The Castles and Palaces of West Virginia


Okay, in fairness there aren’t really all that many castles or palaces in West Virginia. But on my trip through the upper panhandle of West Virginia, I managed to find one of each—along with many other scenic places and a host of interesting roads.

I got an early start on August 26 and quickly reeled off the 200 miles to Morgantown. Along the way, I enjoyed looking down from Sideling Hill on the low-lying clouds that I’d driven through near Hagerstown, Maryland. (They quickly dissipated, leaving a largely cloudless sky and very high temperatures, even well up in the mountains.)

I lived in Morgantown from ages 1½ to 5½, while my father taught at the University of West Virginia. Decades earlier, an Italian stonemason named Thoney Pietro had come to the U.S. in 1896 and built himself a proper “castle” for his family starting in 1928. He didn’t bother with plans or drawings, building the stately mansion from the ideas in his head. Thoney donated the place to the Franciscan Friars in 1949, who added to the property but allowed it to deteriorate and become virtually a ruin inside by 2008. After being on the market for years at $2.8 million, the castle was recently acquired by The Cavalry Chapel.

Not far from the castle, I found the 1867 Easton Roller Mill. It started life as a typical grist mill but was upgraded in 1894 to use roller grinding wheels, which produced a much finer grade of flour. The mill prospered through the 1920s before ceasing operations in about 1940. It was willed to the local historical society in 1978 and fully renovated in 2012-2013.

Although the mill was closed on the day of my visit, a longtime member of the historical society happened to be there and gave me a brief tour. I was especially impressed by this beautifully preserved steam engine in the basement, which had powered all of the mill’s operations since the 1890s. It is still operational.

Longtime readers are well-acquainted with my staunch Baptist friends Cathy and Kim. I detoured over to the Forks of Cheat Baptist Church, just for them. The church was built in 1775 and named for the headwaters of the Cheat River (which, uh, are not even remotely nearby).

Like most historic churches in rural areas, this one has a pleasantly scenic cemetery.

Unlike most historic church cemeteries, however, this one led a secret life. The Weltner Family tombstone looks normal enough from its east side. On the opposite side, however, George M. Weltner’s panel can be moved, revealing a mysteriously hollow interior…

This part of West Virginia was well known for its “Monongahela Rye” whiskey in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Its unique flavor made the brew world famous, and it is even mentioned in Moby Dick. Then along came Prohibition. A few of the numerous stills in the area survived, and their products could be discreetly purchased. All you had to do was to place your money inside the tombstone, wait a few hours, and then return and retrieve your Monongahela Rye from within! History does not record how many of the ostensibly tea-totaling Baptists were among the customers.

After meandering for 78 miles, the Cheat River empties into the Monongahela, forming Point Marion, Pennsylvania in the process. Although the Cheat looks pretty tame here (on the left in the photo), kayakers and canoeists know it as one of the most challenging whitewater rivers in the country. In his prime, my Venerable Dad tackled the Cheat’s Class IV rapids in his 15-foot Grumman aluminum canoe—but only with a full canvas deck.

As long as I was on the east side of the Monongahela, I detoured a ways to find the home of Alfred Gallatin. This fellow is little-known today but was an extraordinary businessman and public servant in the late 1700s and early 1800s after emigrating from his native Switzerland to the U.S. He eloped with Sophia Allegre in 1789 and built “Friendship Hill” as their family home.

Their original home was just a small 2-story stone section in the middle of this photo. (I debated asking the workmen to move their equipment and scaffolding so I could get a better photo…) The other parts of the house were added over the years. Sadly, Sophia passed away after only a few months; she asked to be buried in an unmarked grave near the cliffs overlooking the Monongahela River. She is still there, somewhere; her gravesite has never been identified.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the house was open for tours on the day of my visit. The National Park Service has rescued and restored the mansion from its previous, near-ruinous condition.

As for Albert Gallatin, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1793—and became the first member ever to be ejected from the Senate when his political opponents realized that he failed to meet the 9-year citizenship test (by 6 months). He was later elected to the House of Representatives and helped to found what became the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Subsequently, he became the longest-serving Secretary of the Treasury in history, working for Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Among many other accomplishments, he was instrumental in negotiating the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, and cofounding New York University. For decades, I walked right by his statue outside of the Treasury Building, never realizing whom the statue represented.

Backtracking to Point Marion, I found this gigantic dam and lock on the Monongahela. It was built in 1926 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for flood control and navigational purposes only; no electricity is generated here.

Southwest Pennsylvania, like most of the rest of the state, was famous for its coal mines, railroads, and steel mills. Most of these industries are gone, although many signs remain including this tipple for transporting coal from the nearby mines to the railroad tracks.

The town of Greensboro, PA is located inside a bend of the Monongahela River. The Greensboro School was built in 1904, replacing an earlier structure that dated back to at least 1816. Three teachers taught about 100 first- through eighth-grade students here until the school closed in 1960. The building now serves as the Monon Center, encouraging “interest in the arts, history, and culture.” In the background of the photo is Baltzer Kramer’s log cabin, which was moved here in 1976. Ironically, tax records from 1816 indicate that Mr. Kramer was “unable to pay for his children’s schooling.”

