SPT logo

Chapter 6 -- Interpretation

The Staunton - Parkersburg Turnpike was critically important in the settlement and development of sections of Western Virginia, and was strategically significant in the early years of the Civil War. In interpreting the Pike, the two primary themes are the building and usage of the Turnpike, and the Civil War campaign fought to control it. Secondary themes to complete the context include prehistory and early settlement of the area, including the increasing need for improved transportation; the coming of the railroads and extractive industries that changed the transportation and development patterns; and the change brought by the twentieth century and increased reliance on automobiles.   Interweaving of these themes with the geographical locations that are related to each provides an interpretation challenge, but offers the opportunity of telling a complex and richly interesting story.

We are fortunate in interpretation of the turnpike and its Civil War sites that many of the most important sites along the turnpike already have some interpretation. This will allow visitation of the turnpike to begin immediately. Interpretation plans at these sites call for continued improvements over time, and all future interpretation needs to include the Turnpike context.


6-1) Visitors

Three basic groups of visitors need to be planned for in interpretation.

One group will be those with an existing interest in, and usually some background knowledge of, the Civil War, the turnpike, and/or other heritage sites. This will include Civil War buffs, followers of the area Civil War auto tours, some tour bus groups, and descendants of participants in the battles. Others will be attracted by the transportation and settlement history of the turnpike, or may be interested in Appalachian culture. These visitors will be interested in, and expect, a fairly detailed interpretation of the events and participants.

The second visitor group will be local and area residents, including school groups and civic groups. They will want to know why the road is important to their locality. They should come to feel some “ownership” of the pike and its assets, and hopefully will return for repeat visits.

The third group will be casual visitors who are driving the Byway, or who are looking for “something else” to do while in the area. They will want briefer interpretations that will catch their attention and explain the basics without losing them in too much detail. They will also be attracted by scenic vistas, nature, and a variety of other types of experiences.


6-2) Interpretive Themes

Primary themes

The overall theme of transportation as told in the story of the building and usage of the Turnpike is applicable along the route. Even the sites not actually on the pike will either be on a feeder pike, or will have related stories such as the difficulty of transportation without a turnpike. The Civil War campaigns were fought to control the transportation routes, and later railroad and automobile road developments are also transportation stories. This is the one thread that can be used to tie together the widely varied stories and sites throughout the corridor.

The political struggle to build this turnpike was a part of a significant sectional antagonism in Virginia politics. The battle between development of the canals and transportation routes favored by the moneyed eastern interests, versus the need for trans-Allegheny routes to serve the western settlers, was critical in the long-running dissension between the two regions, and was a significant factor in the separation of West Virginia. First proposed in 1823, the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike was not financed and built until the 1840s. The engineering difficulties of building the road over the high mountains were considerable, and the technological story of the pike is also significant to the interpretive story. The stories of a number of individuals should not be left out, including state engineer Col. Claudius Crozet, Napoleon’s chief of engineers, bridgebuilder Lemuel Chenoweth, and a number of local personages who we can identify as serving as surveyors, contractors, or toll-keepers along the pike.

Travel on the turnpike offers the opportunity to interpret fascinating human-interest stories. Visitors enjoy hearing about stagecoaches and inns, tollgates and fees, and famous personages, such as Stonewall Jackson, who traveled frequently on the turnpike and spent his formative years at his uncle’s farm and mill near the Turnpike. Contrasting the realities of early travel on this pike with familiar modern modes of transportation helps to bring the whole story alive for modern visitors.

The second main theme, and perhaps the most compelling, is the 1861 Civil War First Campaign. The main strategic goal of this campaign was to control the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike and its related routes that led into northwestern Virginia and provided access to the vital B&O Railroad.   The Federal control of northwestern Virginia that was established in this campaign made possible the formation of the state of West Virginia. In addition, General McClellan’s victory in this campaign led directly to his promotion to command the Army of the Potomac. These factors give national significance to this campaign, thus making the sites much more important than the size of the action would indicate. The Civil War sites are also the most visible, best protected, and best interpreted for visitors of the turnpike sites. Other Civil War stories include the Jones-Imboden Raid, much of which occurred along the western sections of the Turnpike, which was the most significant Confederate incursion into the Trans-Allegheny west.  

Secondary themes

The prehistory of the area is underrepresented in sites, yet is quite important. Much myth exists about where and when Indians lived in the mountains, and some mention of the archaeological evidence in the interpretive materials will help to bring light on this issue. There is a mound site near the Pike at Elkwater, plus the stories of an Indian village at Mingo Flats. Selected prehistoric camps or quarry sites could be made public and interpreted in the future if security concerns could be met. Most exciting is the recent excavation of a prehistoric village at Mouth of Seneca. The Monongahela National Forest Visitor Center at this site will have extensive interpretation about this prehistory. Although some distance from the route, Seneca is an important gateway for tourists coming into the area. These stories are an important counterpoint to the much more common mention of Indians only as attackers of the early settlers.

