Watoga Trail Report

THIS gravestone WAS found far back in the Pleasant Green Cemetery. Note the single chain-link indicating that the decedent was a freed slave.

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

The African American experience in Pocahontas County

A number of articles have been written about the “Old Town of Watoga,” a phrase that refers to the sawmill town that prospered for more than a decade in the first years of the 20th century. Much can be said about this logging boomtown as its history is fairly well documented.

After the heyday of logging, the population of Watoga began to dwindle until finally, the once lively community fell silent. In 1921 a group of African Americans from Mercer County formed the Watoga Land Association and purchased a large tract of land. This tract of land encompassing the old town of Watoga was to be a new black community.

This was part of a nationwide movement fostered by Marcus Garvey in 1920, with the intention of creating prosperous black communities throughout the country. These communities were often resurrected from ghost towns in which there was already some existing infrastructure, so the near-empty town of Watoga fit the bill quite neatly.

The new town was laid out with streets, building lots, and larger plots of land intended for agricultural use. It was apparently a “flag stop” on the railroad, picking up and dropping off passengers at Watoga.

Although the town never had more than about 30 families, it claimed a post office, schoolhouse and a store run by a gentleman named J.L. Merle.

Curtis Pyles, of Seebert, remembers crossing the Greenbrier River from his family’s farm and walking up the railroad tracks to Watoga when he was just a boy.  For Curtis, this was not too much effort for the joy of spending his pennies and nickels on candy and pop at Mr. Merle’s store.

Due to Watoga’s somewhat inaccessible location, lack of jobs, and land that was not amenable to farming, the town’s population slowly decreased until the mid-1950s when it was once again a ghost town.

Beyond these meager facts, we know very little about what life was like in Watoga during these years. In fact, there is much about the African American experience in Pocahontas County that Ruth Taylor is determined to bring to light over the next year or so, hopefully in time for the Bicentennial. 

Ruth is quick to point out that Pocahontas County has a history that includes several different groups of black folks living here, going all the way back to the days of slavery. Several gravestones in the Pleasant Green Cemetery have a single link of chain attached to the stone, signifying that the decedent was a freed-slave.

It is likely that many freed slaves stayed on in Pocahontas County after emancipation; continuing to work on farms and other available jobs in the area. In the generations that followed, they owned homes and businesses, built schools and churches, and many of their children attended college. 

There are a number of black churches and cemeteries in the county; the Pleasant Green Church was listed in the National Register of Historic Places by the Department of the Interior in 2015. As was the “Colored” school at the intersection of State Route 219 and Seebert Lane.

The Pleasant Green Cemetery is the final resting place of Gordon E. Scott. Mr. Scott was the first African American superintendent in the West Virginia Park System. He served at both Watoga and Droop Mountain Battlefield State Parks.

Pocahontas County was host to the Civilian Conservation Corps’ Camp Loring. This was an African American unit of the CCC and was located near Minnehaha Springs. Cass also had a black population at one time, most of whom were associated with logging and the railroads up in the northern part of our county.

Jodi Burnsworth, Ruth Taylor, and Terry Hackney at Milepost 48 on the Greenbrier River Trail. The old town of Watoga was situated just beyond the milepost. K. Springer photo

As work at the Maryland Lumber Company in Denmar was winding down in 1917, the town became the site of the West Virginia State Colored Tuberculosis Sanitarium. This facility tended to the needs of African Americans with tuberculosis until 1957.

More than 300 patients who succumbed to the dreaded disease are buried in a cemetery on the hospital grounds.

The task that Ruth and I face is to gather as much information as possible about the African American presence in our area. We realize that learning more about the black town of Watoga is going to be a difficult task, there is little to go on.

We may get some help in this endeavor by the efforts of a young local man, John Groves. John is the son of Elwood and Ann Groves and worked at Droop Mountain and the Greenbrier River Trail State Parks for five years before heading off to college.

John is now a senior at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, majoring in history. He will be conducting research and writing an in-depth paper on the old town of Watoga for the capstone class required for history majors. His research may shed more light on life within the African American town of Watoga. We must welcome and encourage the youth of our community to document and preserve the history of this great county.

A group consisting of me, Ruth Taylor, Terry Hackney and Jodi Burnsworth, of Lens Creek Studios,* recently hiked up the Greenbrier River Trail to the site of the town of Watoga.

From the trail, you can see little that would indicate the existence of not one, but two communities that occupied the now overgrown town site.

From the trail heading north, you will catch sight of a large concrete vault a short way past Milepost 48 on the right. Bill McNeel assured me that this was not a bank vault as many believe, but rather the sawmill company’s safe.**

Other than a wood frame two-story house and the foundation of the short-lived kindling factory, there is little to suggest the human enterprise and drama that transpired in this secluded patch of Pocahontas County.

We left our cars and made this enjoyable trek with a goal – one that was soon to be realized. Among the citizens of the black town of Watoga was a famous herbal practitioner, Dr. Cole.

According to stories shared with me by a number of Pocahontas County’s well-informed citizens, Dr. Cole’s remedies drew people from all over the Eastern U.S. in search of cures for a range of maladies. Many came to Watoga by passenger train to be seen by Dr. Cole. 

Unfortunately, his herbs could not help his daughter, Rosia Cole, who died at the tender age of 26. In fact, we do not know the cause of her death at the time of this dispatch. Rosia’s stone is the only modern gravestone in the small cemetery that harbors several other graves, marked only with natural stones. 

Working from the memory of a visit there in February 2011to document the graves, Ruth led us to within a few yards of the graves. Terry nearly tripped over the gravestone which was lying face-down and covered with vegetation. But our mission for that warm and sunny January Sunday was complete, we had re-discovered Rosia Cole’s grave.

I will make sure that this final resting spot is maintained and protected going forward. The words etched into this stone may very well be the only inscriptions left behind by the brave folks who dared to create a town, of and for, their people.

Here’s how you can help us properly document and preserve the heritage of African Americans who once called Pocahontas County home. If you have any literature, letters, bible inscriptions, pictures, or family stories about the African Americans in our county, please contact me at my email listed below. Your contributions will be greatly appreciated and acknowledged. 

Next week on the Watoga Trail Report we will examine how Watoga State Park acquired its name, and exactly what the word “Watoga” means, or maybe not.  

From the mountain trails of Watoga State Park, 
Ken Springer

* Lens Creek Studios, operated by Terry Hackney and Jodi Burnsworth, is an interpretive planning, exhibit design, and fabrication firm. They are currently conducting the interpretive inventory for Watoga State Park.

**He really needs no introduction: Bill McNeel is a local historian, author and an authority on the railroads and logging towns of this area, as well as the source of much of the historical data in this article.

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