John Crawford built this brick Italianate house in 1878, about a quarter mile north of Greensboro. At that time, the village was known as “Glassworks,” so named for the glass factory established there in 1797 by our old friend Albert Gallatin and six German glassblowers. The factory made windows, goblets, glasses, whiskey bottles, and other glass products through the mid-1800s. Our other old friend, Baltzer Kramer, bought the facility in 1860 and ran it for another few years before it went bust altogether. Today there is nothing left of the glass factory other than some surviving glassware and a large vacant lot next to John Crawford’s abandoned house.

Speaking of abandoned houses… I happened across Chip, Evan, and Danielle’s wonderful Southwest Pennsylvania Rural Exploration blog and learned of a number of scenic old spots in this area. One of them is a once-stately farmhouse, which is about 5 miles farther north from the Crawford home. It was much larger than I first realized, since much of it is covered by ivy.

The interior of the house was quite dramatic, since almost all of the flooring had been removed! This old mansion now offers a continuous basement-to-upstairs view. It was fascinating to see the doors, bookshelves, staircase, and other remaining parts of the house, in contrast to the missing floors. Not the sort of place you’d want to run blindly into for shelter from a storm…

According to the SWPARE website, the interior of this house was used in filming part of Brynn Marie’s country music video I’m Sorry. It’s a little hard to tell, because the floors were still there when she made the video, but I’ll take their word on it.

The nearby town of Carmichaels, PA offered a handsome old covered bridge from 1889…

…an ivy-covered old brick house…

…and the Greene Academy. This latter structure started life as a stone church in 1790, with the brick section added in 1810. The school taught poor children in the community through 1893, including Albert B. Cummins who went on to become governor of Iowa and a two-time Presidential candidate. Did I mention that the talented Ms. Brynn Marie grew up in Carmichaels? (She is unlikely to have attended the Greene Academy, however—but I think she deserves another photo all the same! Both pictures courtesy of Brynn Marie’s PinInterest page.)

Rice’s Landing is situated directly alongside the Monongahela River and up its very steep western bank. The town was first settled in 1780 and by 1830 had become a prominent port on the river. Prosperity continued into the 1900s with the development of the original Dilworth Coal Mine. This concrete wall served as the steamship landing in the late 1800s. (Photo of steamship ferry at Rice’s Landing courtesy of Ten Mile Creek Country.)

As it happens… in 1908 the legendary Carry Nation (1846-1911) was standing on this very wall, after having given an impassioned speech against the evils of drinking in nearby Carmichaels. At nearly 6 feet tall and about 175 pounds, she was infamous for using a hatchet to smash the facilities and liquor stocks of saloons across America. Her “hatchetations” repeatedly landed her in jail, but she paid the fines and continued smashing bars—sometimes as many as a dozen in one day. This following account of one such exploit in Topeka, Kansas is from her autobiography, The Use and Need of the Life of Carry A. Nation:

I passed on down to the “Senate” saloon and went in. … The bar-tender ran towards me with a yell, wrenched my hatchet out of my hand and shot off his pistol toward the ceiling: he then ran out of the back door, and I got another hatchet… I ran behind the bar, smashed the mirror and all the bottles under it; picked up the cash register, threw it down; then broke the faucets of the refrigerator, opened the door and cut the rubber tubes that conducted the beer. … I threw over the slot machine, breaking it up and got from it a sharp piece of iron with which I opened the bungs of the beer kegs, and opened the faucets of the barrels, and then the beer flew in every direction and I was completely saturated. A policeman came in and very good-naturedly arrested me. For this I was fined $100 and put in jail.

Needless to say, Carry Nation was incredibly unpopular with much of the population, and she was routinely assaulted with eggs, mud, and even fists and rocks, and there were many efforts to kidnap her or have her committed to an insane asylum. On the steamship wharf at Rice’s Landing that night in 1908, a young man rushed up and blew cigar smoke directly into her face. Carry grappled with the man, trying to get his cigar, and he threatened to throw her off the wall into the Monongahela. Eventually the scuffle subsided—probably because Carry was winning—and ultimately she declined to press charges. She continued her campaign for another 3 years before dying in a Leavenworth, Kansas asylum.

I swear: no matter where you happen to be, something interesting has happened right there!

Rice’s Landing had many prosperous businesses, including its own foundry and machine shop. The W.A. Young & Sons building still houses most of its original machinery and equipment. The fate of any bars in town during Carry Nation’s visit is not known.

This little building was the Rice’s Landing jail. The tunnel in the background runs under the railroad and leads into Pumpkin Run Park. Due in great part to the steep hillside that prevents broader development, Rice’s Landing represents one of the most original river ports in Pennsylvania.

Chip, Evan, and Danielle’s website also acquainted me with the town of Mather, PA and its nearby abandoned railroad bridge. I parked the patient 335i as close to the bridge as possible (which wasn’t very) and set off on foot, Montana 600 GPS in hand. The first part of the journey was pretty easy, walking along a paved right-of-way. Then it deteriorated to an unpaved path, and shortly thereafter I had to climb up and over a small rise and continue through tall weeds. Eventually an ATV trail reappeared, but there had been a lot of rain recently, and I began sinking deeper and deeper into the muck.

