The Midland Trail - Traveling West Virginia's Route 60 from Charleston to White Sulphur Springs Is a History Lesson
Laurence, William, The World and I
Sipping a cup of organic coffee was unexpectedly affecting my thinking. Images of hillbilly mountain folk were slowly dissolving with each delicious swallow. Here along the back roads of West Virginia I had discovered a restaurant that served the very coffee I enjoy in the nation's capital. Granted, most of West Virginia is only five hours from Washington, D.C., but to the uninitiated that's a mighty wide five hours. What most visitors don't realize is that an influx of socially conscious escapees from hectic big-city life in the 1960s and '70s laid the underpinnings to a statewide social awakening. Now, with a burgeoning hospitality infrastructure in place, West Virginia is beginning to promote itself.
My family and I were traveling the 120-mile-long Midland Trail, part of a historic route connecting the Ohio River with Tidewater Virginia. In West Virginia, it passes over or along five major rivers: the Greenbrier, New, Meadow, Gauley, and Kanawha. Beginning as a meandering buffalo path (the herds were probably searching for salt), the Midland Trail was one of the earliest routes between the Atlantic seaboard and the Appalachian wilderness. On this trip, we were to discover that parts of the trail were devoid of amenities, while towns like sporty Fayetteville (just off the route) and upscale Lewisburg offered exceptionally good cups of coffee and other modern-day pleasures that tourists expect.
History is never far below the surface of the Midland Trail. Its landscape has probably not altered much in the last 250 years. A number of white folk were separated from their scalps in this region of West Virginia in 1755. Warfare among Native Americans had combined with pressure from settlers moving ever westward to drive the Shawnee and other tribes into the Ohio Valley. For decades restless bands returned to the mountains, wreaking havoc where they could, killing, raping, or enslaving the homesteaders who had dared venture beyond the relative safety of the Shenandoah Valley into the Allegheny wilderness. Then a young colonel in His Majesty's army, George Washington fought skirmishes here during the ensuing French and Indian War.
Prior knowledge about young settler Mary Draper Ingles, whose ordeal is recounted in James Thom's best-selling Follow the River, lent color and historical content to our vacation. Ingles was captured by Indians and forced to abandon her family. Fleeing her captors in Ohio, she traveled a thousand miles on foot, following the Ohio River's rugged course to the Kanawha and the New to rejoin her husband in West Virginia. Ingles endured starvation, cold, extreme hardship, and danger to reach freedom. She and her husband went on to lead busy lives, raising three more children, fending off another Indian attack, and taking part in local politics. Perhaps toughened by her journey home, Ingles outlived her husband by thirty-five years, dying in bed at age 87. Today, books and TV documentaries champion her as a hero of the pioneer era.
The history of West Virginia's coal and salt mining is another topic of interest. Visitors can explore old mining towns, railroads, and even a coal mine, but the salt licks are gone. Exploitation of raw natural resources has always been the foundation for industry in West Virginia. Ingles, for example, was forced to assist her captors at the large salt licks found along the New River. In the nineteenth century, European settlers developed them into full-scale commercial enterprises. Today, the chemical industry that developed because of the easy availability of coal still thrives there. In fact, some of the biggest chemical companies in the world are based in West Virginia.
Along the river
We started our tour in Charleston, a river town and the state capital. While gentrification is slowly transforming the downtown, tourist spots were few: Taylor's, an upscale bookstore, and an old-style ice cream parlor. On the way out of town, we stopped at Cabin Creek Quilts in Malden. As director James Thibeault showed us the gorgeous quilts on display and for sale, there was no hint of intrigue. But I found out that this small quilting cooperative had fended off giants like Vermont's apparel company Orvis and Wal-Mart over using its trademarked name. Both companies backed down. Well, I can't blame them; the name does invoke visions of grandma's house, family heirlooms, and good times. But as Thibeault explained, "They obviously didn't know we had put a lot of sweat into making this name well known and didn't want it preempted."
