The story of a forgotten America.

Exploring West Virginia’s Allegheny Plateau

When my friend Ben m…

When my friend Ben motioned that he wanted to explore West Virginia and visit some of the places made famous in the Fallout 76 video game, I was excited. Ben’s schedule was packed and time was limited. He desired to see the New River Gorge, Seneca Rocks, Mollohan Mill, Dolly Sods, among other sites, but the sheer driving distance and time traveling twisty mountain roads forced the shortening of the itinerary.

But what better way to start the tour of West Virginia than at its heart? Not far from our campsite along the north rim of the New River Gorge was Thurmond, a storied town located along the New River that was once the hub of local operations for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway and the center of commerce. During our brief visit, we walked around the historic town center and explored around the former coal and sand tower. We even got a glimpse of Amtrak’s Cardinal that sliced through the town.

On the way out of the area, we visited Nuttallburg, a coal venture that was spawned out of England-born entrepreneur John Nuttall. It began to be developed in 1870 when Nuttall began acquiring coal-rich land along Keeneys Creek and New River and when the C&O was completed through the area in 1873, Nuttallburg became the second mining town in the region to ship “smokeless” coal to eastern markets. A conveyor, a twin “monitor,” or a cylindrical tube with a door at one end, connected the tipple to the mine. Coal was fed to 80 coke ovens, which converted coal into high carbon coke that was used in pig-iron blast furnaces

Coal mining ceased at Nuttallburg in 1958.

Ascending from Nuttallburg is Winona, a coal camp that was operated by the Maryland New River Coal Company. It was named for Winona Gwinn, the oldest daughter of William Gwinn, who operated a hotel in the community. Unfortunately, much of Winona’s historic integrity has been destroyed in recent decades although a few original company houses still remain relatively unmodified.

Abandoned Winona House

From the New River, we hightailed it to get to the historic Mollohan Mill before sunset. Located in Webster County along the Holly River, Mollohan Mill was constructed in 1894 on the site of two prior iterations that had been built prior to the Civil War and destroyed in a flood.

The only modification to the mill was the replacement of the wood shingle roof with a metal roof in 1912. It operated until 1953 when a flood destroyed its log crib dam and washed away one of its two water wheels. The forebay, which regulated the water flor to the water wheels and which consisted of square logs pinned to solid rock, remained intact.

We arrived at Mollohan Mill just as the sun was setting behind the hill, giving the background a golden yellow hue that contrasted with the still-green trees in the foreground.

The following morning was spent taking in the scenery around Seneca Rocks, a large crag that rises 900 feet above the North Fork South Branch Potomac River. It features a strenuous hiking trail to the top of an overlook of the Potomac River valley and for recreational rock climbers who scramble up the crag via 375 mapped climbing routes.

Next to Seneca Rocks is the Harper’s Old Country Store, a staple for any traveler along US Route 33. One of the state’s oldest operating businesses, it was built in 1902 and is still operated by the Harper family. On the outside, the benches along the front porch invite the weary travel ample space to relax with a zesty beverage while the gasoline pumps show the more functional aspect of the business. On the inside, the rich hardwood floors, blocked ceiling, floor-to-ceiling shelving, and antiques give a sense of nostalgia to customers and visitors.

Harpers General Store
Harpers General Store

Almost hidden by design but within an earshot of the country store is the former Seneca Motor Company building. which was the location of D. C. Harper’s Ford dealership from 1946 to the early 1960s.

Nearby is a collection of white clapboard sided tourist cabins that date back to the early days of automobile travel. They were simple in appearance and simple in function with only the bare of amenities—including an outhouse for bodily functions.

Tourist cabins and houses were some of the earliest forms of lodging available for motorists in the early 1910s and declined in popularity as “motor hotels” offering inexpensive, easily accessible overnight rooms began to be developed along major highways starting in the 1920s.

Nearby was a long-abandoned 110-year-old residence, its function supplemented and then replaced by a more modern (and now equally abandoned) split foyer building on a farm. Inside were some remnants of prior occupants, including a vintage Symphonic Vintage Record Player Model 1701 and a crocheted turkey decoration.

After a good hour-long drive, we made it to Helvetia in time for dinner at The Hütte Restaurant, which serves up traditional Swiss-American cuisine in a rustic environment. Unfortunately, indoor dining wasn’t available because of COVID restrictions, but we were able to take advantage of their new patio seating that overlooked Trout Run.

Helvetia is a relatively isolated community that was settled by Swiss and German-speaking immigrants in 1869. After the end of the American Civil War, a group of Swiss and German-speaking immigrants calling themselves the Grütliverein (Grütli Society) was formed in Brooklyn, New York. The members agreed that they would emigrate to a more rural area of the country together.

Isler, a member of the Society, surveyed large areas of the eastern West Virginia mountains and reported back on the richness of the country. A committee of six men was assembled and left Brooklyn for Clarksburg by rail on October 15, 1869, and from there, the men trekked 75 miles by wagon, horseback, and foot over the mountains and along the valleys of the forks of the Buckhannon River before reaching a plot of land that was for sale. Although the group was disappointed in how wild and rugged the land was, it was reasonably priced; they also received offers of other assistance from the land agents in Clarksburg if they would encourage further settlement in the area. After returning, the Society all decided they would emigrate to some bottomland along Trout Run.

In 1978, Helvetia was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and today it is an area known for its Swiss traditions, festivals, food, and folklife.

After Ben departed on the next day for home, I spent time roaming the Allegheny plateau, coming across remnants of when education was locally-based. Norris School was a larger four-classroom school whereas Georgetown School was a simpler one-room facility. Both have been closed for decades, victims of consolidation.

Driving the back roads, you never know what you’ll encounter. Nestled on the side of Pen Run valley is a rustic two-story clapboard-sided house, still standing after decades of disuse because of its tin roof and sturdy construction. It appears to have functioned as a hayloft more recently.

Further south at the Upshur and Webster County line, I spied from the corner of my eye a rustic country church surrounded by autumn colors. Founded in 1892, the Cleveland United Methodist Church served the local community that was named after President Grover Cleveland. Because of declining membership and dwindling finances, the church was closed for regular worship in the 1992 and made into a memorial church, serving the community for funerals, special events, and for an annual homecoming held each August.

Following a very early alignment of West Virginia Route 20 along Short Run Creek, I came across a directional sign that commemorated the nearby rocks where Union soldiers killed Confederate Captain James McCray in 1862 as he and two others lay in wait for the Union men to pass. McCray had been granted a commission and was in the process of forming a local militia unit. He is buried in the nearby McCray Cemetery.

Tucked away atop a ridgetop is a lonely general store and post office that is chock full of vintage clothings and wares, including a retro Westinghouse refrigerator, an adding machine, a Truetone Radio, and a Black & Decker coffeemaker. According to its business license and calendars that were strewn about, the store was last operated in 1991 or 1992.

Alas, with daylight dwindling on a late autumn evening, it was time to depart for home after a few days on the road traveling and camping across West Virginia.

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That general store in Nuttallsburg looks more like a lone prison cell or perhaps a bank. The place seems to have 12″ thick stone walls. Aside from that questionable gripe, the photography here is, as usual, stunning. I live in Lancaster, Ohio, and just south of here lie ghost towns in gay abandon,: though unlike those in the Old West ours tend to rot rather quickly. The forests were all clear cut by 1900 and the coal mines closed in 1929, never to re-open. Nobody hung around, so now the remains of paved streets run through utterly isolated second-growth forest.

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