joined the Ohio River at Parkersburg. Crozet made a preliminary survey of a route which measured 156 miles if laid out in a straight line. Of course, no road could be built straight in the Western Virginia wilderness, described as a “sea of mountains and valleys with little level land” and rivers “flowing in every direction of the compass.” Using a surveyor’s theodolite, chain, and compass, Crozet assembled a team to survey “from mountain to mountain” in search of the best route to the Ohio.
The Virginia General Assembly first appropriated money for the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike in 1824. In some cases, counties along the right-of-way raised a portion of the funding themselves. Construction was not begun until 1838 and continued until 1845, when contractors completed the road between Beverly and Weston. Some bridges were not finished until 1848.
The turnpike followed standard construction technology of its time adapted for the mountains. The road was to 15 to 20 feet wide: enough room for two wagons to pass, but not as wide as the 24 foot roads common in eastern Virginia. It was built on a regional variation of the popular macadam plan, a paving system named after Scottish highway engineer John L. MacAdam. His specifications were revolutionary because they called for an elevated road surface consisting of several layers of small stones not more than 7 inches in diameter on the bottom layer and 3 inches on the top layer. This combination of small stones and elevated roadbed made for a watertight surface. Under heavy traffic, a macadamized road required only light maintenance to replace dislodged stones and to keep the roadbed clear of obstructions. A properly maintained macadam road might have a 5 year life cycle before a new layer of surface stone was required, a marked improvement over other systems.
The road’s layout was a marvel. It followed the natural contours of the landscape with a minimum of grades, just as the Indian trails had. Credit for selecting the route goes largely to Claudius Crozet, a talented engineer and dedicated public servant. The road was primarily built under contracts given to prominent citizens to build sections of the road. Many of the workers were Irish immigrants, dome of whom settled along the Turnpike giving rise to communities such as Kingville and Alum Bridge. Overseers earned $31 a month and wagoners $15 per month, followed by blasters, blacksmiths, and wall builders at $12 - $13 per month. Laborers made up the majority of the workforce, earning between $7.50 and $10 per month. The lowest paid workers were cart drivers at $8 and cooks at $6 per month.
The turnpike used many outstanding covered bridges. Major bridge construction was contracted separately from the road building, and often lagged years behind. Many rivers were crossed by fords until the bridges were built. An example of this can be seen at Bartow, where old bridge abutments and a rock bottom ford can be seen just west of the modern bridge.
Lemuel Chenoweth of Beverly was one of the outstanding bridge builders. Chenoweth built a number of the turnpike bridges including those at Beverly, Middle Fork, and at Dailey. With a reputation for quality, he was chosen to rebuild an unsatisfactory bridge at Buckhannon originally built by a different contractor. His large double-barrel covered bridge at Philippe on the connecting Beverly-Fairmont turnpike is still in use today.
Completion of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike stimulated the construction of feeder pikes. The Beverly-Fairmont pike reached Grafton in 1853, the same year as the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The Huttonsville-Huntersville pike into Pocahontas County was completed in 1856.
The quality of workmanship on the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike varied by location and contractor. Not all parts of the road were macadamized, depending on the natural surface and the amount of traffic. Where gravel was applied, its quality was uneven. Poor maintenance and heavy rains led to deterioration of the road surface.
No reliable system of maintenance was developed until 1847, and tolls were not sufficient to pay for upkeep. Additional money was provided to construct bridges and pave portions of the route until 1852, when a flood left the road in disrepair. No further appropriations came until 1860, when $12,000 proved too meager to overcome nearly a decade of neglect. Any thoughts of additional repairs by Virginia ended when the Civil War erupted along the turnpike in the spring of 1861.
The Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike was a vital link between the heart of Virginia and its western counties upon the outbreak of Civil War in 1861. As a gateway to the B&O Railroad, forces both North and South coveted the turnpike and its connecting routes. Virginia authorities sought to keep all of the state under Confederate control while many western Virginians, long disaffected with the Richmond government, saw the opportunity to form a new independent government. They were encouraged by Federal authorities anxious to retain the strategic railroad. Early action for control of the Turnpike launched the war’s first inland campaign. Northwestern Virginia was secured for the Union and General George McClellan emerged as the “Young Napoleon,” soon to command all Federal armies.
