‘It’s Your History’ ~ Signs record the past for the future

Photos by  Suzanne Stewart
The U.S. Forest Service Greenbrier Ranger District implemented a project called “It’s Your History,” in which informational signs were placed along the West Fork Trail and forest service road. The signs tell the history of the area, including photos and stories about the logging towns that are no longer there. At right, a map of West Fork is included on signs at the entrances to both the trail and road. Whether visitors begin in Durbin or Gandy, they will know what lies ahead of them.

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

Like many of the trails in Pocahontas County, the West Fork Trail which begins in Durbin, is 22-miles of a reclaimed railroad trail. Where Chesapeake & Ohio [C&O] Railway line trains used to travel to bring goods and supplies into the county, visitors and hikers can now enjoy it for a walk, run or bike ride.

Parallel to the trail is the U.S. Forest Service road which visitors may use to drive through the forest to find camping, fishing, horseback riding and hiking opportunities.

While the trail and road are a picturesque attraction with peaceful views and endless ways to enjoy the forest, they are also a path to the past.

Not only did the railroad run through the area, the forest was filled with several little logging towns which sprouted up during the timber industry boom in the county.

Although there are merely a few remnants of the towns left today, the history has been well-maintained in the form of photographs and the written word.

In an effort to give visitors a better understanding of West Fork’s history, the Greenbrier Ranger District in Bartow embarked on the “Your Forest History” project. The project is a collection of 18 signs along the trail and road which give the history of each town, as well as the history of logging in the area.

Visitors are able to experience the history by either using the trail or FS road. Both have nine signs dispersed along the 22-mile trek.

Greenbrier District Ranger Jack Tribble said the project was a passion piece which brought together the forest, historians and local students.

“We’ve just had a keen interest in getting the local history of the forest and really talking about it with the public,” he said. “I don’t feel like even the local residents know much about the history of these old towns. We went along the West Fork Trail and the West Fork Road and looked at all the towns – Durbin, Olive, May – all those little towns that were big towns when they were timbering this area from the 1890s to about 1915.”

The forest service used funding from a Secure Rural School grant it received in 2015 to make the signs, with the help of historian Robert C. Whetsell, Appalachian Forest Heritage Area AmeriCorps Rebecca Conway, Pocahontas County High School carpentry students, forest service recreation technician lead Nicole Sattler and seasonal staff Drew Caloccia and Hunter Samples.

Entering the trail or road from Durbin, visitors are greeted with the first sign, “It’s Your History. Two historic pathways await you – it’s your choice!”

The sign continues to explain the project and displays a map of the area.

“You are about to travel through a forest landscape steeped in logging and railroad history,” the sign reads. “Over a century ago, the West Fork was unspoiled and inaccessible. Thick forests of spruce and hemlock reigned supreme. The coming of the railroad and the woodsman’s axe in the early 1900s transformed and reshaped this now-tranquil land.

“While you travel this pathway today, it may be hard to believe that thousands – men, women and children – lived and worked in these woods. The once vibrant and bustling mill towns of the West Fork are now silent ghost towns, whose ruins are slowly being reclaimed by the forest.

“Like the route you are about to embark on, the story of the West Fork has many twists and turns. As you explore its history, you’ll discover the West Fork is not just “their” history – it is instead “your” history to embrace, conserve and protect.

“So come along! Around each bend new discoveries await!”

Flora and fauna abound along the West Fork Trail and forest service road.

Each sign includes a history lesson about the area, and how the trail and road were constructed and how they went from logging trails to recreational trails.

Information includes:

• The West Fork Rail Trail

• Forest Road #44, Who Built It?

• Incline Technology Along the West Fork

• Little River Game Refuge

• Conservation Amidst the Devastation

• Stemwinders and Mountain Railroading

• Life in the Woods, Diverse and Dangerous

• Life in a Mill Town

• Lynn Divide

There are profiles of each town and area which went from forest to small village with homes, stores, schools and churches. Of all the towns, only two remain today – Durbin and Glady.

Durbin was the center of the timber industry and was founded in 1902 by timber speculator John T. McGraw. The town was officially incorporated on June 20, 1906.

The town of Olive was once home to more than 100 men, women and children. Olive was founded in 1905 by brothers Peter L. and Ward F. Brown, of Pennsylvania. They named the town after Ward’s wife.

The brothers’ sawmill was capable of cutting 50,000 board feet of lumber per day. By 1913, the Mountain Lick Lumber Company purchased the mill and the railroad that ran along Mountain Lick Creek.

Operations in Olive ceased in 1920 when the company exhausted the timber supply on the 6,000 acres it owned.

The town of Braucher was split in half by a 500-foot mountain, and used rail incline technology to move lumber and people between the two parts of the town.

The town was founded in 1904 by lumberman Elmer Braucher, of Pennsylvania. Braucher had a store, post office and a dozen houses for workers.

Braucher is the site of the second-oldest known rail incline used for logging in West Virginia, and possibly in the eastern United States. The oldest, built in 1905, was in Beulah, 13 miles north of Braucher.

The town of Burner was a bustling mill town with more than 41 homes, a rail station, general store, hotel and boarding house.

The town was established in 1903 by the Pocahontas Lumber Company and between the years of 1903 and 1915, the mill cut 155 million board feet of spruce and hemlock from its holdings along Little River.

The town of May was located at the confluence of Mill Run and the West Fork. It was founded in 1904 and by 1914, it was gone. While in operation, the band sawmill at May was owned by the Hoover-Dimeling Lumber Company and later Gilfillan, Neill & Company.

In its short 10 years, the mill cut 100 million board feet of lumber – 80 to 85 percent spruce and hemlock – and built an impressive logging railroad eastward along Mill Run.