I persevered, of course, since I knew there were thousands of readers waiting to see a photo of the old bridge. But when I got to where the bridge should have been, there was absolutely no sign of it. None! As I dejectedly turned around, I spotted what looked vaguely like a couple of old railroad ties in some dense underbrush. Then, by scrabbling partway down a steep dirt bank, hanging onto small trees for dear life, I managed to get this wholly unacceptable photo of one end of the bridge. Sheesh…

If I’d had a rope, ladder, and/or more courage, I could have gotten to the bottom of the hillside for a proper photo that would have looked like this one (courtesy of the Southwest PA Rural Exploration blog). Dang! Of course, if I had gotten to the bottom, I’d probably still be down there. I chalked this up to another of those Near Misses o’ Photography. The bridge, incidentally, was abandoned in the 1920s. In 1972, an impromptu high school graduation party was held nearby, and somehow the wooden support structure at the northern end (as shown in my photo) was torched. The resulting fire led to the partial collapse of the bridge.

Interestingly, while I was trying to find this ghost bridge, I twice heard the distinct sounds of a train passing nearby, even though I couldn’t see one anywhere. I was willing to accept that it actually was a ghost train, but I later learned that the old Chartiers Southern Railroad tracks are right across Ten Mile Creek, and the line is still used by Conrail. My ghost bridge was a spur across the creek, leading to the Mather Coal Mine, once one of the largest in this part of Pennsylvania—and the scene of one of the nation’s worst mining disasters.

After finding the bridge, I retraced my steps while thinking about the events of May 19, 1928. Mather was a typical coal mining “company town,” with rows and rows of company housing for the workers, a general store, drug store, theatre, recreation center, and post office. The mine was considered a model of modern operations and safety practices, and it had an unblemished safety record from its beginnings in 1917. On this day, however, the evening shift workers had just descended into the mine when a horrific explosion occurred. Methane gas had collected in the mine, which was 350 feet below ground, and an electrical arc from a small, battery-powered coal trolley apparently triggered the explosion. Fourteen of the miners in the affected area managed to escape, but 195 of their colleagues perished, leaving almost 100 widows and 500 orphaned children. The Mather facility continued operations until 1964.

These somber thoughts were juxtaposed against the pleasant view of the former mine’s reservoir.

Interestingly, as I first approached this fallen tree while going to the bridge, I peripherally saw two animals slip from the tree trunk into the water, each with a big splash. I made a mental note to look for them on my return—and forgot, naturally. On the way back, I went through the whole experience again, still without seeing what they were. Based on their size and speed, I’m guessing either beavers or otters. I stood perfectly still for at least 5 minutes, hoping they would return, but they were too smart for me.

The little Chartiers Southern Railroad had its own station just outside of Mather. Although it’s now 90 years old and has been abandoned for a long time, it’s not in bad shape. (Historical photo courtesy of the Greene County, PA Photo Archive Project.)

Marianna was another coal company town in Pennsylvania, having been established in 1903 by the Pittsburg & Buffalo Company to provide housing for the workers and their families. The town was designed to substantially improve the standard of living for miners compared to the norm at that time, with modern brick, three-story houses that included indoor plumbing. The houses were arrayed along the 240-foot-high hillside behind the mine, which itself was on the banks of Ten Mile Creek. Although most of the mining facilities were demolished in 2004, the town of Marianna lives on, as seen in the Bing satellite photo below.

The quality of the housing at Marianna was the result of mine owner John H. Jones’ desire to build a state-of-the-art facility, complete with the world’s largest, most modern, and safest coal mine. In November 1908, Jones helped convene a conference of state governors and others to plan legislation for improving mine safety and providing disability insurance for mine workers. Only a few days later, and despite Jones’ best intentions, the Marianna mine suffered a disastrous explosion, claiming the lives of 154 men and injuring many others.

Mining operations continued for 80 more years at Marianna, with another fatal explosion in 1957. In 1988, the mine’s main conveyor caught fire, and the blaze could not be extinguished. Closing the mine’s openings was the only way to counter the fire, and the facility never reopened. After the dismantling, only the coke ovens are left—but I couldn’t find a way to them that didn’t involve either barbed wire or steep cliffs. I settled for a tour of Marianna, which is still a functioning town although a growing number of its iconic yellow-brick houses are now vacant.

Further along Ten Mile Creek, I happened across the Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church. The congregation was formed in 1833, although the brick church may have been built at a later date. As indicated in the photo, it was a nice sunny day, and the 335i’s top had been down for quite a while.

Pennsylvania has looked after its covered bridges much more thoroughly than other states, and a significant portion of them have survived. Without even trying, I found the Hughes and Bailey covered bridges, which are among the nine survivors of the original 35 such bridges in Greene County. Both cross Ten Mile Creek, and both were built in 1889; the Hughes bridge is completely original, while the Bailey was rebuilt in 1994 following a fire.

One of my favorite discoveries during this trip was the handsome Archer No. 1 Schoolhouse, in Morris Township, PA. It has been beautifully preserved, but I couldn’t learn much about it, other than it was built in about 1900. Among its many other contents, I particularly liked the old McGuffey’s reading charts.

Albert Gallatin was a big proponent of improving the infrastructure of the fledgling United States. Although many of his ideas never came to pass, he was able to help arrange financing for what became the National Road. That road, now Old Route 40, used to run right across Buffalo Creek on this S-shaped stone bridge. An S-shape was used so that the most structurally weak section, across the stream, could be as short as possible. Covered wagons, stagecoaches, carriages, and pedestrians—and eventually cars, buses, and motorcycles—used this bridge for roughly 100 years, starting in 1818. (Historical bridge photo courtesy of Young woman and carriage courtesy of WV Pics.)