Confederate Colonel George Porterfield established headquarters near Grafton in May 1861. He hoped to secure Virginia’s northwestern counties for the south and recruit additional troops. Porterfield found little support in the area. Removing his collection of raw volunteers to the more sympathetic town of Philippe, he ordered the destruction of railroad bridges to delay any Federal advance.
Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal department of the Ohio, was charged with protecting the pro-Union citizens of northwestern Virginia and the B&O Railroad. Responding to the burned bridges, he sent troops across the Ohio River at Wheeling and Parkersburg to seize Grafton. On June 3, Union troops from Ohio and western Virginia surprised Porterfield’s Confederates at Philippi. Surprised and outnumbered, Porterfield’s Confederates fled down the turnpike to Huttonsville. The Federals took the town, but they failed to capture the Confederate troops. This almost bloodless clash, known as the “Philippi Races,” has been called the first land battle of the Civil War.
General Robert Garnett now arrived to command Confederate forces in the area. He hastily fortified two key mountain passes: Laurel Hill, just east of Belington on the Beverly-Fairmont Pike, and at the western base of Rich Mountain overlooking the Staunton-Parkersburg Pike. Garnett himself commanded the bulk of his army at Laurel Hill. The Rich Mountain position, named Camp Garnett, consisted of 1,300 men and four cannons commanded by Col. John Pegram.
General McClellan consolidated his hold over the area. Marching along the Staunton-Parkersburg Pike, he personally led a force of over 5,000 men to Roaring Creek Flats, just two miles west of Camp Garnett. Fearing the strength of the Confederate position and over-estimating the number of enemy troops, McClellan felt it would be disastrous to attack Camp Garnett head-on. Instead, he sent General William Rosecrans and a brigade 1,917 men on a march to the south, hoping to strike the turnpike in the Confederate rear, on the summit of Rich Mountain. Guided by David Hart, the young son of a family who lived at the pass, they struggled through a pathless forest, hindered by thick undergrowth, steep hillsides, darkness, and rain. Finally arriving on the ridge top south of the turnpike. Rosecrans’ Federals moved north until they overlooked the turnpike pass at Joseph Hart’s farm.
Around 2:30 on the afternoon of July 11, Rosecrans struck a Confederate outpost at the pass, comprised of 310 Confederates with one cannon. They took cover behind hastily constructed log field works, rocks, trees and farm buildings. Firing the cannon at a feverish pace, they held the Federals at bay for more than two hours. After numerous thrusts at the Confederates, the Federals finally captured the gun and forced the outnumbered rebels to flee.
In camp Garnett, Colonel Pegram tried to rally reinforcements, but it was too late. With the enemy now poised at his rear, Pegram withdrew his remaining forces during the night. The next morning, the victorious troops marched down the turnpike into the nearly abandoned Camp Garnett and Rosecrans sent word to McClellan that the enemy was beaten. Part of the retreating Confederate column. Led by map make Jed Hotchkiss, successfully escaped down the turnpike. Pegram’s main force cut off and without supplies, surrendered to McClellan in Beverly two days later.
Meanwhile, McClellan had sent General Morris to engage General Garnett’s Confederates at Laurel Hill, east of Belington. On July 7, Morris’ Federals moved south from Philippi, and engaged the rebels in a series of skirmishes on the hills around Belington. This led Garnett to believe the main assault would be against his lines. On the afternoon of July 11, however, he heard the sounds of the battle at Rich Mountain 23 miles away. Learning of Pegram’s defeat and Union control of the Pike, Garnett realized that his Laurel Hill position was also cut off. His troops departed at dusk, leaving their tents up and fires burning to deceive the enemy. Upon reaching the turnpike crossroads at Leadsville, Garnett was mistakenly told that Beverly was already in Federal hands. His only hope for escape was to turn north and east on primitive roads.