A short walk from the co-op are the childhood cabin and church of Booker T. Washington, who lived in town from age nine to sixteen. Across the street at the Norton House, our kids held a powder horn once owned by Daniel Boone.
From Malden to Hawk's Nest State Park forty miles down the trail there are few amenities but plenty of soothing scenery. Hawk's Nest offers comfortable, inexpensive accommodations and a restaurant perched atop a 1,000-foot cliff with a spectacular view of the New River Gorge below.
A short detour at the trail's midway point, just beyond Hawk's Nest, takes one across the New River Gorge Bridge, the world's longest single-arch steel bridge. Visitors can get a bird's-eye view of the bridge from the Canyon Rim Visitors Center, or a spectacular view of it looming above by taking a hydrofoil ride from Hawk's Nest. We did both. (By the way, I think the New is poorly named, as it is geologically the oldest river in North America.)
From the trail, the bridge is the quickest route to Fayetteville, a center for white-water rafting, rock climbing, horseback riding, and biking. Fayetteville features a fascinating tour of a turn-of-the- century county jail and trendy stores including a wonderful pottery studio. Though outdoor sports are the spring and summer draw, the third Saturday in October finds Fayetteville alive with thousands of tourists who come for Bridge Day--a day when pedestrians can walk across the bridge.
Some of the best rock climbing on the East Coast can be found near Fayetteville, inspiring serious climbers to travel from afar to risk their lives. The closest our family got to this dangerous sport was inspecting the taut muscles of a salesclerk working in a climbing- equipment store in town. Instead we spent a day white-water rafting.
West Virginia has two thousand miles of mountain streams, with rapids ranging from peaceful Class I to raging Class VI. Each fall the Army Corp of Engineers releases a huge volume of water from a dam on the Gauley River, and thousands of otherwise sane people come to risk their lives rafting in the ensuing floods on the New and Gauley, which cross the Midland Trail at the town of Glen Ferris. While this provides world-class excitement for enthusiasts, we opted for rafting on the upper stretches of the New River, whose milder falls are ideally suited for a family experience.
It was a lovely summer's day when we joined a large group of fellow novices, guided by Ace Adventure (www.aceraft.com), an outdoor adventure company. We launched our "duckies," or personal self-bailing rafts, into a quiet backwater and soon were bouncing around in the current under the watchful eyes of our young, incredibly fit guides.
Our boys squealed with excitement in the rougher areas as we proudly learned to paddle the little boats around rocks and through rapids. All of us were overturned at the trickiest falls of all, aptly dubbed "the surprise." It was exhilarating to feel oneself losing control to the river, becoming separated from boat and spectacles and twirling helplessly underwater among the rocks. This last part can be dangerous if a foot gets caught under a rock, but for the most part it's less dangerous than it sounds since, as our guides explained, the swift current actually cushions contact between body and stone. Finally free of the current, reunited with boat and eyewear, one cannot help but rejoice at such an intimate contact with nature accentuated by the river's power.
A real town
The only good-sized town directly on the Midland Trail is Lewisburg, site of a Civil War battle where the South lost ground. We stayed at the General Lewis Inn and enjoyed exploring the town by foot. Lewisburg supports several good restaurants, a thriving antiques business, and a talented theater company that performs in an old aerodrome outside town, but we found ourselves drawn back to the inn each day to enjoy the gardens while the kids spent time playing with handcrafted toys in the sitting room. Another delightful aspect was the charming and attentive presence of its owner--whose family has owned the General Lewis for generations--and his enthusiasm to answer questions.
Just outside Lewisburg, signposts point the way to an enjoyable historical detour. Organ Cave, in Ronceverte, is named for an organ- shaped stalactite. We didn't expect more than the usual trek into the bowels of the earth, but found that the stalactites are eclipsed by two things: the hollow left by bones of a prehistoric three-toed lizard discovered there by Thomas Jefferson and a surprise located far beneath the earth.
