For 99.99 percent of its history, the Blackwater Canyon
has been a place of no humans. Over vast expanses of time, only eternal
shadows mixed with the glimmer of flowing water, wind in the trees,
abundant wildlife, and the flow of the seasons.
Native Americans probably passed through the Canyon
area during their 20,000-year existence on the Continent, prior to the
arrival of European explorers, pioneers, and settlers, forging in from the
East Coast in the late eighteenth century. But archaeologists have not
uncovered any permanent prehistoric settlements in the Canyon or on the
In 1736, a small band of surveyors made their way up
the Potomac, in search of its ultimate headwaters. They sought to
establish the northernmost boundary of the land owned by Lord Fairfax, a
British aristocrat who had been granted by the British Crown a huge tract,
reaching from the Rappahannock River to the “first spring” of the Potomac
in the North.
These surveyors, the first “whites” to enter the area,
found what they believed to be the “first spring” about 3 miles north of
the modern-day town of Thomas. Ten years later, another survey party
returned to confirm the site of the headwaters. This party ascended the
Allegheny Front near what is now old Stoney River Dam and Dolly Sods,
crossing the swamps and laurel thickets of northern Canaan Valley. In so
doing, they had crossed the Eastern Continental Divide and reached what is
now known as the Allegheny Plateau.
The expedition’s leader wrote in his journal that these
were the highest mountains he had ever seen, and that the seemingly
endless natural obstacles might get the better of his men.
Even after the establishment of pioneer settlements
along the lower areas bordering the plateau region, between 1750 and 1800
(most notably along the Cheat River), only the most daring of hunters
would venture a trip up into the “Land of Canaan,” “The Glades,” or
“Canada,” as locals called the highlands surrounding the Canyon.
In the early 1830s, a reconnaissance survey team for
the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad made their way down the Canyon, tracing an
experimental route for America’s first railroad, which was to stretch
between Baltimore in the East to Wheeling, on the Ohio River, in the West.
Twenty years later, in 1850, the railroad finally reached the area -- but
it followed a more forgiving route through Oakland, Maryland, some 25
miles north of the Canyon. Still, this exploration was the start of the
Blackwater Canyon region’s opening to the outside world.
The Oakland Depot became a jumping-off point for
(usually wealthy) adventurers, hunters, and fishermen who had heard of the
wild region around Blackwater Canyon, and of the “Great Falls of the
Blackwater.” One such traveler was Phillip Pendleton Kennedy, who
described his trek through the area during 1851 in a book called The
Blackwater Chronicle. Kennedy was accompanied by a group that
included the well-known Appalachian (and later, Civil War) artist Porte
Crayon (David Hunter Strother).
The Kennedy/Strother party did not see Blackwater
Falls, but they did pass through the area of modern-day Thomas, descending
into the Canyon by clambering down what is now called Pendleton Run Falls.
After a short search, they mistakenly thought that the “Douglas Falls” on
the North Branch of the Blackwater was the “Great Falls.”
Strother made return trips in the years preceding the
Civil War, finally finding the “Great Falls.” Later in the 1870s he wrote
an illustrated account of his trip to the Blackwater region for Harpers
Monthly Magazine. Strother’s remarkable drawings, sketches and stories
from his trips are the best sources of information on the pre-development
years of the Canyon. Others came as well, and in 1859 a wealthy
Baltimorean built a 12-room vacation lodge overlooking the Canyon near
Pendleton Run, called “the Dobbin House,” which was the first substantial
dwelling constructed along the Canyon rim. Tourism and outdoor recreation
have prospered in the area ever since.
The wealth of natural resources present in the area did
not go unnoticed. Henry Gassaway Davis (H.G.) who began as a brakeman on
the B&O Railroad, realized the riches the region held. While becoming a
successful businessman prior to the Civil War, Davis made numerous trips
into the Allegheny Plateau, and he knew its topographic intricacies as
well as anyone. He knew there was high-quality coal, topped by a seemingly
endless virgin forest. Davis made plans for building a railroad, going so
far as to acquire a charter, but his plans were thwarted by the Civil War.
Davis chose well during the conflict, siding with the
North and becoming rich off wartime sales. After the War ended, as a West
Virginia Senator, Davis became successful in national politics and
eventually came to be called “the grand old man” of West Virginia. The
friends, family, and political associates he cultivated during the years
after the war gave him the means to finally build a railroad into the
isolated Blackwater region. Davis and his associates began buying up land
in the area. By about 1880, they owned nearly 60,000 acres. In 1882 Davis’
West Virginia Central and Pittsburgh Railway began building from Piedmont
on the B&O main stem, up the North Branch of the Potomac River. In 1884,
the construction crews passed near the Fairfax Stone and entered the
The arrival of the railroad produced a boom period in
the area; the towns of Thomas and Davis were founded, based on coal and
lumber production, respectively. The Davis Coal and Coke Company (owned
and operated by H.G. Davis) opened dozens of mines in and around Thomas,
converting some of the coal to coke in the hundreds of coke ovens built
along the Blackwater’s north branch -- while the lumber mill, tanneries,
and pulp factories of Davis processed the wood coming in from the forest.
The main sawmill in Davis, which operated over thirty years under
different owners, was one of the first and largest in the state. At first,
Davis (75 miles from Piedmont) was the terminus on the WVC&P. But in 1888,
the railroad’s main line was continued from Thomas down the Blackwater
Canyon and on to Elkins, 45 miles away. The original line between Davis
and Thomas became the “Davis Branch.”
Aside from the railroad grade along the Canyon’s north
wall, there was little activity in the Canyon itself for many years. The
town of Hendricks, at the mouth of the Canyon, prospered. There was also a
small trackside village called Limerock in the lower Canyon. But on the
surrounding plateau, the coal and timber industry was making its
unmistakable mark on the land and the lives of those living there. From
1884 to 1907, logging in Canaan Valley and on Canaan and Backbone Mountain
had supplied the big mill in Davis. When possible, logs were floated into
town on the Blackwater River -- but increasingly the logs were hauled into
town on a logging railroad which led back to town.
The practice of clear cutting timber combined with the
almost annual occurrence of forest fires (usually caused by sparks from
locomotives) to turn the region around Blackwater Canyon into a desolate
wasteland. An eminent naturalist from Washington, DC, visited the area in
1891 and again in 1897. He was shocked at the change that had occurred
between his visits. He wrote:
“The destruction of timber which had already begun
before the time of my first visit had progressed with startling rapidity,
during the six years that had elapsed, and instead of the more or less
unbroken sea of green tree tops formerly visible, the eye now rested upon
a country disfigured by prostrate logs stripped of their bark, misshapen
and unsightly stumps, and dead trees blackened and destroyed by fire.
Railroads for getting out the timber had been forced into the heart of the
woods... It is for the most part requisite to travel for many miles from
the railroad to find a place to which the wood cutter has not yet
From the turn of the century to 1907, the Davis sawmill
turned its attention to the timber bordering the Blackwater Canyon.
Beginning in 1902, logging railroads were built from Davis along the north
and south rims of the Canyon.
Numerous temporary camps along the railroad housed the
hundreds of loggers doing the work. By 1903, the railroad along the south
rim was built to Lindy Run (about 5 miles from Davis), at which point
“Camp 2” was built as a headquarters for woods operations on the south
side of the Canyon. Soon thereafter, the lumber company opened a small
coal mine about two miles west of Lindy Run to supply the locomotives on
their long trips into the forest.
On the north rim, the company built a line from Davis
to Big Run. Logging “Camp 22” was located at the forks of Big Run, and
this camp became the headquarters for woods operations on the north side
of the Canyon. Spurs were run up every sizable tributary of the Blackwater
River off these two lines. The south rim line was eventually continued to
the Canyon’s lower end and into the Dry Fork Valley.
The first logging railroad to descend into the Canyon
was built on the north wall of the Canyon, from Tub Run west down into the
Canyon, where it stopped just above the mainline railroad leading to
Hendricks. As the terrain being logged became rougher, skidding logs to
the railroad with animal power (horses or oxen) became impractical. In
1904 the company purchased two used steam-powered skidders, and brought
them to Blackwater. These were possibly the first steam-powered skidders
used in the Allegheny Mountains.
In 1907, the Babcock Lumber Company of Pittsburgh, PA,
purchased the complete holdings of the Thompson Lumber Company, former
owners of the Davis sawmill. Under the Babcocks, the most rugged areas of
the region, including the Canyon, were now logged. From 1908 to 1916,
cutting concentrated on the Canyon itself. Power skidders were used
exclusively along the Canyon walls, as animals were useless in this steep,
rugged area. In June, 1912, the company purchased a third skidder from the
Lidgerwood Manufacturing Company and it too was quickly put to use in the
The most daring example of railroading during the
logging of the Blackwater River basin occurred on the south wall of the
Canyon between 1912 and 1916. From Camp 2, at Lindy Run, a
“primary” spur was built westward down into the Canyon. A network of
switchbacks and secondary spurs off this line allowed trains to reach the
bottom of the Canyon. One spur followed the river’s edge upstream to a
point just below where the Blackwater Falls State Park Lodge is now
located. Other spurs and switchbacks on the south Canyon wall gave access
to the Canyon’s depths, all the way to Hendricks.
The Canyon grades were very steep, suitable only for
the specialized Shay logging locomotives, and in places were “cut out of
solid cliffs, costing in some places at the rate of fifteen to twenty
thousand dollars per mile.” This was expensive, compared to most logging
railroad grades. These torturous grades were built and maintained with the
aid of a steam shovel, which had steady work clearing out the frequent
landslides along the tracks.
Aerial skidders operated from
“sets” all along the Canyon rim and in the Canyon itself. In 1913, skidder
number 3 was set on the south rim at a promontory called Canyon Point (or
Lindy Point), with its main cable extending down and across the Canyon to
a point near the mainline railroad. This skidder brought logs up out of
the Canyon to a log landing along the spur that descended into the Canyon
below the skidder set. Numbers 2 and 4 were set up at the bottom of the
Canyon along the spur that came down from the first switchback. These two
skidders dragged logs off the Canyon wall down to log landings beside the
logging railroad. “The cable was anchored out of sight far up in the
mountain. The crash of logs being hauled over stones and old snags could
be plainly heard before coming into view.” When possible, men were carried
to and from the day’s work area in an iron cage lifted by the skidder and
transported across the Canyon at a dizzying height.
The Canyon’s scenery, the switchbacks, the trains, the
aerial skidders “flying” logs from thousands of feet away and hundreds of
feet in the air to drop them at massive log landings --all combined into
an orchestra of sight and sound which must have been as awe-inspiring as
it was destructive to the forest. This was logging in its most dramatic
and reckless form, and it brought people from far and wide to see the
spectacle. Some came purely as sightseers, while others came to learn the
techniques being used. During 1913 and 1914, when logging in the Canyon
was at its height, groups of students from the Michigan Agricultural
College of Lansing, Michigan, visited Davis twice with a professor to
study and learn.
Twice, representatives of the Royal Forester of Japan
visited the operation. The Japanese were logging rugged country in
southeast Asia, and came to Davis looking for advice. “Next to Japan’s
proposition, the Blackwater woods is the hardest known to the timber
world” proclaimed the Davis News after a visit from the Japanese.
The Babcocks regularly gave train rides into the Canyon so the operations
could be seen up close. One log car was always made available, with sturdy
seats built onto it and a boxcar full of picnic baskets in tow.
However, the scene was entertaining for only a while,
and soon the Canyon was a barren, desolate place. By 1916 the loggers had
moved on; the brush and slash in the Canyon left to burn. Blackwater
Canyon was the “last hurrah” for the Company, marking the high point in
logging along the Blackwater, in terms of the equipment technology in use
and the pure scale of operation. The timber in the Canyon was the last
large stand of softwood in the region, and when the virgin timber was
gone, the big mill in Davis was soon to follow. By 1925, the mills in
Davis had closed and the rails and rolling stock were taken out. Davis
must have seemed eerily quiet. During thirty-eight years of existence, the
main Davis sawmill cut almost one billion board feet of lumber.
What remained after the loggers left was a moonscape of
briars, weeds, and stumps stretching for miles on all sides of Blackwater
Canyon. Yet Blackwater Falls remained a popular destination for
sightseers, although its beauty was severely compromised by the barren
setting surrounding the Falls.
Importantly, dramatic increases in flooding along the
Monongahela and Ohio Rivers in the early 1900s were attributed to the
deforestation of the Allegheny highlands. This resulted in the federal
government’s creation of the Monongahela National Forest in 1911. Slowly,
tracts of land were purchased and added to the Forest holdings. The fires
which swept most of the cut-over land prevented new growth, and re-growth
of the area’s timber would have been much slower, if it had not been for
the reforestation efforts carried out by the Civilian Conservation Corps
and other public agencies, civic groups, and even the Boy Scouts.
Most of the property bordering the Canyon eventually
became National Forest land, but the Canyon itself passed into the hands
of a utility, the West Virginia Power and Transmission Company. The Canyon
remained wild and open to public access, forming a de facto portion
of the National Forest. In 1934, the company leased (for free) 446 acres
around Blackwater Falls to the State of West Virginia. This land became
the basis of Blackwater Falls State Park, founded in 1937.
In 1953, the WVP&TC (soon to be acquired by Allegheny
Power) donated 935 acres around the Great Falls to the State of West
Virginia. In 1957, a land swap with the Forest Service gave the park
another 744 acres. The main lodge and most other “tourist draws” in the
Park were built between 1957 and 1961. Today Blackwater Falls State Park
hosts hundreds of thousands of visitors yearly, from all over the world.
Tourism has helped saved the towns of Davis and Thomas, which would have
otherwise entirely faded away, like countless other Appalachian boom
By the 1960s, with the efforts of many, the Canyon had
returned to something resembling its formerly wild state, although the
main line railroad (purchased by the Western Maryland Railroad in 1905)
remained very active. Passenger service had ended around 1950, and until
the line’s closure in 1980 only coal and freight trains passed through the
Canyon. Indeed, the coal industry remained active in the area throughout
the twentieth century, but deep mining was discontinued about 1950, in
lieu of strip mining, often very near the Canyon but not in the Canyon
Unfortunately, the hundreds of miles of abandoned mine
tunnels beneath the area began discharging acid mine drainage, which found
its way to the Blackwater River, primarily via the North Branch of the
Blackwater. This saved the appearance of Blackwater Falls, but by the
1960s, below the North Branch’s confluence with Blackwater, the mine
drainage acidity killed all aquatic life and stained the river bloody red.
In recent years, government-led reclamation efforts and treatment system
construction have begun to stem the problem -- but it will likely require
treatment for hundreds of years into the future.
Near Hendricks, some timber in the privately owned
portion of the Canyon was “selectively cut” around 1970, and it remained
open to public access. In 1997, Allegheny Power suddenly sold the
privately owned portion of the Canyon (some 3000 acres) to a Petersburg,
WV, lumber company which closed much of the Canyon (from the park’s
western boundary to Hendricks) to visitors, and began logging anew.
Of interest to historically-minded people, many of the
railroad grades mentioned in the preceding history are still discernable,
and in some cases carry more traffic now than they did when they were
still railroads. They became convenient roads or trails for recreational
vehicles, mountain bikes, and hikers. The main road through Blackwater
Falls State Park follows what was part of the south rim logging railroad.
The north rim branch is also now park road for some distance, and a hiking
trail for much of the rest. The spurs up Engine Run, Shays Run, Lindy Run
and other tributaries are hiking trails. Both the north and south rim
grades are U.S. Forest Service roads, and the grades down into the Canyon
are hiking trails also. At many streams, crude bridge abutments are
visible and the sharp eye can find other remnants of the logging era of
100 years ago.
With the closure of the main line through the Canyon in
1980, the grade has become a very popular trail that gives views of the
Canyon formerly only gained at the cost of a treacherous hike. The trail
also provides views of examples of our ancestor’s superb civil engineering
skills, such as the coke oven ruins along the North Branch below Thomas,
and the Big Run culvert in the Canyon itself. Artifacts like this have
passed from the realm of utilitarian industrial structures to become
cultural resources, that help tell the story of our collective past.
The Blackwater Canyon and surrounding region is a
fascinating and continually evolving case-study in industrial
boom-and-bust cycles, with the added twist of tourism based on the area’s