As stagecoaches were driven along the National Road, they needed to stop for fresh horses every 10 to 15 miles. Moreover, the passengers needed refreshments and a place to stay overnight. Levi Wilson’s tavern was one of many “stage landings” that supported travel on the National Road. Levi built his west of Washington, PA in 1818 and operated it for about 20 years before selling to John Miller. Levi’s son married John’s daughter, and the couple made the tavern their residence following John’s death. Although the tavern appears to have been abandoned for many years, a nearby resident told me that a family had lived there as recently as 9 months ago. I hope this historic old property survives.

Claysville was one of a number of towns that sprang up along the National Road. In 1879, local businessman Robert Porter built this mansion as a wedding gift for his fiancé. Sadly, she passed away before they were married. The next bride was more fortunate: Grace Clarke married new owner John Montgomery, Jr. in 1906 and lived here until her death in 1979 at age 97. She left the mansion to the Catholic church next door—which soon wanted to tear it down! Fortunately, the house was already on the National Registry of Historic Places, and the church had to expand southward instead of westward. This Victorian beauty is now the Montgomery Mansion Bed & Breakfast.

I left Claysville and soon crossed into the upper panhandle of West Virginia on Route 67, near Bethany. The road curved, rose, and fell over and around the hills in an entertaining manner. It was considerably better paved than in its stagecoach days (photo courtesy of Bethany College: A Liberal Arts Odyssey).

Alexander Campbell built this home starting in 1793, in what became the town of Bethany. He started the Buffalo Seminary here in 1819. The guest wing shown on the left in the photo was called “The Strangers’ Hall” and was added in 1840. Visitors to this house included future President James A. Garfield, Daniel Webster, Jefferson Davis, and Henry Clay among others. Next to the house was Campbell’s tiny hexagonal brick study.

Alexander Campbell was instrumental in the Restoration Movement, which advocated for a simpler, nondenominational approach to Christianity. He started the Disciples of Christ, which, together with its Church of Christ and other offshoots, is the largest Christian denomination to have been founded in the U.S. Campbell built what is now called the Old Bethany Meeting House in 1829 (it was rebuilt in its current form in 1852) and served as its pastor for many years. Other than the addition of electricity, the church is essentially unchanged since its 1852 rebuilding. The church was renovated in 1986 and is used for special occasions.

The Campbell family, together with many Disciples’ ministers and former Bethany College presidents and faculty, are buried nearby in “God’s Acre” cemetery. The site is surrounded by a 7-foot-tall stone wall (3 feet of which are below ground), which can be crossed via a steep set of steps. (The handrail is a later addition, undoubtedly in response to our litigious society.)

Rev. Campbell founded Bethany College in 1840 and served as its first president. Hibernia Hall is its oldest surviving building and has been a dormitory, sorority, guesthouse, president’s residence, and printshop (for Campbell’s periodicals) at one time or another.

The main entrance to the college is through the Oglebay Gates, a gift from former student Colonel Earl Williams Oglebay of Wheeling in 1910. School tradition has each entering class walk through these gates together upon their arrival—and again when they graduate. (By 1985, the gates were deemed in danger of collapsing on graduating seniors, and a major renovation was completed the next year.)

Bethany’s “Old Main” building is a Gothic architectural masterpiece. It was built in 1858 following a catastrophic fire that destroyed the entire college. By the way, don’t you just hate it when some pesky student wanders into your carefully composed photo? Well okay… I actually didn’t mind at all! Female students were first admitted to Bethany in 1877, with the college advertising “Bethany College, Open to Male and Female on Equal Terms.” (Historical Bethany drawings and photos courtesy of the Historic Campus Architecture Project (HCAP).)

The far side of Old Main was equally handsome (if a little less eye-catching).

Cramblet Hall began life in 1906 as the Carnegie Library, a gift of industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Fifty years later, due to poor construction, termites, and an overload of books, the library was in danger of collapse. A new one was built, and the Carnegie building was repurposed for administrative offices.

I was expecting to find a gas station in Bethany, and the 335i’s warning light had been glowing balefully for the last 35 miles. Despite a large population of students’ cars, there are no stations in town. I resolved to short-shift until I reached Wheeling the next morning. Leaving Bethany at an economical pace, I still had to detour to find the old Point Breeze Mansion. It started out as a family residence and was later acquired by the college, serving as student housing, the Zeta Thau Alpha women’s sorority, and ultimately the Alpha Sigma Pi fraternity house. The mansion apparently did not survive this last use, and it has been sitting boarded up and vacant since 2001. Unless my eyes deceive me, that appears to be a black BMW 335i parked under the port couchère…

With my gas gauge threatening to move even further into uncharted, negative territory, I negotiated winding Route 88 south to my destination for the night: the Oglebay Resort outside of Wheeling. I had been on the road for nearly 12 hours and was very happy to check in, clean up, and get a late dinner at the resort’s excellent Ihlenfeld Dining Room.

