Boom Times in Pocahontas
Think of Pocahontas County and one has to be reminded of the forest-covered mountains that dominate the county. Trees, and the products derived from them, have been a major factor in the direction that the history of Pocahontas County has taken.
To the Indians, our forests were a prime hunting ground and the Indians didn’t give up these mountains to the white man without years of struggle.
The early pioneers found the forests both a benefit and a hindrance. The trees supplied material for building and fuel, and the forest and streams were an important source of food. But for farming, the main occupation of our forefathers, the pioneer had to spend many long, hard hours clearing sufficient land for his crops and livestock.
Trees, in the form of lumber, pulpwood, bark for tanning and other products, are also a source of jobs and income.
During the Civil War, men from Pennsylvania and other northern states came through the county as soldiers in the Union armies. Many of these men were in the lumber business as civilians. What they found in Pocahontas and the other West Virginia mountain counties was an almost unbelievable variety of timber – white pine, hemlock, spruce and many types of hardwoods. To their experienced eyes, Pocahontas County was long overdue for the logger and sawmill.
But there was a major hurdle to overcome – an almost total lack of transportation.
In 1870, Pocahontas County was without a railroad and was served only by a few roads of poor quality. However, the timber potential of the area was such that resourceful men turned to the Greenbrier River as a way of bringing some of the timber to market.
With the establishment of the mill of the St. Lawrence Boom and Manufacturing Company at Ronceverte, in adjoining Greenbrier County, in 1883, the first major commercial development of our timber began.
It was the white pine that went first due to its ability to float.
The big log drive down the Greenbrier was an annual event each spring for over 20 years.
White pine areas were Knapps Creek and Sitlington Creek and their tributaries. Every fall and winter, men and beast worked in all kinds of weather to cut the white pine and to haul the logs to the banks of the streams. Then, with the rise in the streams due to early spring rains and the melting of the snow, the logs were sent on their way to the Greenbrier River.
Specially constructed “splash dams” were used to increase the water flow. The annual log drive was underway and the hard work was not over until the logs were safely in the boom at Ronceverte. The men and horses on the drive spent their days in the ice cold water keeping the logs in the river and getting them over the rapids. Often the water level would drop and the drive would have to wait until the rains came and raised the river. During the drive the men slept and ate in “arks” – buildings built on a raft of logs – that followed behind the drive. Besides the white pine, some spruce was taken out down the Greenbrier and on the Williams River.
But the full development of Pocahontas County’s timber resources had to await the arrival of the iron horse. The white pine was only part of the timber available and not even all of it was located so it could be taken out by the river.
The first railroad in the county was not the Chesapeake & Ohio, but a narrow gauge logging line in what is now Seneca State Forest, used to bring white pine logs to Sitlington Creek. The locomotive – a seven ton 0-4-0 saddle-tank engine called “Little Jim” – was hauled from Staunton by oxen.
In 1899, the C&O began the construction of their branch line up the Greenbrier River. It was completed to Marlinton in 1900, to the site of Cass in 1901 and to Durbin in 1902 with a short extension to Winterburn in 1905. The Western Maryland Railroad was built from Elkins and joined the C & O at Durbin giving the County a steel road through its entire length.
One of the main factors for the C&O building its Greenbrier line when it did was the need of the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company to tap the vast resources of spruce timber on the headwaters of the Cheat River. This wood was needed for pulp for the new paper mill at Covington, Virginia.
The mill at Cass was started immediately after the building of the railroad and this operation was by far the biggest lumber job in the county and among the largest in West Virginia. It reached a peak in the 1920s with the main mill at Cass, capable of producing over 100,000 board feet of lumber a day, a pulp mill at Spruce, over 200 miles of railroad, 12 locomotives, numerous logging camps and a work force of over 2,500 people.
Everything about the Cass operation was big, including No. 12, at a little over 200 tons, the biggest Shay engine ever to operate.
The average lumber job in Pocahontas County was much smaller, of course…
But the basic features were all the same – the band mill, the orderly mill town and the not so orderly adjoining “suburbs,” the log camps, the logging railroads, each with its share of wrecks and other operating difficulties, and the hard work in the days of the cross cut saw.
And the men themselves, the wood “hicks,” have become almost legendary with the tales of the log drives down the Greenbrier, the amount of timber they cut, the quantity of food the camp cooks had to dish out, and their Saturday nights on the town.
Then, almost overnight, it was over.
By the late 1920s virtually the entire County had been cut over. There was no more timber to be had. The boom had run its course and the lumbermen went elsewhere to find a new source of timber. The few mills still running in 1930 were soon closed by the effects of the Depression. Cass was the only exception, and it continued to operate until 1960 when that mill also cut its last log.
With the passing of the years, towns that once were full of people and activity have become only names on the map – Wildell, Burner, Winterburn, Harter, Raywood, Nottingham, Watoga, Warntown…
It is not within the scope of this article to discuss the methods used by these lumbermen of the early 1900s. One can’t but wish they had given more thought to the future and used logging practices that would have been of long range economic value to Pocahontas County. But we must judge them by the standards of the era in which they lived and not the more environmentally aware ones of today….
William P. McNeel
June 29, 1978