Photo by Suzanne Stewart
The “It’s Your History” signs along the West Fork Trail are smaller than those on the forest service road, but they contain the same information. The signs were placed close to the trail in order to give hikers easy access to the photos and information.

The Wildell Lumber Company established the town of Wildell in 1904. Wildell had more than 300 residents, as well as a band sawmill, planing mill, company store, rail station and 40 homes for its workers. A church and schoolhouse were added later.
In 1909, Wildell lost its first mill, but grew to become one of the largest mill towns along the West Fork.

By the time it closed in 1915, the Wildell mill had cut 110 million board feet of lumber and shipped tens of thousands of carloads of lumber and timber products by rail.

The town of Beulah was established in 1903 after the completion of the Coal and Iron Railway.

Home to the earliest known rail incline system, Beulah was purchased by the Arlington Lumber Company and operated until 1910 after timber resources had been exhausted.

Evidence of the town and the incline of Beulah remain today, including the original steel cable which is slowly being reclaimed by the forest.

Located just over the county line in Randolph County, the town of Glady sits at the confluence of the East and West Forks of the Glady River.

Four sizable lumber operations in Glady milled timber and shipped lumber by rail between 1901 and 1928.

Those mills contributed nearly 1.5 billion board feet cut in 1909, making West Virginia the third leading state in the nation in hardwood production.

Also highlighted on a sign is the Iron Bridge Run: The Coal & Iron Railway.

While the train tracks have long been removed to form the trail, century-old plate-girder bridges, including one at the Iron Bridge Run and Burner, remain.

The Coal and Iron Railway opened one of the region’s last great virgin forests. The 47-mile line went north through the West Fork and contained two tunnels, giant cuts and bridgework. By it’s completion in 1903, the line was touted as a “stupendous engineering feat.”

With the addition of the signs on the trail and road, the experience of the area has grown from being just a relaxing hike or stroll through a forest, to a fully immersive view of how the past shaped the present and a better understanding of the people who created booming towns in a lush forest.

West Fork trail and road are located in Durbin off of Staunton Parkersburg Turnpike. Going north, turn right off the Turnpike onto Highland Street. On Highland Street, take the first left onto West Fork Road. The trail runs parallel to the road on its left.

Lumberjack Lingo ~ terms of the forest

Above, a photo of a group of Gandy Dancers, aka maintenance workers. The informational signs along West Fork Trail and road are filled with photos of woodhicks, below, at work and play during their time in the old logging towns of and around the county.

“Woodhick” – A woodsman who makes his living felling trees and preparing logs for transport to the mill. Woodhicks lived in company-run lumber camps. Pay rates varied, but axe men and sawyers could respectively make between $1.75 and $2 a day.

“Blowing ‘Er In” – The action of a free-spending logger who, over the course of an evening or weekend, “blows” his entire month’s pay on gambling and drinking.

“Knot Bumper” – A “knot bumper” is a logger who cut limbs from a felled tree before it was bucked by the sawyers. Knot bumpers’ tool of the trade was a double-bit axe or the single-sided pole axe.

A photo of woodhicks wearing “corks” which are work boots with spikes on the bottom for traction, can be seen on a sign along the West Fork Trail and road.

“Corks” –  “Corks” are metal spikes fitted on the bottom of logger’s boots that acted like claws, enabling loggers to walk on slippery logs. A century later, they are still in use.

Cant Hook vs. Peavey – Loggers used the cant hook and peavey to roll or lift logs. These long-handled tools were of similar design and had a curved steel hook to grasp the log. They differed in that a peavey contained a pointed metal spike at the end, while the cant hook had a flat metal tip. Much like a pry bar, the peavey’s spike provided additional leverage, which proved useful in picking through jumbled logs at landings or breaking up log jams on river drives. Get the point?

“Jack Slip” – A “jack slip” is an inclined plane, resembling a large playground slide. It cradles logs with an endless toothed chain, called a “bull chain,” as they are conveyed from the mill pond into the mill. 

“Stemwinder” – A geared logging locomotive, like the Shay locomotive #1. Refers to the similarities between the turning gears and drive shaft of a logging locomotive and the winding mechanism on a pocket watch, known as the stem.

“Gandy Dancer” – A “gandy dancer” is a track construction or maintenance worker on a railroad. The railroad employed track section crews to clear hazards and train wrecks from the track, replace worn rails and rotten crossties and repair damage from washouts.

“Spudder” – A “spudder” is a logger who removes hemlock and chestnut bark from logs using a bladed hand tool known as a “spud.” Tanneries boiled the bark and used the liquid to tan hides in the production of leather.

“Switchback” – A “switchback” is an engineering technique that helps trains gain elevation by zig-zagging tracks up steep slopes. Log trains at May negotiated seven steep switchbacks and 40-foot high trestles to reach timberlands on Little River from Mill Run. Although straight line distance from the summit to Little River was only about a mile, the switchbacks added three miles to the journey.

“Scrip” – A substitute for money that was used to pay employees in remote, cash-poor areas. Scrip was only redeemable by the company that issued it and could be exchanged for cash at a substantial discount. Workers in Wildell often found themselves indebted to the company store.

“Pigs-ear” – A “pigs-ear” was a saloon, especially one where illicit moonshine alcohol was sold. Wildell residents cursed the notorious pigs-ear at Oxley, one mile north of Wildell, for selling “liquid damnation” to its patrons. The frequently-raided saloon mysteriously burned on April 28, 1906.

“Hair Pounder” – A teamster, or a man who drives a team of horses used in skidding logs.

A “Ballhooter,” whose job it was to roll logs down hills that were too steep for horse teams.

“Ballhooter” – Ballhooters roll logs down hills that are too steep for horse teams. They often use tools like the peavey and cant hook to grab and roll logs.

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