Dense fog and misty rain greeted the window of the hotel room in Beckley, West Virginia as I huddled inside from the elements. Some would not be encouraged by such weather but I found it to be perfect road trip conditions, and I was determined to make the Alderson Academy my first visit of the day.
The Academy, located in a remote corner of the Mountain State, is far from the hustle and bustle of a major city and surrounded by miles upon miles of undulating countryside, quaint family farms and meandering stream. I opted for the back roads to take in the ambiance, and I arrived at front steps of the Alderson Academy mid-morning.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Alderson Academy was the pride of the community. A pond had once accentuated the classically designed front, long filled in and replaced by derelict trailers and a well-worn mud slop of a road. Neatly trimmed landscaping was left to grow into obtuse creatures, hiding feral cats, needles and trash. A pungent odor of mold, damp, rotting wood and decay pilfered out of the building’s many gaping holes. The structure was in worse shape than I had remembered from years back, and portions of the roof were giving away.
The Alderson Academy opened in September 1901 and graduated its first students in June 1903. It flourished for several years when public high schools were far and few between, but when faced with the advent of publicly-funded high schools that could offer a similar education for free, the complex was turned over to the West Virginia Baptist General Association. The outlook did not improve much and the school struggled with admissions and financial numbers until 1918, when it added two-year college level courses.
A new, larger four-story brick building was constructed in 1924. After hitting peak enrollment in 1930, the Alderson Junior College faced dire financial difficulties due to the onset of the Great Depression. The school merged with Broaddus College in October 1931 and the Alderson campus was mothballed.
The building was used briefly by Armstrong College until 1935 but was closed until 1953, when a group of independent Baptists formed the Mountain State Baptist School, a private primary through high school institution. The Baptist school was in operation until the 1980’s when financial difficulties forced it to close.
Trekking through the building was a visual treat. I was expecting the campus to be vandalized, having set abandoned for so long, but the walls were mostly graffiti free. Absent the many broken window panes, there wasn’t much to lament over other than the advanced deterioration found on the upper floors where the roof was practically non-existent.
There was a delight in discovering a completely intact theater. It was hard to frame the room as portions of the floor had given way to the basement but nonetheless it was the highlight of the Alderson Academy.
East of the Alderson Academy is a region known as the “Irish Corner.” Named for the early Irish immigrants who settled in the high elevation plateau, the area is dotted with large family farms and a few small and scattered settlements, hemmed in by Flat Top Mountain and Kates Mountain and a few streams.
I set out to explore this vast realm, setting off on a long journey of two- and one-lane country roads.
Along the way, I came across the circa 1900’s Mt. Zion United Methodist Church near Hokes Mill. Not much information could be found about the congregation, but Methodism in the county began before the first General Conference of the Methodist Church was held in 1784. Early churches were often crude cabins constructed out of logs but were later upgraded with contemporary materials. In the more rural parts of the county, where crude roads hampered travel to established churches, encampments for religious worship were built in the forests.
The church building appeared to be maintained but not in regular use.
The Irish Corner region was peaceful. For over an hour, I piddled around the countryside, rarely passing a car or seeing any human activity. It was cold, blustery and rainy and I suspected it was not an ideal day for anyone to be outside. By the time I approached Organ Cave, a natural and cultural landmark, the rain had stopped and the fog began to slowly lift.
My next visit was a quick and uneventful drive north from Organ Cave. Although I was expecting a quaint riverside community alongside the Greenbrier River, Ronceverte had the perception of a typical rust belt city. My mood was probably underscored by the murky weather, but many derelict buildings was around.
Ronceverte developed around a grist mill constructed by Thomas Edgar and his sons. The area was relatively obscure until the end of the Civil War, when Colonel Cecil C. Clay, a New York entrepreneur, began to acquire thousands of acres of virgin forest along the proposed right-of-way of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad (C&O). Other speculators joined in and were rewarded when the railroad was completed from Virginia to Huntington, West Virginia in 1873, linking two major ports together for the first time: the Atlantic Ocean and the Ohio River.
Anticipating the inevitable coming of the lumbering industry, Clay platted out a city. Ronceverte, as it was soon named by Clay, blossomed into a hub of the timber – primarily from Clay’s new enterprise, the Saint Lawrence Boom & Manufacturing Company.
The largest steam-powered sawmill in the world was soon erected and by 1881, the company was the largest in the United States. As with all exhaustible resources, the booming times did not last for long. By 1910, most of the marketable wood had been cut and the Saint Lawrence Boom & Manufacturing Company closed.
Ronceverte’s hay days may have begun and ended with the timber industry, but the town didn’t wither away. It was still located along a major railroad and it had a diversified economy. Many of its intricate historic structures were built in the 1910’s and 1920’s, such as the old Greenbrier High School.
Another sharp building is the Ronceverte Christian Church. Built of locally sourced oak, pine and chestnut sourced from the St. Lawrence Lumber and Boom Company, it overlooks the Greenbrier Valley.
Visible from the church’s wide front porch is the Chestnut Street Bridge, constructed in 1915 to span the railroad and Monroe Street. Featuring brick approaches and a central span with a wooden deck, the crossing has been closed to any traffic for years due to its advanced state of decay.
I ended my visit to Ronceverte with a quick glimpse of the long closed Grand Theater. It’s façade of white glazed brick and black vitrolite, an opaque pigmented glass, was unique. Constructed in 1937, the theater was designed by John Norman, Sr., the second registered black architect and seventh registered architect in West Virginia. The interior was unfortunately collapsed and the only significance to the building is now just the exterior.
Despite its condition, the Grand Theater is slated for rehabilitation into a community venue.
The fog returned and only tightened its grip as I proceeded north towards Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, my next destination. After picking up U.S. Route 60, I headed east towards White Sulphur Springs and north along West Virginia Route 92, one of the most desolate highways in the state. The narrow two-lane, hemmed in between Coles and Allegheny mountains, winded its way along Howard and Fleming creeks. Most of the land surrounding the road is national forest, and any sense of modernity quickly disappeared behind me.
My one and only stop was in the community of Alvon, all but deserted except for the remnants of a general store, post office, and fueling station.
That was the last photograph I snapped before darkness fell. It would be another six hours to Pittsburgh through the Allegheny Mountains, dense fog and the occasional rain shower. The dismal conditions would set the mood for the next few days.