The Asylum, the Poorhouse, & Other Tales of West Virginia


What could be better than a BMW ride or drive through the twisting mountain roads of West Virginia in the Springtime? Add in some pursuit of Civil War and other historic sites, and the decision was easy.

On April 3rd I set off on this journey, using a route from RoadRunner magazine (see West Virginia Civil War Tour). It promised to be a fun, if ambitious, trip: the author had spent almost 5 days on the road, while I would be attempting it in just 2 days. My starting point was Harpers Ferry, WV, which I’ve visited periodically since I was 7 years old. This somewhat dizzying aerial photo shows the Potomac River on the left merging with the Shenandoah River on the right, with the town nestled on the point of land in-between the two rivers. That’s Maryland in the upper left, West Virginia to the right and below, and a tiny bit of Virginia at the upper right. (Unless noted otherwise, all historical photos are from the Library of Congress.)

Although Spring had officially been in effect for a week and a half, I saw few signs of it. This is the Shenandoah, looking rather more green than usual.

Over the years, a number of bridges have been built across the rivers into Harpers Ferry—and a number of them have been burned, blown up, or washed away by floods. The support piers remain, however, and in some cases are now home to small trees that somehow manage to grow right out of the stones. (For extra credit, see if you can find these ruins in the aerial photo above.)

Robert Harper arrived here in 1750 and started a ferry in 1761. George Washington visited in 1785 and later recommended the creation of a U.S. armory at this site. The subsequent Harpers Ferry Armory and Arsenal produced roughly half of all the rifles and pistols for the U.S. Army. The huge stockpile of weapons in the arsenal led abolitionist John Brown to capture Harpers Ferry in an effort to start (and arm) a massive uprising of slaves in October 1859. U.S. Marines, led by a Col. Robert E. Lee and his assistant Lt. J.E.B. Stuart, swiftly put an end to Brown’s attack. In this period illustration, John Brown and his raiders, together with several hostages, have retreated to the arsenal firehouse and are fighting with a local militia prior to the marines’ arrival. (The firehouse, later known as “John Brown’s Fort,” is pictured here on the right.)

John Brown was captured, found guilty of treason, and hanged in nearby Charles Town in December 1859. But his raid stunned the nation and helped propel it into the Civil War 18 months later. The Harpers Ferry arms factory and arsenal immediately became a strategically important objective for both the North and the South. Only 6 days after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, a militia attacked the small Union force at Harpers Ferry and drove them across the Potomac River into Maryland—but not before the defenders had set fire to the arsenal and armory buildings, to prevent them from falling into Confederate hands. Much of the arms-making equipment, however, was salvaged by the southern forces and relocated to Richmond. In this historical photo, Union troops are camped near the arsenal, with the firehouse shown in the center. (Note also the two churches in the upper part of the scene, to which we will return.)

In 1891, the firehouse was disassembled and set back up at the Chicago’s World Fair. In 1895, a farmer near Harpers Ferry bought it and assembled it on his property. Next, Storer College in Harpers Ferry acquired the firehouse and added it to their hilltop campus overlooking the town in 1909. (That’s where it was when my parents, brother, and I first visited in about 1957.) Then in 1968, the National Park Service moved the firehouse back to the lower part of town, near its original location. On the day of my visit, it was standing proudly in the sunshine and was open to the public promptly at 8:00 AM.

The National Park Service lists memorable Harpers Ferry floods in 1748, 1753, 1852, 1877, 1889, 1896, 1924, 1936, 1942, 1975, 1986, and, for good measure, twice in 1996. “Memorable” appears to involve water levels of at least 29 feet above normal. Such inundations are not surprising, given that much of the town is situated on low ground in-between two major rivers. As a result of these floods, plus the Civil War (when Harpers Ferry changed hands a total of 8 times) and the Great Depression, the lower part of town was virtually deserted by the late 1950s and early 1960s. Almost all of the buildings were in poor condition, with doors and windows boarded up, crumbling foundations, missing roofs, etc. My brother and I naturally discovered a back way into several of them and were able to roam about the interiors and have a great time exploring.