On the morning of the 12th, discovering that Garnett was gone, Morris quickly set off in pursuit. Poor roads and incessant rain slowed travel, but a quagmire of mud and discarded equipment along the way marked the path of Garnett'’ retreat. The route to Shavers Fork was barely passable, with steep slopes and dense woods on either side. The Southerners felled trees across the road to delay pursuit, but the Union advance caught up to the Confederate wagon train by noon on the 13th. At Kalars Ford of Shavers Fork, a running skirmish began as the two-mile-long Confederate column moved down the river valley, followed by the pursuing Federals. Held up by stalled wagons at Corricks Ford, rebel defenders on a high bluff fought a spirited engagement along the riverbank. General Garnett was shot and killed while directing skirmishers, the first General to die in the Civil War. The tired Union column stopped here, having captured most of the Confederate baggage train. Remnants of Garnett’s army fled east through the wilderness, eventually straggling into Monterey, Virginia.
From Beverly, General McClellan sent telegrams to Washington proclaiming dramatic victory. Little more than one week later, Federal forces met a disastrous defeat at Manassas. President Lincoln, needing a winning general, called McClellan to Washington to command the Army of the Potomac. Within four months he commanded all Federal armies. The characteristic traits which later marked McClellan’s command, a talented military organizer, hesitant to engage in battle while wildly over estimating enemy numbers, were all first apparent at Rich Mountain.
Before departing for Washington, General McClellan left orders to fortify crucial turnpike passes in the upper Tygart Valley. Entrenchments at Elkwater blocked the Huttonsville-Huntersville Turnpike, while Cheat Summit Fort or Camp Milroy commanded the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike almost 4,000 feet above sea level. Nearly 14 feet high, the works here were believed to be impregnable. Federals established a supply base called Cheat Pass Camp on the Turnpike near Huttonsville at the base of Cheat Mountain.
Confederate forces were also digging in on the Staunton-Parkersburg Pike. Fortifications were built at Camp Bartow, overlooking Traveller’s Repose, and at Camp Allegheny on the top of Allegheny Mountain. They also had a supply base at Huntersville, and an advance camp below Elkwater near the summit of Valley Mountain.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee now entered the area. Lee’s mission was to oversee a counterattack by General William Loring to regain lost ground on the strategic roads. Form his camp on Valley Mountain, Lee personally scouted the area, identifying mountain paths that could be used to flank the Federals. An intricate Confederate attach was launched on September 12. Colonel Albert Rust with a brigade of 1,500 men was to assault Cheat Summit Fort in the first of five separate coordinated attacks against the Federal positions at the Cheat and Elkwater. Rust blundered into Federal wagons less then ½ mile from the fort and engaged 200 skirmishers in dense woods. Surprised by what they saw as an overwhelming force, the Confederates retreated, littering the woods with abandoned equipment. Without Rust’s signal, a disjointed Confederate attack on Camp Elkwater was easily repulsed, and the remainder of the plan failed to materialize. General Lee had lost his first battle. Defeated by rough terrain, rainy weather and inexperienced subordinates, his reputation was severely damaged and the southern papers derided him as “Granny Lee”, a name that would not last.
Federal forces now seized the initiative. An army of 5,000 men, under General Joseph Reynolds, attacked Confederate Camp Bartow on October 3, 1861. Clustered on a series of hills overlooking the Staunton-Parkersburg Pike, Camp Bartow was held by General Henry Jackson with a force of 1,800 men.
Federal artillery dueled for four hours with Confederate cannons dug in on the hillsides in the Battle of Greenbrier River. After two failed flank attacks. Reynolds broke off the engagement and returned to Cheat Summit Fort. The victorious Confederates now questioned whether Camp Bartow would be safe from renewed attack, and in November they abandoned this position.