I had a chance to look around the resort the next morning, after having consumed a day’s worth of tasty calories at breakfast. The Oglebay Mansion started out as a large farmhouse in 1846 and was purchased by our friend Earl Williams Oglebay, who remodeled it for use as his summer residence. Col. Oglebay was born in 1849, attended Bethany College in 1867-1869, and went on to form the Oglebay-Norton Company, making a fortune in iron ore, coal, shipping, and banking. His daughter left the mansion and park to the city of Wheeling; Oglebay Park is now the only self-supporting public park in the country.

The resort includes a total of 5 golf courses, I believe, not counting the putt-putt course. It’s a beautiful place and well worth a return visit.

After mostly coasting down the hill from Oglebay to Wheeling, I finally filled up the poor 335i—discovering in the process that there had been less than half a gallon of gas remaining! I’d driven through Wheeling dozens of times but without having explored the city at all. I rectified that oversight on this hot August day, starting with the magnificent “Edemar” mansion on the National Road. It was built in 1910-1911 by industrialist Edward W. Stifel and his wife Emily Pollock Stifel and named for their children [u]Ed[/u]ward, Jr., [u]E[/u]mily, and [u]Mar[/u]y. The family donated the property in 1976 for use as the Stifel Fine Arts Center.

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was completed to Wheeling in 1852, at which time Wheeling became a major center for transportation, with its Ohio River port, the National Road, the railroad, and the first bridge across the Ohio River. A customs house was built in 1859 to collect duties and perform other government functions. Early in the Civil War, the Customs House was the setting for the decision to withdraw the western portion of Virginia from the Confederacy, leading to the creation of the state of West Virginia. Despite the constitutional crisis set off by these proceedings, President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill for West Virginia to become the 35th state in December 1862, noting “It is said that the admission of West Virginia is secession and tolerated only because it is our secession. Well, if we call it by that name there is still difference enough between secession against the Constitution and secession in favor of the Constitution.”

“Independence Hall,” as it is now known, was one of the first buildings in the country to use an iron framework, instead of wood, to reduce fire hazards. It even had iron shutters and an iron roof—which rusted out after 10 years and had to be replaced. The building has undergone a number of modifications and renovations over the years, as can be seen by comparing the historical photos (courtesy of the National Registry of Historic Places) with my modern one above. Note in particular that the 1890 elevator “wart” and the ca. 1915 fourth floor have been removed, restoring the building to its original appearance. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” indeed!

Speaking of the B&O Railroad, its 1908 Wheeling Passenger Station was right across the street from Independence Hall. It’s now the home of West Virginia Northern Community College.

Let’s see, if my friends Cathy and Kim have recovered from the Forks of Cheat Baptist Church story, then maybe they’ll enjoy this view of the once-mighty First Baptist Church of Wheeling. It was built in the Greek Revival style in 1837 (originally as an Episcopalian church) and served area Baptists for over 100 years. Efforts are underway to rescue “The Blue Church,” but it will be a race against further deterioration. (Interior photo courtesy of the Wheeling National Heritage Area website.)

The first settlement at Wheeling was started by brothers Ebenezer, Silas, and Jonathan Zane in 1769, with their sister Betty and other family members joining them soon after. The threat of Indian attacks led to the construction of Fort Henry in 1774. During the American Revolution, the fort was attacked by Native Americans allied with the British. When the fort ran out of gunpowder, 23-year-old Betty Zane volunteered to run outside the fort to the Zanes’ cabin and bring back more. When she left, the Indians and British soldiers merely heckled her with catcalls.   But when she came running back to the fort, they fired their muskets in earnest. At least one bullet passed through her clothing, but Betty was not wounded. With the additional gunpowder, the 100 men, women, and children at the fort held off the 300 Indians and British soldiers for another 2 days, at which time the attackers left. Betty Zane remains a local heroine, and her famous great-grandnephew, author Zane Gray, devoted one of his books to her exploits.

Today, there is nothing left of Fort Henry—even the state historical marker is gone. From the location of the fort on the banks of the Ohio River, I couldn’t help but be entranced by this view of Wheeling Island.

Remarkably, the very first bridge over the river still stands and is still in use. (Okay, trucks are prohibited, and there are traffic lights to limit the number of cars on the bridge at one time, with drivers advised to stay at least 50 feet behind the car in front!)

Naturally I drove across the Wheeling Suspension Bridge to the island, trying to ignore the fact that my 335i convertible weighs almost as much as a base model 2015 Ford F-150 CrewCab… I mean, how dangerous could it be? After all, there hadn’t been any cable breaks since 2013.

Once safely across the bridge, I opened my eyes and enjoyed the charming old houses. Even the one that had been converted to the Bow Wow Boutique.

Before leaving Wheeling, I had one more site to find. I’d happened across an old postcard showing a stone railroad bridge and tunnel, and I was anxious to get a current-day photo of the same scene—if it still existed. After a considerable amount of satellite snooping, I located what looked to be the old bridge, sandwiched in-between the intersection of modern Interstate 70 and Highway 250. More work identified the site as the Hempfield Viaduct and Tunnel No. 1 and showed a possible way to get there.

