From Bustle to Bust: The mystery of the old town of Watoga

Sam Arbogast's grandfather and grandmother, Dennis and Elizabeth Simmons Dunn, in the boat they used to ferry residents to and from the old town of Watoga.
Sam Arbogast’s grandfather and grandmother, Dennis and Elizabeth Simmons Dunn, in the boat they used to ferry residents to and from the old town of Watoga.

Chelsea Walker
Contributing Writer

The Greenbrier River Trail is one of many sacred and preserved pieces of history that still remains as a tribute to our once vastly divergent past.  
Dotted along the trail are countless “ghost towns;” areas that once were sites of some of the most bustling and lively communities. The old town of Watoga was once a hidden riverside gem that first began as a lumbering town. The hidden, now overgrown town, was difficult to venture to. Without land access by foot, folks living in the town, or commuting, had to ford the river or catch a ride on the train. Mystery surrounds the riverside community, where questions about the history of the town still linger today.
The name Watoga, itself, is as mysterious as the town that once perched on the riverside hill. A newspaper article taken from June 1906 suggests the name is credited to W.A. Ross, a trainmaster and chief dispatcher for the Greenbrier Division, who is rumored to have taken the name from the Native American Cherokee tribe. To the Cherokee, “Watauga,” is a word taken from the Tennessee and North Carolina region, where the name’s meaning translates to, “beautiful river,” “land beyond” and “beautiful water.”
Local historian Bill McNeel said the Native American name is unusual, since most logging towns were created by combining family names, or using the lumber company’s title itself, to associate the family ownership with the town. McNeel said how Ross stumbled upon the name Watoga is a puzzle no one has yet been able to completely piece together.
“The lumber operation centered at Watoga was one of the many that came in. Of course, after the railroad was constructed up the Greenbrier River in 1899-1900,” McNeel said.
The boom of the lumber industry hit Watoga in the early 1900s, when the railroad first made its way into the county. For roughly 10 to 15 years the economy of Watoga relied heavily on the success of the lumber companies that operated in the area. From 1906 to 1916, lumber companies operated by J.R. Droney, Tomb Lumber Company and Watoga Lumber Company, timbered the hilly terrain of Watoga, while in 1908 the Empire Kindling Wood Company operated a small kindling plant that lasted for  only a few years before succumbing to financial burdens. Logging towns like Watoga were self-sufficient, contracting with local doctors and selling needed items at the company store, where script was given out by the companies to purchase necessities for residing families.

Watoga 2.web

Watoga was the epicenter of a lively and modest community. It had a small schoolhouse, which most likely was opened on Sundays for church; and it had a baseball team. Archives from The Pocahontas Times in 1908 reported a tie between the Watoga and Warntown baseball teams, where more than 500 people were in attendance. Although the town was quiet and mystically enchanting, just as in any other community, there was always some type of drama brewing for some of the residents.
Donna McGinnis, of Buckeye, remembers a story passed down through her family that told a tale of revenge by one of her distant relatives. Watoga resident Minnie George’s brother married McGinnis’ aunt, Ida Burgess.
“Minnie George lived in Watoga where a train ran over her cow and the company wouldn’t pay her for it, so she set the railroad tracks on fire.”
After the boom of the logging industry finished its stint on the mountainside of Watoga, the barren land was placed on the market. It wasn’t until 1920 that the arid landscape became a home place for families. Formed by a group of men in the Princeton and Bluefield area, the Watoga Land Association purchased land to create a community for African Americans. Laid off into lots and streets, the land was repurposed to eventually be a site for agricultural development, where the Watoga Land Association insisted the area
would create a fine establishment for families to raise livestock to sell. Upon the rugged landscape, those who inhabited Watoga most likely realized a booming agriculture industry could not be sustained in the mountainous and infertile territory. Taken from a gospel sermon in the Watoga newspaper, Reverend A.B. Farmer said, “We have built and have helped build cities for others and have neglected building one for ourselves, we don’t want to stop helping other people, but let us build us a city upon the earth.”
The Watoga Land Association dreamt of providing those of African-American descent a community filled with divinity and delight. While many lots remained unsold, a few families that made up the estimated 1920s town population of 33, did venture across the river to stake claim on what they would soon call “home.”
Sam Arbogast recalled a time when his grandfather, Dennis Dunn, was the main source of transportation for those living in Watoga.
“My granddad ran, what I guess you could call, a ferry service,” Arbogast said.
“He boated people across the river there. That’s how he made his money for years.”
Using rocks to gauge the height of the river, Arbogast’s grandfather knew exactly how to safely transport individuals across the Greenbrier.
“He had three rocks,” Arbogast said.  “One was a riding rock, where you could ride your horses safely across. One was a driving rock, and if it [the river] was any higher you couldn’t take your vehicle across.”
“I can remember the boating rock is on the other side of the river, and if the water was over top that rock, you couldn’t boat across.”
 Using those rocks and a large wooden pole to guide and steer, Arbogast’s grandfather was capable of knowing just where to put his boat in to glide the ferry to the landing dock at Watoga.
“He knew exactly where to start when the river was at certain levels,” Arbogast said.
Arbogast’s family was nestled just across the river from the old logging town of Watoga. Arbogast, in his childhood years along with cousins and his sister, remembers fording the river to visit the town store. Owned and operated by JL Merle, Arbogast said he and his sister would venture to the town with his grandfather, where the two would enjoy a grape Nehi atop the store cooler.
Living across the river, and about a mile above Watoga, Genevieve Wilfong Totten remembers the first dollar she ever made and spent right at the company store. Mr. Merle was a busy character, entertaining the likes of children from near and afar.
“The first dollar my little brother earned, which of course we thought it was something, we had never had one before, we spent it all right there in Watoga,” Totten said.
Playing with the dollar high above the river on the train bridge, Totten’s brother, Ted, dropped the monetary piece of fascination right into the river. Totten said she ran into the river while her brother stayed on the bridge to guide her to the floating dollar.
“I said, you stand up there, and you tell me where that dollar is going,” Totten said. “Thank heavens the river wasn’t high.  It was low and traveling kind of slow, so I did, I waded out there, and he kept showing me and I got that dollar.”
Gripping tightly to their dollar bill, Totten and her brother ran to Mr. Merle’s store, where they purchased candy and pop.
“Watoga was our window to the world for a while,” Totten said.
The town of Watoga was home for families right up until the 1950s, remaining as an isolated riverside town for years until the collapse of the railroad. Although the overgrown and desolate area seems far from a once animated town, Watoga hosted countless memories for Pocahontas County families of a now, almost gone and forgotten time.

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