A force of 1,200 southerners under Colonel Edward Johnson now held Camp Allegheny, a strongly fortified position on the heights of Allegheny Mountain, on both sides of the Turnpike. General Robert Milroy and 1,900 Federal troops attacked Camp Allegheny on December 13, 1861. Hoping to strike both flanks of the camp at once. Milroy divided his force. Leaving the turnpike, he climbed the mountain and attacked the confederate right at dawn. Milroy was driven from the field just before the other Federal column reached the Confederate left flank. Confederate Colonel Johnson skillfully shuttled troops across the battlefield to meet these uncoordinated assaults. The Confederate victory assured they still held a position on the turnpike.
The Federals at Cheat Summit Fort and Confederates at Camp Allegheny suffered terribly in their windswept positions. Measles, pneumonia and other illnesses took a higher toll then the battles. Troops could barely be supplied on the frozen or muddy turnpike. By April 1862, both armies moved toward the Shenandoah Valley, leaving behind the cold, desolate wilderness of their first year at war.
The Confederates joined General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s army near Staunton. General Milroy soon followed them down the pike. On May 8, Milroy’s Ohio and western Virginia troops attacked Jackson on a hill overlooking McDowell. Although they inflicted heavy casualties, the Federal attack failed, and they retreated north. “Stonewall” Jackson’s famous Shenandoah Valley Campaign had begun.
Federal troops continued to occupy Beverly, as well as much of the turnpike. Many of the troops camped in town and dug trenches on the hills of Mt. Iser above the town, later used as the Confederate cemetery.
Many residents who were Southern sympathizers fled the town. Residents who stayed were expected to supply food, shelter and labor to support the soldiers. Many houses were used as hospi6tals for the troops, most notable the Logan and Goff houses. Union officers boarded in a number of homes, like that of “Stonewall” Jackson’s sister, Laura Jackson Arnold. The Bushrod Crawford store was used a Federal headquarters and telegraph office.
Confederate raids challenged Federal control during the war. The most extensive was the Jones-Imboden raid. On April 24, 1863 General John Imboden with 3,365 men advanced through central West Virginia, and took Beverly after a day of fighting. General Imboden and General Jones swept through the state capturing supplies and destroying bridges. After they left, Federal forces returned to Beverly.
Guerrilla partisans, or bushwackers, caused much damage and suffering in the area during the war. Homes and bridges were burned, including the inn at Traveller’s Repose, but western Virginia remained under Federal control.
Once the Federals had military control of northwestern Virginia – initially ensured by the Battle of Rich Mountain – dissenting citizens formed the “reorganized government of Virginia” which remained loyal to the Union. In 1863, two years later, with the western counties firmly in Union hands, the state of West Virginia was formed.
When the fighting ended in 1865, the newly created State of West Virginia owned the majority of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike. Responsibility for the turn pike in the new state fell to the counties. County court records name individuals responsible for sections of roads, with men being “called out” to work so much each year.
Tolls continued to be collected by the counties, in some cases until the 1890s. Locations of the toll gates included Traveller’s Repose, the Jacob Arbogast house in Durbin, south of Huttonsville, at Beverly, at stream crossings, such as the Toll House in Ritchie County, and at major intersections, such as the intersection of SR 47 and US 50 near Parkersburg. The toll rates collected at each gate varied throughout the years – wagon, team, and driver 25 to 55 cents; four-wheeled riding carriage, 20 to 45 cents; cart or two-wheeled carriage 12 ½ to 20 cents; man and horse 6 ¼ cents; cattle per head, ¼ cent; sheep or hogs, 3 to 5 cents per score. The tolls were usually insufficient to pay for maintenance of the road, and in addition were often evaded by extra roads or “shunpikes” built bypassing the gates.
Many bridges had been burned or destroyed during the war and rebuilding was slow. In 1873, Lemuel Chenoweth rebuilt his bridge at Beverly, just below where his house stood, and was commissioned to repair a number of other bridges as well. Rebuilding of some bridges lagged behind, such as at Bartow, where a footbridge and ford served the turnpike for several decades.