First, of course, I had to drive back over the Wheeling Suspension Bridge. This time I even kept my eyes open! Then I had to navigate some of the more rundown sections of Wheeling and find an obscure park entrance underneath Route 250. There was no one in the park, although the grass had been mowed, and I left the 335i sitting nervously by itself while I hiked around until finding a trail down to Middle Wheeling Creek. I was getting close! That’s when I almost stepped onto a 4-foot-long snake… I looked for a long branch to shoo him away but had to settle for one that was only 8 inches. Fortunately, he slithered into the bushes after I whacked his tail with the twig. (Where was this nice West Virginia lady when I needed her??)

Finally, I reached the creek and found the following view:

Since the tunnel entrance was obscured by foliage, I retraced my steps back up the path (making sure that Snake had not brought in reinforcements) and found my way up onto what is now a bike and hiking path over the viaduct. The tunnel was still there, although minus any tracks. It is said to be haunted (of course), since it runs directly under an old cemetery. The first credible ghost sighting was reported by the Wheeling Intelligencer in July 1869. I only saw one person as I walked through the tunnel. I’ll admit that I hadn’t noticed him until he was almost right in front of me, and when I commented on how hot it was outside the tunnel, he didn’t reply. A little later, I looked behind me toward the exit of the tunnel, but either I couldn’t see him in the bright sunlight or he just wasn’t visible anymore. (I report, you decide. I will note for the record that for once this is a true story.)

I left Wheeling, following the Ohio River southward to Benwood Junction, WV, hoping to find the Benwood railroad bridge—where the climactic scene of the movie Unstoppable was filmed. With little trouble, I found a good vantage point and obtained this photo of the exact location where Denzel Washington and Chris Pine managed to keep the runaway train full of hazardous chemicals from crashing down onto the helpless town below:

As I was walking back to the BMW, an older local fellow asked whether I was looking for “the bridge from the movie.” When I said that I’d found it, he replied, “Most people passin’ through here are lookin’ for the Ohio side, where they did the filmin’”…  He kindly gave me directions across the river and down to Bellaire, OH, where there actually is a town full of people right under the bridge. I found the old B&O Union Station without difficulty, noting the tall stone viaduct next to it.

In an effort to get a better photo of the bridge, I hiked partway up a hill for the following result. The Unstoppable tracks are on the left, and the much older stone viaduct is on the right. Both sets of tracks used to merge to a single line across the Ohio River. Using a somewhat similar vantage point, Tom Habak captured the second picture below while the movie was being filmed in Bellaire (see Rail

I still wanted a better look at the bridge. One way or another, I ended up on top of the old stone viaduct, walking toward the bridge in the distance. The viaduct was completed in 1871. At 20 feet high and nearly 8,600 feet in total length, the Great Stone Viaduct was a remarkable accomplishment. Walking along the viaduct produced a very odd sensation: if I looked directly ahead of my feet, it felt like the path and I were stationary, while the ground 20 feet below was moving! It created such a dizzying effect that I had to consciously look well ahead along the way. I’ve never been afraid of heights, thankfully, and I occasionally looked back down at my feet just to enjoy the odd sensation again.

Eventually I reached the merging point for the two approaches and took this photo back toward the Unstoppable curve. These tracks are still in active use, and I was hoping to get an action shot of a train crossing the bridge—but none appeared.

Climbing around on the viaduct was a good adventure, but I still had many miles to go. Back in the car, I pressed the “Maximum” button on the A/C and headed to Moundsville, WV. I found the Grave Creek Indian Mound easily, in part because this burial site is massive—approximately 62 feet high and 900 feet in circumference. It was built by Adena Native Americans in stages during 250-150 BC and was originally surrounded by a 40-foot-wide moat. The Adena and their ancestors had lived in this area for as long as 10,000 years. The burial mound was excavated on several occasions, starting in 1838 when two log chambers were discovered, containing skeletons wearing ornamental jewelry. (Some reports claim that the female skeleton was 7 feet 4 inches tall and the male over 8 feet, leading to all sorts of Biblical Nephilim speculation.) As for the more modern stone ruins near the mound, I have no idea what they used to be.

The former West Virginia State Penitentiary resides next door, perhaps keeping a watch out for wayward Nephilim. The prison was built in 1876 using a design similar to the Joliet Correctional Center outside of Chicago (think Jake and Elwood Blues), and it was widely considered to be model of safety and efficiency. Overcrowding became a serious problem, however, with 3 prisoners sharing each 5-by-7-foot cell, and after a colorful history of executions, murders, riots, and escapes, the penitentiary closed in 1995. It is now open for public tours. (Think twice before sitting down on “Old Sparky.”)

Did I mention that it was a beautiful day but with high humidity and a temperature above 90 degrees? That made Johnny Shar’s Big Dipper Ice Cream Parlor a welcome site, and ice cream has seldom tasted so good. Plus it was nice to cool off in the air conditioning, enjoy the eclectic furnishings, and chat with the nice ladies running the store.

Highway 250 runs across Ohio and West Virginia and seems to curve over and around every elevation change in both states. At one time, it was the major northwest-southeast highway in the area, and much of it remains very rural. So imagine, then, if you turn off of rural Highway 250 onto narrow, poorly paved McCreary’s Ridge Road. You would probably expect to find various abandoned houses, farms, and churches, such as this one:

You would probably not expect to find a veritable palace on top of the mountain—but there it was.