Up and down, through subterranean chambers and tunnels, sometimes stooping low because of the headroom and sometimes clinging to narrow ledges, the gray-clad soldiers of General Lee's army carried hundred- pound sacks of saltpeter out of Organ Cave. Still there for tourists to behold, preserved by the still, dry atmosphere of the cave, is the mining equipment the Confederates abandoned at the war's end. Mounds of nitrate-bearing soil still fill the large wooden troughs and funnels. One can almost feel the presence of the soldiers, long dead, who suffered and invested so much of themselves here year after year.
This is a fascinating experience for the history buff and was a great touch-and-see education for our kids. But, you may ask, what is saltpeter and what business did Lee's soldiers have with it? Over the centuries, nitrogen-rich bat droppings called guano had richly impregnated the cave's soil. The rebels extracted the saltpeter, or potassium nitrate, and shipped it one hundred miles to Richmond to be made into gunpowder. Janie Morgan, the cave's owner and our guide, pointed out where the rebels, fearful of discovery, had perched a 24- hour guard high on a strategic ledge.
As we returned to the surface, Morgan, a charming belle, dropped the veneer of professional neutrality and presented an eloquent defense of the rebel cause. In response, my wife, an equally articulate northerner, felt called to enumerate its demerits.
Resort town usa
Mile marker 114 along the Midland Trail brings the traveler to White Sulphur Springs, made famous by the Greenbrier. For more than 150 years, the all-season resort has been a mecca for the wealthy. The hefty priced accommodations include breakfast and dinner (called the modified American plan), but golfing on one of three championship eighteen-hole golf courses, lessons at the Sam Snead Golf Academy, or pampering in the mineral baths or spa are extras. If you make a walk- through visit, you can take in lunch at one of the resort's restaurants, but you need reservations for breakfast or dinner. And be prepared: Breakfast for five could top eighty dollars--but the experience is princely, in part because of New York decorator Dorothy Draper's theme, "Romance and Rhododendrons."
A not-to-miss feature is a tour of a once top-secret government relocation facility: the spot were senators and congressman would have retreated during the Cold War if the United States came under nuclear attack. Cleverly concealed from hotel guests for decades, the facility went undiscovered from its completion in 1961 until a 1992 article in the Washington Post revealed its existence. Outdated and in need of major retrofitting with modern-day computers, the site was turned over to the Greenbrier, which operates tours.
If the Greenbrier is out of range financially, don't despair. There are plenty of alternative accommodations in town. We stayed in a log cabin adjacent to the James Wylie House, a quaint bed and breakfast, and took in nine holes of golf at Oakhurst Links just outside town. Established in 1884, Oakhurst is supposedly the oldest golf club in America and definitely one of the most idiosyncratic. Here golfers share the fairways with sheep in charge of mowing the grounds. Golfers turn in their titanium drivers--and even their tees--for a set of four nineteenth-century replica woods handcrafted in Scotland from hickory and a lesson on how to hand-fashion a tee out of sand and water. This all takes a bit of getting used to.
Like the proverbial little girl, where the Midland Trail is "bad" it is barren, and where it is "good" it is fascinating. Travelers would be well advised to research their trip in advance, because stretches of the route are still largely underdeveloped. Starting at either end of the Midland Trail offers the chance to slow down and reflect on life. Beginning at its western end in Charleston, we arrived a week later at White Sulphur Springs, refreshed and ready to tackle life in the big city once again.n
Additional Reading:Otis Rice, Stephen Brown, West Virginia: A History, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 1985.
James Alexander Thom, Follow the River, Ballantine, New York, 1981.
William Laurence is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The Midland Trail - Traveling West Virginia's Route 60 from Charleston to White Sulphur Springs Is a History Lesson. Contributors: Laurence, William - Author. Magazine title: The World and I. Volume: 15. Issue: 5 Publication date: May 2000. Page number: Not available. © 1999 News World Communications, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
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