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settler Mary Draper Ingles, whose ordeal is recounted in James Thom's best-selling Follow the River, lent color and historical content to our vacation.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. …