Road Less Traveled: A Tour of North-Central West Virginia

On a brisk, gray day, I set out to traverse the less-traveled paths of north-central West Virginia, a journey through time and history.

On a brisk, gray day, I set out to traverse the less-traveled paths of north-central West Virginia, a journey through time and history.

North-central West Virginia boasts a history deeply connected with the timber, natural gas, and oil industries. Timbering, a vital part of the region’s early economy, was a labor-intensive process. Trees were cut using axes and then transported to sawmills by animal power. Before the advent of railroads, logs were often floated downstream to sawmills, and later, logging railroads facilitated their transport. The logging camps became bustling, remote communities.

In tandem with timbering, the discovery and development of natural gas and petroleum greatly influenced the region’s growth. These fossil fuels, formed from organic material in sedimentary rocks under high heat and pressure, were first found in river valleys in the 18th century. By the early 19th century, oil and gas drilling near the Kanawha and Little Kanawha rivers accelerated, with significant oil production starting around 1819. The oil boom peaked during the Civil War era, with substantial fortunes made from West Virginia’s oil fields.

While there were coal mines in the nearby Fairmont area, this region was not as heavily reliant on coal as other parts of the state.

Despite early periods of rapid development and the emergence of boom towns, growth in north-central West Virginia has largely stagnated in recent times. Modern expansion is concentrated along the Interstate 79 corridor between Clarksburg and Morgantown. Outside of these areas, much of the landscape remains rural and untouched, retaining its quiet, desolate character.

Starting in Preston County, my path wound through rugged terrain to the Rockville Bridge. This structure, a testament to 19th-century engineering by the King Bridge Company, stands silently over Big Sandy Creek. Built in 1893, its distinctive Pratt trusses once supported the modest flow of daily traffic, primarily all-terrain vehicles. Previously, before its closure, the Rockville Bridge had minimal traffic, with just about 10 vehicles crossing daily. Primarily, it served all-terrain vehicles rather than regular automobiles. Sadly, in August 2020, the bridge was closed to all traffic after an inspection revealed severe structural issues.

My exploration took a spiritual turn in Lewis County with the discovery of the Vadis Church. This deserted timber structure, with its clapboard exterior, narrow 4/4 windows, six-panel front doors with a wide transom, a slate-tiled roof, and a belfry with Gothic-style openings, seemed to silently narrate its architectural history.

Vadis Church

The road then led me to Doddridge County, where the Krenn School, now repurposed as a community center and museum, caught my eye. Erected in 1897 by the hands of local craftsmen, it stands as a relic of rustic architecture. The building’s oak and yellow poplar frame, supported by a sandstone foundation and crowned with a metal roof, speak of the era’s simplicity and utility. Within, the remnants of a coal stove and later a gas stove hint at the warmth that once filled its halls. The Krenn School closed in 1942 due to declining enrollments.

Krenn School

Continuing through Ritchie County, the abandoned Rockcamp Church emerged, now an incongruous resident among grazing cattle. Despite its decline, it retains some of its original character with tar paper over wood clapboard siding, traditional 4/4 windows, and a tin standing seam roof.

And atop Victory Ridge is the abandoned Victory Church which has more of its original character intact, including a sandstone pier foundation, weathered clapboard siding, 4/4 windows, and a standing seam roof.

In Berea, I encountered the Otterslide Bridge, a closed crossing over the South Fork Hughes River. Built in 1913 by the York Bridge Company, this Pratt pony truss bridge had weathered the years with several updates until its decommissioning in 2017, giving way to a modern counterpart erected by the U.S. Bridge Company in 2017. The old bridge has been allowed to remain, becoming a symbol of the region’s evolving infrastructure.

Near this site is the Ray Bonnell general store and a long-shuttered 76 gasoline station that stand as silent witnesses to the changing times. These remnants of a once-bustling local economy marked the conclusion of my journey, a reflective trek through the heart of West Virginia’s storied and rustic landscape.

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