Watoga Trail Report

Mark Mengele clearing brush off of Workman Cemetery with his vintage Dodge Power Wagon in the background. K. Springer photos

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

For some, Watoga State Park is a found gem. Perhaps you were a first-time contestant in the Watoga Mountain Trail Challenge, and your visit to this park was something that moved you to return time after time. 

Or maybe you were just out for a long weekend drive and found yourself on Route 219 in Pocahontas County when you saw the small brown signs that led you to Watoga State Park, and maybe you said to yourself, “Hmmm, sounds interesting.” So you followed the arrows to the park and were thus totally enchanted by its beauty and have been a fan ever since.

For other Watogaphiles, their relationship with the park is more a matter of inheritance. Such is the case with 72-year-old Dave Deck, the camp host for Riverside Campground.

Visiting Watoga State Park has been a Deck family tradition for three generations, starting when Dave was just a child. His family lived near Beckley then, and his father loved camping at the Beaver Creek Campground where they spent many family vacations.

After moving to Florida, the growing Deck family continued to make occasional visits to the park. On one such visit last year, Dave inquired about being a camp host. At the time the slot was filled, but he left his contact information just in case.

It paid off when he got a call from the park superintendent in August stating that the unpaid position unexpectedly opened up and Dave was asked if he could fill the job through October.

In a matter of a few days, Dave and his co-pilot, Sassy, a rescued Chihuahua, were hauling his camper north to Watoga. Dave quickly got to know the other campers, and in doing so, he was able to fulfill one of his duties – making sure that the campground’s facilities are used by registered campers only. He isn’t shy about informing non-campers that the showers, trash receptacles and the dump stations are there solely for the use of the Riverside campers.

Riverside Campground Hosts Dave Deck and Sassy.

The concept of camp hosts has been around for several decades now, starting in the National Parks and U.S. Forest Service campgrounds and spreading to state and municipal park systems. Typically, a camp host is granted a free campsite and electric, and in turn may have duties that include checking in campers, cleaning restrooms and tidying up campsites.

Dave brought a little something extra to his seasonal stay at Watoga. His skills at laying tile have resulted in a whole new look to the showers and restrooms at the lower end of the Riverside Campground. When I visited him recently, he was busy re-tiling the shower stalls.

When asked what he likes most about being a camp host, Dave was quick to reply, “This experience has allowed me to meet people from all over the world.” And as he elaborated on that statement, I learned that Riverside Campground gets people from as far away as Turkey who come to camp at Watoga State Park. 

Dave assured me that he and Sassy would be back next season to spend the summer camping along the Greenbrier River.

Let’s now move from the Riverside Campground to the interior of the park for a visit to the Workman Cemetery. This historic cemetery is part and parcel to the lives of the people who lived in the Workman Cabin, currently being restored.

The Workmans departed the area in 1912, but they left more behind than just the cabin as testimony to their lives. If viewed from high up in the air, the simple log cabin is just the hub for trails that radiate out to springs, meadows, potato patches, the Greenbrier River and points beyond.

There still exists a faint trail that leads to the cemetery from the cabin; and of all the trails, this was undoubtedly the one most associated with grief. And it was at a time in history when death often claimed young lives much more frequently than today. This is evidenced by the many small graves found in the cemetery.

I teamed up with Mark Mengele – a fount of knowledge about Watoga State Park – last week to begin a project of cleaning up the overgrown Workman Cemetery. Completing this will require multiple trips out Ann Bailey Trail to cut back the forest that is rapidly encroaching upon the graves.

We spent a morning just weed-eating the thicket of greenbrier and St. John’s Wort that is now dominating the site. The original boundary of the cemetery has given way to the rapid-growing striped maples. Trees have fallen among the gravestones as well, sometimes knocking them over.

The only modern gravestone in the cemetery is that of Forest S. Workman who died in 1975. The remainder of the 14 or so grave markers are unmarked native stone, but we plan to identify as many as possible with the help of the Workmans and the premier reference for cemeteries in Pocahontas County, “In Loving Memory.”

I encourage you to hike out the Ann Bailey Trail to the tower. It is a beautiful hike on rolling terrain that stays true to a high ridge. Along the way, you can take a short detour down to the Workman Cabin on Jesse’s Cove Trail.*

After returning to the Ann Bailey Trail and continuing toward the tower, you will pass the Workman Cemetery on the left. At the end of the trail, you will come to the Ann Bailey Tower, which was built by the young men of the CCC in the 1930s.

Note: I have purposely avoided the use of the word “discovered” in the first paragraph of this dispatch. I did so because of a pet peeve, of which I will provide an unsolicited explanation.

In the heady financial times of the late 1980s people that were referred to then as yuppies, downgraded the word “discovery” by using it to explain how they came upon any small eating establishment while traveling. Such as, “Tristan and I ‘discovered’ this amazing little restaurant near the Duquesne Incline in Pittsburgh with the most wonderful crème brulee. You really must try it.”

I do find the use of the word “discovered” just a bit pretentious when used in this type of situation. I can’t help but imagine the owners of that restaurant in Pittsburgh falling all over themselves in gratitude to Tristan and Buffy for finally “discovering” their little café that had successfully served crème brulee for more than 20 years before their arrival.

Marie Curie discovered radioactivity and Albert Einstein discovered relativity. Tristan and Buffy just unwittingly stumbled upon a dish of good crème brulee, whatever that it is. 

Someone correctly noted a few years ago that, “If everything is awesome, then nothing is awesome.”

* Warning: Jesse’s Cove Trail should be avoided until we have had a chance to improve the trail. Spring floods have damaged stream crossings, undercut the path, and created massive logjams that are blocking the trail. In addition to these impediments, there are several sections of the trail overgrown with waist-high stinging nettle.

Happy Hiking,
Ken Springer

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