             Early settlement is represented by a number of monuments and markers of early settler fort sites, and of Indian massacres of settlers. The only actual buildings remaining are a few early log structures that have usually been heavily altered. One of the earliest remaining log buildings, the Jacob Stalnaker cabin, has been moved to Beverly and is being restored to its circa 1800 appearance. The growth of population in the Greenbrier Valley, the Tygart Valley, and the Ohio Valley contributed to the need for the turnpike through this area. Traveller’s Repose, although in a different building, was a post office from 1813, and a number of buildings remaining in Beverly and in other towns along the road date from this era.

The coming of the railroads and extractive industries in the 1890 to 1910 period brought a boom to the area that shaped the cultural landscape we know today. There is great potential in the development of sites to showcase this period and the railroad, mining, and lumbering history. An excursion railroad departing from the original Durbin depot offers a great opportunity for interpretation of the railroad history, in addition to the more elaborate operation at the nearby Cass Scenic Railroad.   Interpretation opportunities also exist at the remaining train depot in Elkins. Lumber mill towns like Mill Creek offer potential for presenting the past and future of this important industry. The Frank tannery, recently closed, was the shaping force behind that small town, and leaves a vacuum in its wake. Towns that grew and prospered as a result of the oil and gas boom suffered the same fate.   The glass industry, especailly in Weston and Parkersburg played a major role in the industrial developoment of West Virginia.   Emphasis on lumbering and forest themes is particularly important in carrying the story into the present day, as wood products remain the primary industry of the region. All of this interpretation will tie in with the Appalachian Forest Heritage Area regional initiative, and the Turnpike can be a major interpretive avenue for these Forest Heritage themes.

One particular twentieth century site must be included for interpretation. This is the Tygart Valley Homesteads, a New Deal homestead community in the Dailey - Valley Bend area. The integrity of these communities is high, with many of the homes retaining much of their original appearance and landscaping, a relative minimum of non-contributing infill, and a number of homestead buildings, including the craft and community buildings, the school, and the lumber mill, still in use.

The changes in routing with the coming of paved roads can be interpreted as changes in the technologies of roadbuilding. Changes and similarities in vernacular architecture through the years can also be seen along the Pike. Automobiles have brought economic changes due to the opportunity to commute much farther to jobs, with the increased traffic and development along some sections of the pike route. Interpretation of growth and development can help the visitor differentiate between the historic landscape, and the modern manifestations of change.

Natural and cultural themes

In addition to the historical and archaeological themes detailed above, the turnpike corridor also offers interpretive opportunities for other intrinsic qualities.

A great wealth of Appalachian culture is represented in communities along the pike, including crafts, music, dance, story telling, and rural life. The Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins works to document the culture and folk life of the region, in addition to offering classes in many of the traditional arts. A number of organizations encourage specific crafts many of which are available to tourists at gift shops. Dances and live music are sometimes available in the communities, especially in conjunction with special events and town festivals. Appalachian Culture will be a primary theme accompanying the Turnpike Interpretation in the Beverly Heritage Center now under development.

Access to and interpretation of the natural and scenic resources provides a prime opportunity along the turnpike. Interpretation can encourage interest in the plant and animal species, encourage hiking and other recreational use of the forest, and include conservation messages. There are abundant outdoor recreation opportunities, including hiking and biking trails, fishing and canoeing, cross-country skiing, camping, and hunting.


6-3) Interpretation challenges

Due to the unpredictability of visitors and the distances between sites, full-time on-site interpreters are often not practical at the more remote sites. On-site interpretation initially, therefore, will be self-guided and independent of direct personal contact. This situation may change with further development, and increased visitation to the Byway. Tours by reservation, for groups, and for events may be practical, as well as living history interpreters for special events or occasions. Whenever possible, whether full-time or for special events, in-person interpretation is more exciting for most visitors. Visitor centers that serve multiple functions will provide more opportunity for direct contact.

While the turnpike offers a great wealth of interpretation opportunities, this very richness can become an obstacle. This brings an inherent clash between serving the “buffs” that want a great deal of information, and the “casual” visitor who is overwhelmed and discouraged by too much detail.   The variety of resources is so wide that visitors could be easily confused, and the important messages lost in the mass of information. It is essential that interpretation keep its primary goal of exciting and challenging the visitor to think, and to want to learn more. Within this charge, the interpretive materials will have the twin challenge of highlighting and concentrating on the most important themes, while at the same time offering a variety of information and opportunities to meet the needs of different visitors. Offering several different targeted brochures will be one way to do this, as well as staying consciously aware of the need to keep the themes and goals of each interpretive piece clear.