The unincorporated community of New Vrindaban, WV was founded in 1968 by followers of the Hare Krishna religious movement. The Palace of Gold was initially intended to be the home for A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1986-1977), but the Swami passed away before its completion. The palace now serves as a shrine in his honor, welcoming 50,000 visitors annually. It was quite a place, even in its somewhat deteriorated condition. The Palace of Gold is currently undergoing renovation.

I left New Vrindaban, crashing and banging my way back down the potholed road to Highway 250, and continued southward in search of another hill and the rather more modest burial shrine on top of it. John W. Spencer was born in 1842, served in the Union Army guarding Wheeling during the Civil War, and died in 1914. Effie Spencer, his wife, is buried next to him. Their shared monument stands 10 feet high, comprising two tree trunks with intertwined branches and an ivy vine that encircles both.   Separate log carvings marked “Father” and “Mother” mark their graves, immediately in front of the monument. It is a touching tribute to this couple, and I’ve never seen anything like it.

Incidentally, as you can see from the late-afternoon shadows in the photo above, the graves are facing to the east. In fact, the great majority of U.S. graves prior to 1900 face this direction. The most common explanation is that the dead are sleeping, awaiting resurrection when Christ returns to Earth, which is expected to occur in the east. When that happens, the dead will arise from their slumbering positions and be facing their Savior. Starting around 1900, religious practices in the U.S. changed to the belief in immediate resurrection following death. The “sleeping position” no longer mattered, and graves were located much more randomly—just in case you were wondering!

I believe this is the old Rock Lick Presbyterian Church, from the mid-to-late 1800s. And yes, all the graves in its cemetery point east.

Next on my tour were three classic old covered bridges. This is where the 1915 Wyit Sprowls Covered Bridge should have been in West Finley, PA. No one bothered to tell me that it had been moved 4 miles away to East Finley in 2001… (Strike one!)

Eight-tenths of a mile farther on, this is where the Crawford Covered Bridge should have been… (Strike two!)

As I was despairing of ever finding any of these landmarks, I finally found the Miller Covered Bridge exactly where Wikipedia said it would be—except it proved in actuality to be the missing Crawford Bridge. Later sleuthing, back home, revealed the Miller Bridge’s true location to be almost 2½ miles farther east. I knew that Wikipedia’s geographic coordinates are sometimes a bit approximate, but this set a new record. (Strike three?)

My reward for all this unsuccessful milling about was this photo of a late afternoon harvest, which is one of my favorites from the trip. I could hear the farmers running their harvester in the distance, trying to get a few more bales before the rain started. Just as I took this photo, however, I heard a really loud bang and the immediate cessation of the harvester’s engine. As they towed their broken equipment up their farm lane—which, uh, I happened to be blocking as I turned around—I decided it was not a good time to ask them about where the other covered bridges had gone.

I reached Waynesburg, PA after an hour of driving back roads. I tried to find the Brownlee Covered Bridge along the way, but it’s gone, too—moved to Claysville in 2008. In the process of looking for it, however, I unknowingly came within 800 feet of the missing Sprowls Bridge! Thankfully, in Waynesburg I found Charles and Sadie Heasley’s mansion right where it was supposed to be, complete with a pretty sky in the background. It was built in 1903-1905 in the Châeauesque style and features 20 rooms inside, with 4 chimneys, 4 spires, 6 dormers, and a pinnacle on the roof. The house remains virtually original, except that the gaslights have been converted to electricity. What a place!

It was now approaching 8:00 PM, and I needed some dinner and a place to stay. The local Holiday Inn Express had one room left, and they felt empowered to demand nearly $200 for it! After delivering a brief lecture on the importance of not gouging loyal customers, I drove to the local Super 8, which had no rooms left. I called the Econolodge and was pleased—sort of—to learn that one of their rooms had just opened up, hmmmm, and that they would hold it for me. They were located right in Waynesburg, although my enterprising BMW navigation system indicated it was about 7 miles away. I should have been perplexed, but, tired and hungry, I instead set off following the nav directions.

It turns out that there is another Miller Lane, 7 miles south of Waynesburg that is in the honest-to-goodness middle o’ nowhere in Pennsylvania. I kept following the turns instructed, with each new road being narrower and bumpier than the last. I finally turned onto Miller Lane, only to discover (i) that it was a rocky dirt road, and (ii) that my headlights showed a collapsed wooden bridge dead ahead. My steel-trap mind began to suspect a problem of some sort. I backed out of the dark dirt road, managed to find Interstate 79, made it back to the Waynesburg exit, and was immediately greeted by the Econolodge sign (within 100 feet of where I had started). All’s well that ends well.

The next day’s touring got off to a good start when I found the rustic 1890 King Covered Bridge without mishap. Apparently someone forgot to move it…

This little stone dam on Dunkard’s Creek wasn’t a planned stop, but it was sufficiently scenic. It’s near the almost-nonexistent town of Brave, PA, yards shy of the Mason-Dixon Line and the West Virginia border. The small lake above the dam had served as a cooling system for the People’s Natural Gas Company that operated a gas compressor here from 1906 to 1959, pumping natural gas to industries and homes in Pittsburgh. The process warmed the creek waters significantly, much to the delight of area kids who could swim here for 6 to 8 months of the year.

Southwest Pennsylvania and the upper panhandle of West Virginia are once again major producers of natural gas as a result of the current hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) boom. Throughout my trip, I couldn’t help noticing the many pipelines, chemical tanker trucks, and construction workers in the area. In fact, the crowded motels in Waynesburg were a result of the many fracking crews living there for months at a time. Economic boom or environmental disaster—or both?

