Watoga Trail Report

Forestry Personnel with plane at Watoga Airfield, CCC Camp Watoga. Circa 1933. PHP002402 Photo courtesy of Preserving Pocahontas

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

The Watoga Airfield Story
Part 1

Many are the visitors to Watoga State Park who never drive beyond the TM Cheek Overlook on the south entrance road or the Picnic Shelter on the north entrance road. I encourage these visitors to continue their explorations starting with the Beaver Creek side of the park. 

On the other side of the mountain, you can visit the Laurel Run Primitive Campground nestled along its namesake stream where native brook trout hide in the shadows of hemlocks. Access to the challenging Kennison Run and South Burnside Trails are located here, as well.

Heading north a few miles on Beaver Creek Road brings you to a very historical part of the park. Turning down the Beaver Creek Campground entrance road, you will pass several buildings that were part of the Civilian Conservation Corps’ Camp Watoga. The long narrow building on the left is one of the original barracks, now used for storage. 

Continuing past the Beaver Creek Campground, the deep forest opens up on the right to expose a large field that seems oddly out of place in a park that is dominated by lush growth and huge trees. This field was thought to be a portion of the Poage Family farm in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Much of this family died during an epidemic and are buried in the cemetery behind the Beaver Creek Chapel. 

This 1,500 foot field sits empty except for a softball backstop tucked away at the extreme north end of the relatively narrow strip of land. It may occur to pilots, and those old enough to remember grass runways, that this must have served as an airfield at one time; and they would be correct in this assumption. It is still considered an emergency runway and occasioned by military helicopters for maneuvers.

A popular origin story of the Watoga Airfield is that one of West Virginia’s governors, William C. Marland* 1953- 1957, was so taken by the beauty of Watoga State Park that he had the airstrip built to land the governor’s plane there during his frequent visits – a romantic notion for sure.  And though the cabin he stayed in, Cabin 17, is stilled called the Governor’s Cabin, the airfield had a much earlier service to aviation.

Henry Burr, now retired after 54 years working at Watoga State Park and a lifetime resident of the Beaver Creek area, remembers seeing improvements made to the airstrip in the mid-1950s. The improvements were no doubt made to accommodate modern aircraft. But the governor’s plane was not the first plane to land there; for that, we have to go back another 20 years.

An open cockpit bi-plane was the first aircraft to touch down on the green grass of the Watoga Airfield in 1933. Such airplanes could take off and land within 700 feet – providing there were no obstacles. That would support the contention that the field was lengthened and improved in the mid-1950s when Governor Marland made regular flights in and out of the Watoga Airfield in modern aircraft requiring a longer airstrip.

Most, if not all, of the earliest flights into Watoga Airfield were associated with the CCC Camp Watoga that operated from 1933 to 1942. Although this area was originally purchased and developed as Watoga State Forest, the decision was made in early 1934 to continue its development as Watoga State Park – voila – the birth of West Virginia’s largest (and best) state park.

Regular flights into the Watoga Airfield diminished in 1957 after Governor Marland’s single term in office. The field did not lie fallow though, at least until the last few decades.  During the 1960s the airfield played host to a car club who held timed races there. The contestants drove roadsters, such as MGs, Fiats, and Audis, through an obstacle course that consisted of pine trees, planted in the airstrip.

The races were curtailed at some point in the early 1970s for unknown reasons. The only other change to the airfield occurred when a softball field was put in during Superintendent Craig Ackerman’s tenure in the late 1970s.  For several years, softball games were played that included both park employees and campers staying in nearby Beaver Creek Campground. And presently the airfield becomes part of the half-marathon and 5K trail races held each August.

As for the future of the Watoga Airfield, there are tentative plans for a playground, horseshoe pits, corn hole boards, and other family-friendly games. These are great ideas for a number of reasons – Watoga needs more activities of this nature, the setting is beautiful, plenty of parking potential, and maybe it’s time that the old airfield has another go at life in Watoga State Park.

Did the Watoga Airfield play a role in bringing World War II to a close? Are the rumors true that the airfield was the location of a bizarre classified military operation? Stay tuned for Part 2 of The Watoga Airfield Story in the next Watoga Trail Report.

Happy Hiking,
Ken Springer

My sincere thanks to the following people for their generous sharing of information and vintage photograph contained within this article: B.J. Gudmundsson, Henry Burr, Mark Mengele and Mark Wylie. 

* Governor William C. Marland was apparently a man of vision. Although many of his ideas were rejected at the time, most of the major proposals, such as Civil Rights, school desegregation and monies to assist poorer parts of West Virginia and health services for coal miners, became law in the decades that followed. After leaving public service his life took a tragic turn: He overcame alcoholism, but was found driving a taxi in Chicago in 1962. Governor Marland died in 1965 at the age of 47.

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