6-4) Interpretive Strategies and Products

Written materials

An inexpensive promotional brochure or rack card about the Turnpike, the Byway, and the Alliance should be widely distributed to raise interest. It will make clear where to get further information.

A comprehensive brochure with interpretation on the themes and sites will be the primary information source for most visitors. A single multi-page brochure with map and site instructions is the likely format. Due to the length of the turnpike and variety of resources, care will be taken in selecting and presenting information to reflect the richness and variety of turnpike resources, while also providing sufficient information about sites available for visitation to guide visitors on their travels.

Site brochures or walking tour brochures will be useful supplements needed for major sites, districts, and specific sections of the Turnpike. The already completed interpretive booklet is an example of a special purpose piece, giving considerable thematic historical interpretation that will be invaluable for the serious visitor about the Pocahontas and Randolph County section of the Pike.   Specifically targeted thematic brochures can be developed to also serve other natural history and other interests in the western half of the Byway.

More extensive booklets and books will also be desirable to be available for purchase at gift shops, to provide more information for those who want to learn more as a result of their visit. They will also offer a quality purchase to take home from the visit.

Signage interpretation

Gateway waysides at selected locations will offer an attractive introduction to the Byway, and provide tourists with information and interpretive context.

Interpretative waysides at various locations along the pike will give a briefer picture of contributing sites to the turnpike, and explain their context and significance. Natural sites can be included here as well as historical ones. A series of wayside interpretive signs along the initial sections of the Byway has been funded in the Scenic Byways grants, and are currently being developed. They will be coordinated with Civil War Trail interpretive signs focusing on the First Campaign. Funding for continuation of these signs along the rest of the Byway is being sought.

Interpretive signage at major sites will be developed in individual site interpretive plans, and should be coordinated with other Byway signs.

Exhibits and Visitors Centers

Visitors centers will be developed at key sites along the pike, each most likely sponsored and run by different agencies. Each center will make available all brochures and materials. Some such as the Beverly Heritage Center will be specifically Turnpike Interpretive Centers, offering interpretive exhibits, context interpretation for the pike, with different center perhaps specializing on a different theme related to the pike. In other cases, county-run Tourism Information Centers will provide tourism information about the Byway along with their other info.

Museums and historic buildings with displays and exhibits of specific themes will be major attractions that also contribute to the Turnpike story.

Libraries and archives of local and thematic materials will provide a major attraction for genealogists and serious enthusiasts. Collected oral history and videotaped materials can be archived as well as manuscripts, original source materials, books of local interest, and photocopies of materials out-of-print or not easily available elsewhere.

Multi-media interpretation

A promotional slide show about the turnpike history and resources has already been developed, and used extensively in early promotion, education, and interpretive programs for the Turnpike.

A web page for the Byway has been initiated by volunteers, and even in its primitive form has been well received. A full-service web page with both overview and in-depth interpretation is being developed funded by a Byway grant. The flexibility offered by this medium allows for serving a wide variety of interests and niche audiences, as well as giving opportunities for presenting stories not suitable for in-person site visitation. While the primary purpose of a web page is interpretive, it can also serve other functions. The most obvious is promotion and visitation information, with links to existing county tourism sites.   The web page can also be useful for internal communications, providing up-to-date information for Byway organization members, stakeholders, and visibility for local residents.

Audiotapes derived from oral history interviews offer an exciting alternative overall interpretation of the Pike, while also preserving and making available the oral history stories. The audio series is available as audiotapes or CDs, as well as for radio programs. They also offer a non-visual interpretive option for visually or reading impaired visitors. Additional oral history interviews are needed from the western sections of the turnpike, which offer an opportunity for future expansion of the series.

Developing of video interpretation programs will be an important future objective, useful for broadcast and promotion, for educational and school use, and in visitor centers.

In-person interpretation

Each staffed visitor center will offer crucial opportunities for personal contact and answering questions.

By reservation or special occasion tours can be developed to offer more opportunities for in-person interpretation. Visitors Centers with appropriate facilities to gather and provide services for larger groups of people at one time will be necessary to serve tour groups.

Special events, cultural activities, festivals, reenactments, and living history will be encouraged and coordinated with the turnpike themes to provide more opportunities for in-person interpretation, visitor participation, and to encourage increased visitation and awareness of the Byway.

Regularly scheduled tours, site interpreters, and/or living history interpreters for several of the major sites are a longer-term objective for Byway interpretation.