The turnpike brought visitors and regular stagecoach routes. Traveller’s Repose was the first stage stop west of Allegheny. The original inn on the site was burned by Bushwackers during the war. Peter Dilly Yeager rebuilt the inn beginning in 1866. It has 22 rooms and space for 28 horses in the barn and was operated under different names, including the Yeager Hotel and Greenbrier Hotel. It was a two story L-shaped house constructed of wide native pine boards, with double sandstone fireplaces, three stairways and a wood shingle roof. Outside was a picket fence and board walks, with a mounting block and hitching post for the horses. Thomas Jackson’s nephew Thomas Arnold, who grew up in ante-bellum Beverly, described the arrival of the stage in that town.
Tri-weekly stage coaches – drawn by four horses, from Staunton, from Weston, and Fairmont; making good time, horses being changed every 10 or 12 miles, going night and day; their approach to the town, being heralded by the blowing of a trumpet, carried by the driver. Such notice enabling the citizens to gather at the hotels to see the arrival of guests, and get the latest news; and to have the hostler out with fresh horses, and the postmaster to have his mail bags ready. These coaches could carry nine passengers inside and could take two on the top seat with the driver- a big leather covered boot at the back to hold baggage. Aside from the stage coaches, persons frequently traveled in private conveyances – there being much intercourse with Richmond and other sections of Eastern Virginia. Also much travel in season, to the many mineral springs in Greenbrier, Bath and Rockbridge counties.
A short distance west of present day Buckhannon at the Blair house, tired stage horses could be exchanged for fresh ones. Another stage stop was at McGuire Park just east of Weston. Again the hotel here accommodated guests overnight and served food.
In June 1847, the Board of Public Works had entered into a contract with P.A. Heiskell & Co. granting franchises for two-horse mail coaches three times a week thus providing fast and regular mail service.
In northern Pocahontas County, the post office at Traveller’s Repose served the farming community that had grown up from the families of the earliest settlers. It was continuously in the Yeager home from 1813, except for the war years when the Burner house served as the post office after the original Traveller’s Repose Inn was burned. In 1905, Traveller’s Repose post office, which by then also served as the telephone switchboard was closed, and the Bartow post office in the new town across the river was opened.
During the winter of 1855, when the mail between Staunton and Huttonsville was contracted to the Trotter Brothers, a severe snow storm hindered mail deliveries. Asked by postal authorities about the delay, the Trotters replied:
If you knock the gable end out of Hell and back it up against Cheat Mountain and rain fire and brimstone on it for forty days and forty nights it won’t melt the snow enough to your d--- mail through on time.
The turnpike stimulated immigration and prosperity in many of the areas it served and was a factor in the forming of several new counties, including Gilmer and Upshur. Beverly developed as the county seat of Randolph County and the commercial center of the rich Tygart Valley, boasting several hotels which served the needs of travelers, and various craftsmen, including tanneries, saddle makers, blacksmith and carpenters, hat makers, and a toy factory. Buckhannon, Weston, and Smithville became market towns along the way, and at the terminus of the Turnpike was Parkersburg, a transportation hub for both land and water commerce.
There were a number of smaller communities that grew up on or near the pike, including Leadsville, Roaring Creek, Mill Creek, and Huttonsville in Randolph County, the community at Traveler’s Repose in Pocahontas County, Ellamore and Lorentz in Upshur County, Horner, Camden, and Alum Bridge in Lewis County, Linn, Troy and Coxs Mill in Gilmer County, Macfarlan in Ritchie County, and Kanwha and Cedar Grove in Wood County. Most of these remained small farming communities until the lumber boom around the turn of the century.
Rapid industrialization in the late 19th Century had a tremendous impact on remote and rural sections of West Virginia. Soldiers and businessmen who served in western Virginia during the Civil War were impressed by the vast expanses of virgin spruce, pine, and hardwood forests. The area had huge coal reserves and mines, such as the one on the Hart farm on Rich Mountain which had served local use before the Civil War. In 1876, investors sent a huge chunk of coal from Roaring Creek by wagon to Webster, then by rail to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, where it attracted the attention of industrialist Henry Gassaway Davis.
