Wild and Wonderful West Virginia
- West Virginia
As a child living for several years in my mother's native state of West Virginia, I discovered that my temporary home was an intriguingly complex place.
Some of our neighbors regarded it as the northernmost of the southern states; others as the southernmost of the northern states. To the east, relatives acted like they were really part of Virginia just across the border; to the west, my cousins living along the Ohio River thought of themselves more as Midwesterners. But they all agreed on one thing: West Virginia was proud, feisty, independent and unique — the only state to be formed out of the American Civil War. To see what it was like in 2015, its 152nd year of statehood, I made a nostalgic trip back to visit my childhood haunts, and places never visited before.
First Stop in Wheeling
The first port of call was Wheeling, the state's first capital and the place where West Virginia became a separate state officially on June 20, 1863. There, I discovered that the western Virginians had been restive for some years before the Civil War. Separated from much of the rest of Virginia by the Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountains, they felt isolated from the rest of the state and overlooked by the government in the far-away state capital Richmond. So, when their mother state decided to secede from the Union to join the Southern Confederacy, they decided it was time for them to secede from Virginia, becoming the USA's 35th state, West Virginia, in 1863.
While in the area, I explored the handsome Oglebay Resort, set on nearly 700 hectares of city-owned parkland and encompassing gardens, 36 holes of golf, fishing and boating lakes, guest cottages, a spa and a museum located in the gracious 1846 mansion. Then, for something completely different, we drove across the Ohio River suspension bridge, which, in the 1800s, had been crossed by thousands of pioneers headed west.
The Wheeling Suspension Bridge in Wheeling, West Virginia, spans the Ohio River. It was built in the mid-1800s.
A Golden Dome and Riverside Attractions
Then, we headed southeast for the more centrally located, present-day state capital, Charleston, its low-rise skyline is dominated by the 89-meter-tall dome (gilded in 23½ carat gold leaf!) of the State Capitol. We headed for drinks and a snack on the terrace of the picturesque Capitol Market before exploring the food and wine shops inside.
However, the area to the southeast and northeast of Charleston is best known to overseas visitors. The mountains soaring up to nearly 1,500 meters at Spruce Knob in the Potomac Highlands region inspired West Virginia's nickname, “The Mountain State.” The mountains are home to popular ski resorts, beautiful state parks, waterfalls and the winding roads that inspired one of the official state anthems, John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads.
The ideal base for both fishing and rafting is Fayetteville, southeast of Charleston and the gateway to the spectacular New River Gorge (which actually dates back at least 65 million years). Falling almost 230 meters in just 80-or-so kilometers, it attracts whitewater rafters, whose accommodation, dining and equipment needs are supplied by area riverside outfitters.
Charleston’s skyline is dominated by the golden dome of the State Capitol.
A Coal Mine and an Elegant Resort
To the south, state-bisecting Interstate 64 leads to Beckley, where you can visit the Tamarack center, which displays and sells a huge variety of West Virginia arts and crafts, and travel more than 450 meters underground in a coal cart at the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine. It then continues on to lovely, 18th-century Lewisburg, where tree-shaded streets lined with tempting art and antique galleries lead to a concert hall built in 1902 by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and, finally, to White Sulphur Springs, home of the world-renowned, 2,630-hectare Greenbrier resort.
A spa since the late 1700s, The Greenbrier has numbered among its guests U.S. presidents, film stars and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. You can play a round of golf on one of its legendary courses, dine in one of its elegant restaurants, and then, for something completely different, tour the formerly top-secret underground bunker built to house the U.S. government in case of a Cold War nuclear attack.
To the north is the former timbering town of Cass, where we hopped on The Cass Scenic Railroad for an exhilarating trip up to Bald Knob. Now, we were in ski country, where you can enjoy the slopes and luxurious accommodation at the family-friendly resorts of Snowshoe and Canaan Valley, a B&B in the former mining town of Davis, which looks like the film set from a Western movie.
Next, came the state's "Eastern Panhandle," nestled against a corner of Maryland and Virginia. At the 18th-century spa town of Berkeley Springs (also known as Bath), we followed the example of the USA’s first president, George Washington, and soaked in the sparkling thermal waters in the 1815 Roman Bath House.
Nearby Shepherdstown, dating back to 1762 and one of the two oldest towns in West Virginia, has delightful, old homes, welcoming shops, good restaurants and several other claims to fame — the USA’s first steamboat made its trial run there on the Potomac River, and it’s the closest town to Antietam, Maryland’s famous Civil War battlefield.
But, possibly, the most-internationally-known town in West Virginia is Harpers Ferry, set on the famous Appalachian Trail in a scenic valley where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet. For it was there that some believe the Civil War, in effect, began. They date it to the night of October 16, 1859, when abolitionist John Brown and his followers raided the local arsenal to provide arms for a slave rebellion. He was caught, tried and executed in nearby Charles Town and history moved on to, among other things, create the state of West Virginia.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2013 edition of Essentially America magazine.