Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

Watoga Lake – The lake named after the park – after first trying out the names Killbuck and Monongaseneka. K. Springer photo

What’s in a Namesake?

The folks who named Cacapon State Park had no doubt as to the name’s source and its meaning. They suffer no cognitive dissonance over there in the Eastern Panhandle about how their park arrived at the name Cacapon.

They state it simply and without hesitation in park literature: “The name Cacapon is of Shawnee origin, and it means medicine waters.”

End of discussion. Case closed.

Not so over here at Watoga State Park. In another 13 years we will be celebrating an entire century of debating the origin of the name of the park and precisely what it means. And to date, there is no consensus answer on the definition of the word “Watoga,” as it was intended here in Pocahontas County.

But one respected historian has uncovered information that points directly to an early 20th century businessman.

Unless a heretofore unknown document with concrete details comes to light, we will likely never know precisely why the word Watoga was used to name a small logging community along the Greenbrier River. Although Bill McNeel makes a great case for exactly who named the town, and we will get to that a little later.

Recording history is not a science in the same sense that mathematics or quantum physics are. Yet all three disciplines conduct systematic and critical searching for facts. Documenting history relies to some extent upon human memories and their accounting of events. Humans can make mistakes, memories are notoriously faulty and humans are often biased.

However, it is sometimes the case that the facts are just not there, so suppositions based upon the available evidence are made – such as events in prehistoric times.

When I was a young park ranger, I stumbled upon a prehistoric mound deep in the woods within the park where I worked. This unusual earthwork is a concentric mound that was later deemed to be a creation of the mound builders. It is composed of two horseshoe-shaped earthworks, one within the other. Standing in the center of the two mounds and looking out through the two openings, one is facing east towards the rising sun.

I did not possess the knowledge nor the qualifications to state who had built this mound or what it represented, so I sent the report off to the Ohio Historical Society. Soon thereafter, several archaeologists and a flock of graduate students came down to the park and spent a couple of months meticulously digging a narrow trench across the middle of the two mounds.

The archaeologists determined that it was a Hopewell (100 BC – 500 AD) mound and that it probably served as a solstice calendar for the people who built it. They made this supposition based upon the fact that they had found several feet of compacted charcoal in the dead center of the structure, indicating that fires were built on this exact spot for many years, possibly even hundreds of years.

And further, if you stand in the center where the fire pit is located and look out through the two openings, you would be perfectly aligned with the rise of the winter solstice sun, hence, they judged it to be a type of solar calendar.

Obviously no one from that group of mound builders is still alive to verify the archaeologist’s explanation of their mound. But, for the time being, it is the best explanation that we have as to who built these mounds and what roles they may have played in this pre-Columbian culture. And given what archaeologists have established from other similar sites, it is a credible assertion until proven otherwise.

That said, my money goes on Bill McNeel’s speculation that the word Watoga was first adopted for the name of the logging town that once existed along the Greenbrier River adjacent to present-day Watoga State Park. That makes perfect sense, and I think that we can all agree on that.

Furthermore:

An article dated July 20, 1985, by Bill McNeel, suggests that Mr. Droney, owner of the J.R. Droney Lumber Company, chose Watoga as the name of the town where he built a sawmill. The use of the word “Watoga” in referring to the town arose in this distinct period of time and in the town’s particular location, so it probably did originate with Mr. Droney.

Yet, we still don’t know what Mr. Droney was thinking when he chose Watoga as the name of the town, nor do we know which of the many meanings of Watoga he had in mind. We do know that the first written reference to Watoga was in a newspaper article dated June 1906. * Just a few months before this article was published, Mr. Droney purchased the land that was to shortly become the town of Watoga.

But that still leaves us with the question of why Mr. Droney named the area Watoga and what the name actually means. Mr. Droney may not have had his eye on history, but he made Watoga a large part of the history of Pocahontas County when he built a sawmill and resultant town here.

The word “Watoga” is no doubt of Native American origin and some sources point to the Cherokee language. Watauga also comes up in literature as a variation of Watoga, which adds to the confusion.

Cherokees had limited experience in West Virginia and had ceded much of their hold on lands in West Virginia in 1768 and 1770. Adopting a Saponi or Delaware name may have been more appropriate as both groups apparently had land claims in southern West Virginia roughly where the town of Watoga was located.

Nevertheless, the Cherokee language defines  Watoga variously as “starry waters,” “land beyond,” “reflection of stars in a limpid stream,” “people of the pines,” and “river of islands.” That last one, “river of islands,” resonates with me for the simple reason that the Greenbrier River does have a lot of islands throughout its length.

More importantly, the section of the river just upstream from the town of Watoga has no less than six islands between Watoga and the bridge at Buckeye. ** It would be easy to imagine Mr. Droney riding the train to Watoga for the first time and thinking to himself, “My, this river sure has a lot of islands; I wonder if there is an Indian word for that?”

Bill McNeel has given us the best theory to date of how the word Watoga came into the lexicon of not just Pocahontas County, but a word recognized by people from all over the world who have visited Watoga State Park. And really, do we need to know any more than that to appreciate our park or the little town that once stood along the banks of the Greenbrier River?

And likewise, Watoga Lake which is situated within the park eventually took its name from the park after first trying out the names Killbuck and Monongaseneka.

As well, developers have also bought into the charm of the word by building nearby Watoga Crossing and Watoga Woods.
The word Watoga gets around, and let’s face it, Watoga is a cool sounding word and easier to spell than Monongahela or Monongaseneka.

I hope I have not beaten a dead horse with this dispatch about a single word – Watoga. But maybe it helps clear up a little bit of the sometimes murky waters of history.

From the mountain trails of Watoga State Park,
Ken Springer
Ken49bon@gmail.com

Once again, a very special thanks to Bill McNeel for his generosity in sharing the history of this wonderful part of the world.

* Pocahontas County Historical Society, July 29, 1985, by William P. McNeel.

** Using Google Earth you can actually fly over the islands that are located just upstream from the old town of Watoga.

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