In 1888, Henry G. Davis and his son-in-law Stephen Benton Elkins came to Randolph County to select a site for the terminus of their railroad, the West Virginia Central & Pittsburgh Railway. Founded in 1881, the line ran from the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at Piedmont, West Virginia into the Allegheny Mountains to provide access to the region’s rich coal and timber resources.
Initially, Davis and Elkins wanted to build the terminus in Beverly, which was already well established as the county seat. Unable to come to terms with the area landowners, the industrialists instead looked to nearby Leadsville, then just a collection of farms and a blacksmith’s shop. The West Virginia Central and Pittsburgh Railway reached Leadsville in August 1889, and brought with it a development boom. Elkins, the town that grew out of the establishment of the railroad terminal, was incorporated in February 1890, with a population of 349. In 1900, the county seat was moved there from Beverly and in 1902 there were over 6,500 people living in the city limits. Almost overnight, Elkins came to dominate the economic and political life of Randolph County.
In the Western counties, the railroad was not a boon to development on the Turnpike. The B & O Railroad ran close to the northern road, and pulled industry and economic assets to that area
The oil and gas industries in West Virginia started with the discovery of oil by George Lemon while drilling for salt near Fling Run. This well was near the Turnpike in Wirt County adjacent to the county line with Ritchie County. Ritchie County became known for its oil and gas fields. Numerous communities turned into little “boomtowns” due to the proliferation of oil and gas discoveries in the late 1800s through the 1920s. This natural resource led to the growth of most of the Ritchie County communities along the Turnpike and elsewhere, such as the town of Petroleum. Today there is an Oil and Gas Museum in Parkersburg commemorating this era.
The communities of Coalton, Mabie, and Harding grew as the Roaring Creek coal fields were mined. Named for O. C. Womelsdorf, who developed the Roaring Creek coal fields, the town of Womelsdorf is more commonly known as Coalton. The railroad was completed from Elkins to Womelsdorf in 1893-94. The town at one time had two hotels, an opera house, one boarding house and three saloons. In 1910, during its heyday, the community had a population of 650. Many of the miners who worked there for the West Virginia Coal and Coke Company were immigrants from Italy.
By the 1950s, the number of deep mines declined, as more coal was strip mined, a method of surface mining, which used more equipment and fewer workers, and also more visibly damaged the countryside. In recent years, strip mines are legally required to do reclamation work – the regrading and seeding of the land to prevent erosion. Both reclaimed and older unreclaimed strip mines remain on Rich Mountain.
Near the Turnpike north of Macfarlan in Ritchie County is the Ritchie Mines Wildlife Management Area. This reclaimed area is today a preserve and hunting area open to the public. In its heyday, it was the largest asphalt mine in the country.
Lumbering also was extensive in those years prompted by small spur railways reaching into the hills. Along the upper Greenbrier, even before the railroad’s arrival, lumbering had begun in the rich spruce forests of the upper elevations and pine plantations along the river. Hardwoods were extensive in the hills west of the mountains, and these forests were also logged, starting near the waterways. Wood was a valued commodity in the late 19 th century. The country was in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, and the economy needed charcoal to run the furnaces, wood to build factories and commercial buildings, and the houses for the workers in a growing population.
Early water-driven up-and-down mills which cut limber for local needs were superseded by more efficient steam-driven circular saw mills, then later by band mills. Many logs were moved to mills by river, as huge log drives were made during high water each spring. Especially during the decade of the 1890s, log drives were made each spring from the Durbin area down the river to mills at Ronceverte. Log drives were also common on the Shavers Fork, the Tygart Valley River, the Buckhannon River, and Little Kanawha River and its tributaries. Running north or west these drives eventually delivered logs or lumber to the B & O Railroad.