Since then, the National Park Service has razed many of the unstable ruins and restored most of the other buildings to their configuration at the time of the Civil War. It’s now a much better place to visit, if a little less amenable to reckless exploration! This is the interior of the White Hall Tavern. It was owned by German immigrant Frederick Roeder, an ardent supporter of President Lincoln. Sadly, while hoping to spot the U.S. flag flying on the Maryland shore, Mr. Roeder was killed by an errant shot from a Union soldier and became the town’s first civilian casualty of the war.

These steps were carved directly into the 500-million-year-old phyllite stone of the hillside and have become well-worn over the years. The Appalachian Trail follows these steps (and the walkway above) right through town. St. Peter’s Catholic Church was built in 1833 and was substantially remodeled in 1896. St. Peter’s flew a British flag throughout the Civil War as a sign of neutrality, and it was the only church in Harpers Ferry that wasn’t destroyed by Union or Confederate shelling. It continues to hold services to this day.

For all the times that I’d walked by St. Peter’s on the way to Jefferson’s Rock, I’d never once been inside. On this day, a friendly workman invited me to climb up to the balcony for a photo.

Speaking of Thomas Jefferson, he passed through Harpers Ferry in 1783 and paused to admire the view from this large stone outcropping that is now named after him. He later wrote “This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”

These days, climbing on Jefferson’s Rock is strictly prohibited, and many Warnings of Grave Danger are posted. Back in the day, everyone climbed up onto the rock, including these, uh, dapper folks. The pedestals were placed under the top-most rock in about 1855 to help prevent it from crashing down onto the buildings below. (The rock remains in place, but the buildings are long gone.)

Oh, and here’s a picture of Yr Fthfl Srvnt and his cousin Susan leaning on the rock in 1968, before all them warnin’ signs went up.

And what about the other church seen previously? In this historical photo from early in the war, St. John’s Episcopal Church has suffered minor damage—but much worse was to come. Only a portion of the stone walls still remain.

Robert Harper had this large house built for himself. It was finished in 1782—slightly after Mr. Harper’s death. His niece Sarah and her descendants lived here for many years, and the mansion was later used as a tavern and residence for armory workers until falling into ruin. As shown in the old photo, there used to be a walkway connecting the upper porch with the higher ground to the left.

Harper House was extensively restored in the late 1960s and early 1970s, following a protracted battle between the National Park Service and the indomitable ladies of the Shenandoah-Potomac Garden Club. (No, I’m not making that up…) The house isn’t open to the public, but, if it were, the inside would look exactly like this photo—without the “self portrait” of a tall, gawky photographer in the mirror.

This railroad station has served Harpers Ferry since 1889 and was built on the foundations of the armory. These days, many people commute to Washington, DC from this station.

From the station, the railroad tracks lead across the Potomac and through a short tunnel beneath Maryland Heights.

Remember that part about ” reckless exploration”? Yes, my brother Curt and I used to routinely walk through this tunnel. Much worse, we discovered that there were iron rungs on the southern wall of the tunnel opening (on the right, in this old photo). A foolish-but-enterprising kid could climb these rungs to the top of the of the tunnel’s support structure. And if you look carefully, you’ll see that near the top (which was a good 45 feet above the rocky ground) the structure juts out significantly. To get to the next rung, you had to reach up and behind you as you climbed. Going down was even worse… Once on top of the tunnel entrance, incidentally, you were greeting by a completely uninteresting pile of gravel—which was not a sufficient disappointment to keep you from climbing up there again on your next visit.

Honest, it’s a wonder that any of us survive into adulthood. The last time I was there, I was relieved to see that the iron rungs have been removed.

In September 1862, in preparation for his invasion of Maryland, Gen. Robert E. Lee was worried about the large Union force stationed in Harpers Ferry. Concerned that they might be brought in behind his forces or used to stop his return, he ordered an attack on the town, led by Generals Stonewall Jackson, McLaws, Walker, and Hill. Their troops bombarded Harpers Ferry from Maryland Heights and Loudoun Heights, and attacked on land from the west and south, which, surprisingly, were undefended. These actions prompted the surrender of the Union forces and the capture of more than 12,700 soldiers, 13,000 rifles and pistols, and 47 cannon. Gen. A.P. Hill’s troops stayed to hold Harpers Ferry, while the others marched to Sharpsburg, MD, where the Battle of Antietam began and soon proved to be the single bloodiest day of the Civil War. The bulk of A.P. Hill’s men arrived late in the battle, just in time to turn what would have become a wholesale Union victory into a stalemate. A stalemate that involved a total of 22,717 dead, wounded, or missing Union and Confederate soldiers in one day.