While passing through Brave, an older Mercedes Benz sedan caught my eye. I believe this is a late-1950s 190 “Ponton” sedan. (Although the 190 and 220 sedans are not in great demand, a 220 coupe or cabriolet in good condition can fetch as much as $90,000 these days, with 300S cabriolets going for several times that amount.)

Investigating further, I realized that I had discovered the legendary Mercedes’ Burial Ground, long sought by explorers and car fanatics from around the world. A rough count using Google Maps’ satellite view shows almost 100 old Benz’s at the graveyard. Gosh I love America!

Just over the line in West Virginia, I stopped to explore a triangular, Norfolk Southern railroad junction (one-third of which is visible on the right). The eastern and southern branches carried coal from mines in West Virginia (one of which is still active) northward to the major Brownsville, PA rail yard. The switches appeared to be manually operated—but with no one around to do so!

Blacksville, WV seems well along the path toward becoming a ghost town. Although once home to a post office, several stores, shoe and boot makers, a wagon factory, a marble business, a hotel, an undertaker, and (later) one of the aforementioned coal mines, today many of its houses are abandoned, and there is an unmistakable feeling of poverty about the place. The town’s main industry seems to be a massive junkyard covering much of the adjoining mountain.

The old Blacksville Methodist Church is alive and well, however, and continues to hold regular services and special events. On this same site, 240 years ago, John Baldwin built a wooden blockhouse and stockade fort for defense against Shawnee and Delaware Indian attacks. Fort Baldwin was subject to a number of attacks during 1777-1791, the last of which is described in a hair-raising account at A History of Blacksville, West Virginia.

Another, much smaller salvage yard is situated just east of Blacksville. I’ve always been fond of a good wrecking yard, but this one really stands out for what I believe is an F-84F Thunderstreak jet fighter sitting out front. Now that’s style! These aircraft were developed toward the end of World War II and first saw service in Korea.

With my tour drawing to a close, I continued eastward toward Morgantown on Route 7, the Mason-Dixon Highway. During the 4 years that Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon were surveying their way westward, they encountered many Native Americans and established friendly relations with them. When they reached Brown’s Hill in October 1767, however, their Iroquois Indian guides warned of hostile Shawnee and Delaware warriors in the area and would proceed no further. This circumstance ended Mason and Dixon’s work; they placed a wooden post here and headed for home. (The remainder of the Mason-Dixon Line was not surveyed until 14 years later.) Today, a stone marker from 1883 records the westernmost terminus of Mason and Dixon’s extraordinary effort. (Photo courtesy of Allen Browne’s excellent report, Three Flags Over Brown’s Hill.

I was hoping to locate the 1883 marker, but at the Mason-Dixon Historical Park I learned that the trail through the park is extremely steep and requires more time than I had available. After identifying the marker’s coordinate location on Google Maps, I decided to try an alternative approach that might allow me to drive much of the way there. I put on my Brave Little Toaster Reconnoitering Hat, locked the 335i in first gear, and set off on the narrowest of dirt roads bordering Dunkard Creek. I made it through a number of mudholes for about 7 tenths of a mile before encountering a ford across Ripley’s Run. At this point, the “road” became a major bog, perhaps traversable by an X5 with off-road tires, but not a nice, low 3-series convertible with summer performance tires. Although this location was within a quarter mile of the marker stone, a direct route there would require climbing a high stone cliff. With great reluctance, I admitted defeat, selected reverse, and began backing the longsuffering 335i out of the wilderness. Eventually I found a slightly wider section of the road, executed a 17-point turn, and drove the rest of the way back to civilization facing forward. (No BMWs were harmed in the making of this adventure.)

Once back, I discovered this very unusual wooden bridge over Dunkard Creek. It’s sort of like a covered bridge without the covering. Surprisingly, it was built in 2004 as a test of alternative materials in cooperation with the University of West Virginia. Along with its wooden arches, it has a 35-foot-wide decking made of fiber-reinforced polymer, and its length of 149 feet makes it the longest 3-hinge, timber arch bridge in the world. Who knew?

My final destination before hotrodding on home was to find an unassuming little street in Cassville with an unusual name. Remember when Inspector Clouseau ran into an organ grinder and his monkey in one of the Pink Panther movies? Clouseau, of course, pronounced the name of the primate “minkey,” and, ever since, my friends and I have used the term to denote someone acting idiotically. Naturally I had to see what a street named “Minkey Row” had to offer.

As it turned out, it offered important evidence that West Virginia is making an economic comeback: after all, instead of the usual dilapidated Fords and Chevys in the front yard, now you’re apt to find a BMW!

I will leave you with this photo of the confluence of Scott’s Run and Pointer’s Run in Cassville. I wonder what ill-advised bicycle stunt led to this result??

All in all, it was a great 2½ days of touring, with exciting roads, an outstanding means of conveyance for enjoying them, and layers of interesting history across every square mile. As I write this in late September, the weather is still great (even for you Canadian types, Dave), so let’s all get out there and put our Bimmers (and/or Beemers) to work!

Rick F.

PS: Unless otherwise noted, historical photos are from the Library of Congress.


Written by Rick

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