In the south and east much of the forest still remained untouched, and the Greenbrier Railway Company was founded in 1897 to extend the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad north from Roncevcerte into Pocahontas County. The route along the river was approved in April 1899, and the railroad spur completed to Cass by December 1900. In 1902 it reached Durbin, and made its way to the new mill at Winterburn by 1905. Meanwhile, Davis and Elkins were expanding their railway lines, and when a subsidiary of their company completed rail lines to Durbin in August 1903, the much-needed connection between the B&O and the C&O were forged.
Many communities grew up and boomed around the sawmills and railroad depots serving the lumbering industry as both local residents and new immigrants found work. On the upper Greenbrier, Winterburn, and Dunleavy (near modern Thornwood east of Bartow) grew up as the new mill towns. Bartow was laid out as a mill town, but for many years its primary industry was livestock shipping. In addition to area farms, livestock was driven down the turnpike from Highland County Virginia, which did not have a railroad. Durbin was the booming new railroad center, and the nearby community of Frank was founded around the tannery, which utilized the abundant hemlock bark in it processing. In the Tygart Valley, one of the oldest communities, Mill Creek, boomed and thrived with the coming of the Wilson Lumber company in 1911. Using hand tools to cut the timber and horses and oxen to skid it out to the rails, virtually the entire countryside was clear-cut over the next few decades.
Fires and floods devastated the country as a result of the forest’s wholesale destruction. The devastating Pittsburgh flood of 1907 focused national attention to the problems. In 1911, Congress passed the Weeks Law for the protection of watersheds. This allowed land to be purchased for the formation of eastern National Forests.
The purchase area for the Monongahela National Forest was authorized in 1915. The first purchase of 7,200 acres in Tucker County was sold by Thomas J. Arnold. The Forest grew as more lands were acquired and reforestation was begun in the cut over lands. Legislation in 1924 broadened the purposes of the Forest to include timber production. The area was enlarged to include the Seneca Rocks area, and the boundary was extended again in 1933. Much of the denuded mountain land was reforested in the protected areas, either by planting or through natural regrowth.
The dominant mode of transportation changed yet again with the popularity of automobiles. In the 1920smany of the major roads, including the Staunton-Parkersburg Pike, were paved. Much of the original turnpike route was used virtually intact by the new roads, though in some cases curves were straightened, leaving small sections of the old pike cur out along the modern road. These can still be seen, for instance on sections of Cheat Mountain. Parts of the old route were bypassed by a new routing. This occurred on the west side of Allegheny, where the new route travels through wet bottom land that could now be crossed thanks to modern road building techniques. This leaves the Camp Allegheny Backway as a 9 mile section of old turnpike now maintained as a gravel road – and virtually unchanged from its original route. Form Beverly, the paved highway continues north to Elkins, paralleling the route of the Beverly-Fairmont Pike, and the old Staunton-Parkersburg route over Rich Mountain, now the Rich Mountain Backway, remains a back road on the original roadbed. In Ritchie County a short distance west of Macfarlan is an area known as Oxbow. Here the old road followed the north side of Laurel Run on a circuitous route. This avoided the need for bridges. Today the road crosses Laurel Run at two places, and the old roadbed is not easily passable with an auto.
Routing through the towns of Bartow and Durbin was altered to accommodate development changes, and in many places the original route is obscure. The section that is now the Back mountain road Backway was paved as highway in the 1920s, but was augmented by an improved highway down the east face of Cheat Mountain in the 1960s. At Buckhannon in Upshur County the old road still passes through the center of town, while the new US 33 bypasses the town to the north. A similar thing happened at Smithville in Ritchie County the old road used to be the Main Street, and the newer road now bypasses the town.
By the 1920s many Americans used their new automobiles to visit other parts of the country. Auto tent camps were common and service stations began to dot the countryside.
In August of 1918, a group of prominent Americans escaped the cities for an auto camping tour of the Appalachians. Included in the party were automobile builder Henry Ford, tire manufacturer Harvey Firestone, inventor Thomas Edison, and naturalist John Burroughs. They visited Elkins, Tygart Valley, and Cheat Mountain, spending the night at the Cheat Mountain Club Lodge near Cheat Bridge.
