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Blackwater Canyon-
Echoes From The Past

By Mike Caplinger

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 surrounding plateau.

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 Blackwater region.

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 penetrated.”

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 Canyon.

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 towns.

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 itself.

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 scenic beauty.

Still today parts of Blackwater Canyon are threatened by logging and condo development. To learn how you can help please contact Friends of Blackwater Canyon at 1-877-WVA-LAND.

 

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