Leaving the Harpers Ferry, I stopped for a quick photo of the ruins of the Shenandoah Mill, which produced wood pulp for making paper. The five huge sluiceways fed a total of ten turbines, which powered the various rollers and grinders. The mill operated from 1888 to 1935. Remember the “memorable floods”? The one in 1936 destroyed the mill once and for all.

Shepherdstown, WV is also home to several former bridges. Imagine this scene on October 18, 1862—the day after Antietam—with Union artillery on the Maryland shore (to the right) and Confederate troops on the opposite shore blasting the daylights out of each other. The Battle of Shepherdstown allowed Robert E. Lee’s army to escape safely back into Virginia following Antietam. Union Gen. George S. McClellan’s timidity in pursuing the Confederates, and the resulting standoff at Shepherdstown, infuriated President Lincoln and led directly to McClellan’s dismissal as leader of the Union Army soon thereafter.

Shepherdstown still has a couple of active bridges over the Potomac. While I wasn’t frightened of walking through the Harpers Ferry railroad tunnel as a kid, I definitely drew the line at walking out onto this single-track bridge to get a nice photo of the river!

In hunting for Thomas Shepherd’s historic 1739 grist mill, I mistakenly found this tobacco warehouse, which dates back to 1788. At least it was reasonably scenic in its own right. But now I gotta go back…

Descendants of Thomas Shepherd continue to live in Shepherdstown. The historic 1773 Bellevue mansion sits about 400 feet above the Potomac River and is currently home to one branch of the family. It started out as a single-story stone building, and it has been added to extensively over the years. Originally built by Joseph Van Swearingen, an officer during the Revolutionary War, the mansion has hosted Thomas Lord Fairfax, George Washington, Henry Clay, and William Jennings Bryan among other notables.

Before long, I found myself in Hardscrabble, West Virginia, now known as just Scrabble. In addition to several other historic buildings, I was taken by the 1882 single-room schoolhouse. Danged if it didn’t look right out of a prior Pennsylvania trip (see The Mystery of the One-Room Schoolhouse. Someone must have sold these things as kits… Like the others I’ve seen, this one has been converted to a residence.

When I arrived on the outskirts of Martinsburg, WV, I managed to find Patterson’s Mill on the first try (and without confusing it with a tobacco warehouse). The miller’s original log house was nearby (now covered with weatherboards). With the temperature reaching 40 degrees, the faithful BMW Z4 once again became a roadster.

The mill is part of the “Tuscarora Historical Area,” as recognized by the National Registry of Historic Places. So too is this little one-room schoolhouse that, for once, is not just like all the brick ones.

The Tuscarora Presbyterian Church was built in 1745, and its first minister, the Rev. Hugh Vance, is buried in the cemetery. The simple beauty of the original building is rather overwhelmed by front and rear additions from the 1960s. As luck would have it, a local member of the church invited me to tour the interior, where I found this beautiful and quite rare hand-tinted ambrotype photograph of the original church in about 1855. (“Ambrotype” photographs were made using collodion and silver nitrate on a piece of glass.) There are still pegs on the interior walls where the earliest members would hang their rifles—for quick access in the event of Indian attacks. Thanks, Becky, for the tour and information!

The Tuscarora Poorhouse started as a small log building in 1788, on land that was once owned by a certain David Crockett. The residents worked on a surrounding farm to help feed themselves and support their care. The poorhouse continued in operation until 1950, and it is now in the center of the Berkeley County Poor House Farm Park, which features sports facilities, pavilions, various activities, and a small trout-filled lake.

Oddly enough, the front door to the poorhouse was not locked, and I managed to take a quick tour of the interior. It was only a little spooky, and it looked like efforts were underway to renovate the place.

Bella Vista has been sitting proudly on top of a hill in the historic district since 1807. Frederick Seibert lived here and operated a distillery and tavern on the property.

The Tuscarora district has more historic homes per square mile than you can keep track of.

Not to mention the occasional scenic BMW…

In downtown Martinsburg, I was disappointed to find—again—that the Belle Boyd house and museum was not open. (I was 12 days too soon.) Belle Boyd was an enterprising spy for the Confederates during the Civil War, and she will feature in one of my reports some day.

Martinsburg was founded by General Adam Stephen, a Scottish immigrant who led a distinguished if sometimes checkered career as a doctor and military officer. I’d been to his 1772 home previously—but at that time I hadn’t realized that the eastern part of Martinsburg is riddled with underground caves and passageways. Most of them have been filled in for safety, but a few still exist, including one that leads directly into Gen. Stephen’s house. It was only recently discovered. (Tunnel photo courtesy of the General Adam Stephen Memorial Association.)

Did I mention the plethora of stately homes? This is the 1856 Elias Pitzer house, west of Martinsburg…

…while this is “Ar-Qua Springs,” once the home of Thomas Thornbrough and believed to have been used as an early meeting house for Quakers. The stone portion, closest to the camera, was built in 1752, with the adjoining log structure added soon thereafter. To the right is a stone springhouse. Try as I might, I could not learn where the name “Ar-Qua Springs” came from.

From 1897 to 1939, local African American children were taught in the one-room Mt. Pleasant School. After the school closed, it became the Mt. Olive Methodist Church and has held occasional services ever since.

My next stop was to visit my friends the Polimeni family in Capon Bridge, WV. The Polimenis are an interesting clan. Patriarch Ron used to race cars in the 1960s at such venues as Sebring, Lime Rock, and Bridgehampton. He and his wife Dotti are both artists. Their son Nick works in Connecticut preparing historic racing cars for vintage racing. Daughter Lydia is a photographer in Washington, DC. Son Alex is also an artist and racing enthusiast who, at 21, is a veteran corner worker for the SCCA, BMWCCA, and PCA at Summit Point, WV. Here’s a photo of Alex driving my Z4 in 2009.

I was visiting the family in part to see how Alex was doing following a severe car accident. He had volunteered to ride along with the director of a camp to pick up a late-arriving camper at the airport. Since it was late at night, Alex was concerned about the older man making the long round trip on his own. On the way back, the van left the road, hit a bridge abutment, and rolled over violently. Although the driver and camper were largely okay, Alex lost all four fingers on his right hand. For a young, right-handed artist with no health insurance, this result was catastrophic.

The good news is that Alex has a very positive attitude and refuses to let his injury get him down. He has worked tirelessly to adapt to his new circumstances, and he is continuing to work as a videographer and corner worker. His doctors have determined that he is an excellent candidate for a prosthetic hand. They are expensive, however, and neither he nor his family can afford the cost. Pennie Saum, a heroic nurse who stopped at the scene of the accident to assist, has established a voluntary fund to help finance the prosthetic. The fundraiser ends in only 2 months, however, and there is quite a ways to go to meet the goal. If you would like to help, please see A Hand For Alex. A contribution of any size would be put to good use and help facilitate this terrific young man’s ability to use his abundant natural skills.

After visiting with the Polimeni family, I pressed on toward my overnight destination at the Canaan Valley State Park. The farther I went, the higher the elevation became, and I began to notice lengthening shadows and patches of snow here and there.

I’d previously visited Mt. Storm Lake on a motorcycle journey with The Intrepid Buzz. The lake serves as a cooling source for the coal-fired power plant here. Such are the cooling needs that the entire lake is cycled through the power plant every 2 1/2 days! And even in the dead of winter, the water temperature generally remains above 50 degrees. Ironically, the electricity generated here in West Virginia is sent off to meet the needs of Northern Virginia.

Did I mention the snow? Despite the onset of Spring, I was finding many snow-covered places. Fortunately, the roads were clear and dry for the most part. As for the temperature, it had been declining steadily and was now only about 38 degrees.

I found Canaan Valley without difficulty and checked into a basic-but-comfy room for the night. I’d had a fun day of driving and exploring, with more to come the following day. It probably goes without saying, but the roads in West Virginia are a delight. Seldom level, seldom straight, and never ordinary. It’s hard to imagine a more entertaining place to exercise a capable sports car. And although my Z4 is just the 3.0i model, the engine would still launch the roadster up even the steepest climbs as fast as I wished (and its brakes would quickly haul it back down as necessary for the next corner). That car just loves to run in the 4,000-6,500 rpm range, and it sounds great in the process. :burnrubbe

With all the fun of my first day, I was looking forward even more to the second.

The next day I was greeted by a handsome sunrise, a nice view over Canaan Valley, and a temperature of 22 degrees! The lodge restaurant served up an excellent and inexpensive breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, and biscuits. I chatted with some good-old-by-God-West-Virginia fellows at the next table and reviewed my route. What a great way to begin the day.

West Virginia offers scenic vistas almost everywhere, often accompanied by rustic old barns or houses. And Highway 72 was a real treat, with countless switchback corners and something interesting around every one. The elevation would approach 3,000 feet in places, only to plunge back downhill to 2,000 feet or so. Very entertaining, although careful concentration was required: the road was narrow, with many blind corners, and pickup trucks were not uncommon.

Small hillside farms would often appear, even in the remotest of locations. The Walnut Hollow Farm was the only sign of civilization that I saw for miles as I motored on toward Parsons, WV.

When you stop for a photo in West Virginia, it’s advisable to set that parking brake really tight!

Following one of the seemingly vertical descents, the road paralleled the Dry Fork River for quite a while. It seemed to have plenty of water. The stream is popular with white-water canoers and kayakers willing to tackle its challenging Class III rapids.

Have you ever looked out your passenger window and discovered that it’s pouring rain, but only on that side of the car? That’s what happened to me…

…or so it seemed. Turned out I had parked next to a small waterfall. Too busy keeping my eyes on the road, I guess!

At Hendricks, the Dry Fork joined forces with the Blackwater River to form the Black Fork River. (I suppose they could have called it the “Dry Water” River instead, at the risk of being oxymoronic.) At Parsons, the Black Fork and Shavers Fork Rivers combine to create the mighty Cheat River, one of the most exciting, challenging, and potentially dangerous rivers in the country. Accounts vary, but the most popular story behind the river’s name has to do with the number of people “cheated of their lives” by its treacherous rapids and whirlpools. (My Dad, being something of a reckless explorer in his own right, canoed the Class IV Cheat River Canyon several times.)

Parsons features an historic old railroad station (even though the tracks have long since vanished)…

…the spectacular Tucker County courthouse and jail…

…and Corrick’s Ford across the Cheat, just outside of town. In July 1861, Union forces under Gen. George McClellan finished off the fight with Confederates that had started at Philippi (the first land battle of the Civil War) and that had continued at the Battle of Rich Mountain. The Confederates were outnumbered by more than four to one, and their commander Robert Garnett became the first General to be killed in the war. The success of this campaign prompted President Lincoln to appoint McClellan as the commander of the Army of the Potomac.

The full RoadRunner magazine route goes as far west as Weston, WV—home of the fearful Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. Since I only had 2 days, I took a shortcut to Elkins that bypassed Philippi, Weston, and Buckhannon. However, if you’re ever in the area, the Asylum is not to be missed. My wife Nancy and I visited there in 2011. It was closed for the winter, but we managed to join a privately scheduled tour for a Canadian school group. Here are a few photos from that trip to give you a sense of the place. And no, I can’t explain all of them…

Okay, I suppose the last one should be explained. Our tour guide, who had worked at the asylum as a nurse, asked if any of the students wanted to leave this room before she graphically described the murders committed there. There was quite a migration for the door, and an excessive dose of HDR processing adds to the drama, don’t you think? Oh, and the earlier picture of the slightly transparent fellow at the end of the hallway? I thought I was taking a photo of an empty hallway…

Anyway, you should plan on visiting there sometime (preferably during daylight hours!)

Compared to the Trans-Allegheny institution, the city of Elkins was pretty ordinary. Just for Cathy and Kim, here is a Scenic Baptist Church—on the left. The other one used to be Saint Brendans Catholic Church; now it’s the Randolph County Community Arts Center.

The 1902 Randolph County Courthouse is even more impressive than Tucker County’s. The smaller building to the right is the County Jail.

The last time I had been in Elkins was as a 17-year-old, visiting colleges. (Yes, Willis, they had colleges back then…) Davis & Elkins College has operated since 1904—without me, as it happens, since I ended up at the College of Wooster in Ohio. The Gatehouse is one of the oldest buildings on the campus.

Why does a college have a gatehouse? Mostly because the gatehouse originally served the summer mansions of Senator Henry G. Davis and his son-in-law Senator Stephen B. Elkins. This is Senator Davis’ Queen Anne style home, Graceland, built in 1893 and named after his youngest daughter. When the Davis family donated their home to the college, it was used as a dormitory for 30 years. For some reason, it required extensive renovation after that, and it’s now a beautiful inn.

Senator Elkins’ home is called Halliehurst, after his wife and their youngest daughter. It now houses administrative offices for the college.

Next up was the site of the Battle of Rich Mountain, which, as noted above, was a follow-up to the Battle of Philippi. Believe it or not, this road was the original Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike. A portion of Gen. Garnett’s Confederate forces, led by Lt. Col. John Pegram, were spread out along this important thoroughfare in an effort to prevent the Union Army from gaining access to it.

Union Gen. William S. Rosecrans led his brigade up a mountain path and attacked Pegram’s forces from the rear on July 11, 1861. In this photo, imagine yourself in the foreground as a Union soldier, attacking up the hill to where the Confederates were positioned in a stable yard (where my Z4 is parked). The southerners had only a single cannon to defend their position. Between the surprise attack and their superior numbers, Gen. Rosecrans’ men managed to split the Confederate force in two, capturing half of them and driving the rest down Rich Mountain to the town of Beverly. The final skirmish at Corrick’s Ford came 2 days later, and the Union victory consolidated their hold on northwestern Virginia—which subsequently seceded from the Confederacy and became the State of West Virginia. Lt. Col. Pegram was among the captured; he was subsequently exchanged but died at the Battle of Hatcher’s Run in Virginia in 1865.

Speaking of the town of Beverly, this was the home of one Laura Jackson Arnold—the sister of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. She was an ardent Unionist, however, much to the despair of her brother, not to mention her southern-leaning husband who remarked that “my wife is crazy, but Hell could not govern a Jackson.” Laura cared for wounded Union soldiers during their occupation of Beverly.

Continuing on through the Tygart River Valley, I came to Mill Creek. Some of the houses here were in better shape than this one…

I was looking for the 1898 E.E. Hutton house in Huttonsville (naturally), but it took some doing. I finally discovered it perched a good 65 feet above the road. Undaunted, the faithful Z4 charged up the steep and rocky drive, saving me from a 6-story climb! In case you were wondering, the “E.E.” stood for Eugene Elihu.” His great-grandfather, Jonathan, settled Huttonsville in 1795 and lived in a log cabin on the same site as the current house. (It was burned by Union troops in 1861.) E.E.’s Victorian house has more than 40 windows, and the interior is still lit by gas lamps. It operated as a bed & breakfast in the recent past, although no one seems to live there currently.

At Huttonsville, I continued on the path of the current Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike by taking Highway 250. I soon found myself driving up Cheat Mountain, and two things quickly became apparent: First, the snow on the sides of the road was getting deeper and deeper, and second, the temperature was dropping steadily. At an elevation of almost 4,000 feet, the snowbanks were more than 4 feet deep, and the Z4’s outside thermometer read 36 degrees—and since the top was down, I was pretty much “outside.” I didn’t dare stop to put the top up, however, because I had managed to pass a slow-moving truck and five trailing cars a couple of miles back, and I was thoroughly enjoying the twisting climb up the mountain. No way did I want to fall behind the moving roadblock again! I did, however, resort to putting my gloves on…

The town of Cass, WV is well-known to sightseers and train enthusiasts everywhere—but have you ever heard of nearby Durbin? Seeing a sign for the “Durbin Rocket,” I stopped to investigate. I found the station, tracks, and scenic tour train cars, but alas the 1910 Rocket—one of only three existing steam locomotives of its type—had wandered off. However, I found it among the beautiful photographs at Scriptunas Images. Looks like fun! The switches and tracks are left over from when former Senators Davis and Elkins extended their Western Maryland Railroad to Durbin in the early 1900s.

I found this once-elegant home in Bartow. And while I was there, I gave up and raised the top.

As the day wore on, it occurred to me that I’d never had lunch. Watching Lamb and Mom made me all the hungrier—but I draw the line at warm goat’s milk! (I had a glass of warm goat’s milk in 1988 in the People’s Republic of China; it would have been barely tolerable if not for the lumps…)

As with the town of Cass, almost everyone has heard of (and many have been to) Seneca Rocks. But how many of you have heard of Nelson Rocks? They’re another set of “razorback” cliffs, only a stone’s throw from Seneca Rocks, and I was determined to locate them. Determined enough, in fact, to take this narrow, muddy road straight up yet another mountain.

After a few miles, I suddenly realized that I was driving in-between two gigantic, narrow ridges of stone. My photos don’t begin to do justice to the majesty of these peaks.

To give you a better sense of the breathtakingness of these ridges, I’ve added an aerial photo (courtesy of the Nelson Rocks Outdoor Center). And, yes, on the left that’s a rope bridge from one ridge across to the other. It’s 200 feet long and 150 feet high, and the rest of the Center’s mind-boggling Via Ferrata Tour looks way scarier. Talk about reckless exploration! Or you can take the Center’s Canopy Tour and spend more than a mile in the air on ziplines as high as 80 feet above the ground. (Okay, where do I sign up?)

A little farther north, I managed to find Bogg’s Mill on only the third try. It was built in 1830 and, remarkably, was in operation as recently as 1966.

Apparently George Washington wasn’t the only one to have wooden teeth…   🙂

North of Petersburg, WV sits a magnificent brick farmhouse from about 1830 known as “The Manor.” This is as close as I could get to it without making a complete nuisance of myself, and it’s quite a place. The nearby log structures are former workshops and slaves’ quarters, although I believe they are not original to this property.

From Moorefield, WV, the quick way back east is via the new West Virginia Highway 55. But the fun and scenic way is to take Old Highway 55. For example, would you rather be one of the little cars up on the Highway 55 bridge shown in this photo, or would you enjoy driving directly alongside the Lost River? In the summer, incidentally, the Lost River disappears below ground a few miles downstream of this photo. It re-emerges a couple of miles later as the Cacapon River. On my visit, there was still enough snow runoff to keep the Lost River above ground.

Oh, and you find more scenic vistas on Old Highway 55 as well!

By now I was once again hopelessly behind schedule, and it was starting to get dark and threatening to rain. Needing to make time, I nonetheless decided to turn off on an interesting-looking old dirt road, just to see where it went. (I recognize that this is a form of mental illness…) Sure enough, it proved to be scenic both for its old houses and the occasional derelict 1956 Ford sedan. In West Virginia, there’s treasure everywhere!

Cedar Creek must have been formed during the last ice age, as there are large boulders strewn throughout its path.

Just next to the creek, I ran across this old-looking house. Subsequent research indicates that it is the Old Forge Farm, which included the Zane Iron Furnace / Marlboro Iron Works near Marlboro, Virginia. The 1750s part of the house is on the right and has limestone walls that are nearly 2 feet thick; no wonder these old places last a long time. The smaller part on the left was added in the early 1800s. An earlier archaeological dig identified a Native American village on the property, dating back to the Middle Archaic and Late Woodland Periods (5000 BC to 1600 AD.

I was struck by the unusual, hexagonal building across from the farm house. It proved to be an ice house and—more interestingly—”Stephens Fort.” Its lowest floor is 19 feet below ground level, and the original builder, Lewis Stephens, used it to provide protection for his family and neighbors during Indian raids. Isaac Zane bought the property in 1767, including its ironworks, and became one of the largest producers of munitions for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. The Army did not pay Zane for much of the ammunition he supplied; the ironworks was in ruins by 1783, and, financially, so was Zane himself.

Imagine, all that history associated with an unassuming little farm that I glanced at, took a photo of, and thought little about at the time. Golly!

While loitering on some railroad tracks just outside of Stephens City (yep, named after Lewis Stephens), I happened to notice a humongous pile of limestone ruins. Ignoring the setting sun, schedules, and any sense of where I was supposed to be, I wandered over to investigate. As best I could tell, this used to be a massive furnace for producing coke. (Uh, that’s coke as in coal baked at a high temperature for purification, with the results used in the production of steel…) I didn’t count them, but there were dozens of these ovens incorporated within the structure.

We’ve all seen lots of three-wheeled motorcycles, or “trikes,” but what do you make of this one?? It’s powered by a Chevy V-8, and while the front wheel has twin brake rotors, there are no brake calipers fitted. It was the only thing I saw on this trip that is even scarier than the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.

Several trips ago, I had intended to search for the ruins of a mill rumored to sit alongside the Shenandoah River near the historic Hopewell Farm. I’d been to this vicinity before, on a motorcycling trip with my buddy Tim Love (see SRR 2008 Scenic Tour). We’d stopped to admire Little’s Falls where the river abruptly drops several feet, but at that time I had no idea that there might be an old woolen mill nearby. By the time I returned on my current trip, the sun had already set, and I cast about in the gathering darkness, looking for any ruins.

I found an obscure path, crossed by fallen trees, vines, and large rocks, and of course decided to give it a try. Before long, I found possible evidence of a mill stream with man-made stone reinforcing walls. In the darkness, it was kind of hard to tell.

Thinking that these were probably the only ruins left, I almost turned around to hike back to the Z4 before it got completely dark. As usual, I had no flashlight—or, for that matter, common sense—and I continued on. (Maybe there’s still a little “reckless exploration” left in me.) Eventually I was rewarded by this massive, three-story stone wall that once formed part of the 1850 woolen mill! Ironically, the sole remaining wall is the one that directly borders the river. The other three have long since been washed away by floods. This woolen mill was the largest one along the Shenandoah River and continued in business through about 1920, mostly producing uniforms for the U.S. Army.

I was so tickled to find this ruin that I practically floated over the various obstacles in the darkness on the way back to the car. With a quick photo of the 1765 Hopewell farmhouse, I was on my way home.

Except, naturally, for a brief stop to see the Allstadt House and “Ordinary” (tavern). Driving in the dark as I was, I went right by the ruins of John H. Allstadt’s original farmhouse without noticing. (Just another reason to go back.)

Thankfully, the historic site was illuminated by spotlights. The Allstadt house (on the right) was originally built in 1790 and sold to Jacob Allstadt in 1811. Jacob added a second story in 1830, along with the stone ordinary on the left. By October 16, 1859—the start of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry—Jacob’s son John was living in the Allstadt house with his family, including 18-year-old John Thomas Allstadt. A detachment from John Brown’s raiders had been sent to take important hostages. Their first stop was at the nearby Beall Air mansion, the home of Col. Lewis W. Washington, who was George Washington’s great-great-nephew (see West Virginia and the Legend of Wizard Clip. Charles and three slaves were taken captive, and the raiders next went to the Allstadt home, seizing John, John Thomas, and seven slaves. All of them were held within the Harpers Ferry firehouse, where we started this trip, and all survived the ensuing battle. When John Thomas died in 1923, we was the oldest survivor from the raid on Harpers Ferry. The Allstadt House and Ordinary have been restored to their appearance in 1859 and are open to the public.

In this Harper’s Weekly engraving of the scene within the firehouse, the younger fellow on the left is John Thomas Allstadt.

From the Allstadt House, it was an easy hour’s drive back to Catonsville. All told, I covered about 500 miles during the 2-day tour, excluding my drive to and then from Harpers Ferry. It was great to see the Polimenis, fun to meet some new folks along the way, and a thrill to exercise the Z4 on some outstanding mountain roads throughout the trip. And talk about history around ever corner! I couldn’t have asked for more.

Rick F.


Written by Rick

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