In a newspaper article in the March 26, 1939 issue of the Parkersburg News, reporter Evangeline wrote:
. . . our route lay over the new Staunton pike, and we were delighted to see the promise that this new highway and thoroughfare gives to the country at large. Those of us who just hear about it have little realization of what it’s going to mean to Parkersburg, and the entire region from here to the Atlantic coast. It is not only going to be beautiful from a scenic point of view, and it is bound to bring many tourists this way, when its history becomes better known. It’s the history of the country when properly played up that makes for tourists, and we are in favor of having correct markers placed along this highway, so that he ‘who runs may read’ the significance of these interesting points.
We know the Turnpike was not new in 1939, but perhaps it was newly paved. Many roads were named for their destinations, so people in Parkersburg would likely call it the Staunton Pike, while people in Staunton would call it the Parkersburg Pike. In the middle, we call it by both names or simple the Turnpike or Pike.
The Tygart Valley Homesteads were developed as a New Deal project that relocated out-of-work families and enabled them to become self-sufficient. Based on the first such community at Arthurdale, WV, over 100 communities were developed across the country. The Tygart Valley Homesteads at Valley Bend and Dailey were built in 1934-35 for workers laid off from local mining and lumbering jobs.
In Dailey there are several New Deal-era structures, including craft buildings and the stone trade center building, which was the community center for the Homestead’s 160 or so homes. The lumber mill was constructed by the government and operated by the Kenoweth Corporation, to provide jobs for those living in the homestead dwellings.
The Homestead School built for the project is still in service as the elementary school for the area between Beverly and Mill Creek. Some of the homes can be seen on the west side of the road across from the community buildings. The largest concentration is at Valley Bend, on the east side of the Pike. The homes were built to three basic patterns and each one had its own land for gardens, with outbuildings and a root cellar.
The CCC was vibrantly active with 21 camps in the Monongahela National Forest area. Jobless young men were put to work on forestry, fire-fighting, roads and trails, and building projects. Many of the structures and facilities in the National Forest and State Park sites date from this era, including Kumbrabow State Forest and Stuart Recreation Area, as well as picnic areas like Old House Run on route 250, now part of the Turnpike Byway. The CCC camp at East Dailey known as Camp Tygart helped with drainage, road work, and excavation for the Tygart Valley Homesteads.
Coal production has declined due to the reduction in the use of coal for energy, the oil has played out. Lumbering and the gas industry remain strong however, as dominant industries in the region. Sustainable logging practices, local lumber mills, and increasingly, wood products manufacturers, are helping to keep jobs along the old turnpike route.
The railroad’s influence on the region continued through to the early 1980s, although passenger service came to a close in 1958. The final blow to the Elkins railroad industry came in 1981 when the roundhouse burned, ending the railroad’s reign. Many railroad tracks have been removed, and in some cases converted to hiking/biking trails, such as the Greenbrier River and West fork trails, and the North Bend Trail from Parkersburg to Clarksburg. Some tracks remain and are used for industrial hauling, a business that is now dominated by trucks. By expanding access and promoting the development of resources, the railroad’s impact forever transformed the character and culture of West Virginia.
While some traditional work like farming and lumbering continue, modern technology also affects the area. While the Frank tannery is now closed, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank is a vital employer for the upper Greenbrier Valley. Although the oil wells and asphalt mines have mow stopped functioning, employment in the larger towns and cities draw commuter workers. Service and tourism jobs are also starting to flourish. The convenience of automobiles and modern highways allow may people to enjoy living in rural locations while working in the nearby towns.
Tourism is an increasing factor in the local economy. The designation of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike Byway, as well as development of the heritage and natural tourism sites along the Byway and throughout the region, help local residents value and share with visitors the rich cultural heritage which makes their homeland so special.
All along these roads, you can see homes and farms, Civil War sites and historic communities that tell the stories of settlement and growth. As you drive the Byway and Backways today, you are following in the footsteps of generations of travelers on the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike.