Kanawha State Forest celebrates birthday quietly
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The cost was only $5 per acre. But it was the depths of the depression, and the land was a post-industrial wasteland.
The investment paid off, providing badly needed work for a couple hundred men in the short term and recreation in a lush forest setting for generations far into the future.
On Sept. 21, 1937, the state of West Virginia purchased 6,705 acres of land around Davis Creek for $33,525 for a game reserve.
Seventy-five years later, Kanawha State Forest is a beloved outdoor recreation area with a wide variety of uses.
Staff at the forest will hold a quiet birthday celebration from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. today, Assistant Superintendent Kevin Dials said.
There will be no birthday cake, bands or other fanfare.
"We're just asking people to come out and take a hike and a look around," he said.
Dials suggests people spend at least a half hour in the forest to see its amenities and maybe stop by the main office to sign the large birthday card.
As with all of West Virginia, the land around Davis Creek was untamed wilderness before Europeans settled the area. The earliest recorded history of the forest dates back to 1881, according to "Kanawha State Forest: A Brief History and Description" by Charles N. Carlson.
In that period the land became an industrial area where mines and timber companies operated. The Black Band Iron and Coal Co. operated there in the late 1800s and early 1900s on a 3,500-acre section near the mouth of Davis Creek.
The Anheuser-Busch Brewing Co. owned the coal company, according to Carlson's book. From 1888 to 1907, six different coal mines operated in what would become known as Kanawha State Forest.
Anheuser-Busch also operated a mill that produced staves for beer barrels in the area, Dials said.
The Kanawha and Coal River Railroad was built along Davis Creek in 1892.
"This railroad was the only commercial access into this remote area at that time and was used solely to haul out the coal and timber," Carlson said in his book.
A small town was located a few miles up the road from what is now the forest's Loudendale entrance, Dials said. The town was named Chilton, and about 131 houses were located there in 1907, according to Carlson's book.
"The town had a couple of company stores, two or three churches and schools," Dials said.
Today the campground is located where the town stood more than a century ago.
The mines owned by the Black Band Iron and Coal Co. were closed in 1907, according to Carlson's book. The mines never again operated on that scale in the area.
With the closure of the mines, many Chilton residents moved and the town eventually became nearly deserted.
A flood in 1910 or 1911 washed out many of the railroad bridges spanning Davis Creek, Dials said.
"I'd say they (company officials) thought it wasn't worth rebuilding the bridges, so the railroad closed, too," he said.
The railroad was rebuilt following World War I so workers could remove some of the mining equipment from the area, according to Carlson's research.
In September 1923, Quince Jones purchased the land from the Black Band Iron and Coal Co. He timbered some of the area and also opened a smaller coal mine. The coal was hauled out of the area by truck, according to Carlson.
Jones died in 1933, and in 1936 the title for the 6,705 acres was conveyed to the Kanawha Valley Bank. The state purchased the land a year later.
The land was left in poor condition and Dials referred to it as an "industrial area."
"They made their money here and then they left it," said Carl McLaughlin, a member of the Kanawha Trail Club.
Dials believes most of the town deteriorated once the coal mine closed. However, many of the structures and much of the industrial infrastructure remained.
A concrete foundation for a power plant used to operate a coal mine still can be found behind the forest pool. And although the railroad tracks were scrapped, many of the ties remain to this day.
"This would have been one of those little dead areas in the state," Dials said. "There wasn't much in the way of roads to get up in here."
Some timber, such as oak and chestnut trees, remained, but the forest was sparse.
Then, about a year after the land was purchased, the Civilian Conservation Corps moved in.
A turning point
The CCC, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's attempt to put young men to work during the darkest days of the Great Depression, was to build an outdoor recreation complex in what would become known as Kanawha State Forest in 1938.
Workers constructed a camp where they lived seven days a week while working on projects throughout the region, Dials said.
The site at the mouth of Shrewsbury Hollow was dubbed Camp Kanawha and occupied on April 6, according to Carlson's book.
About 200 young men occupied the camp from 1938 until it was disbanded in 1942, McLaughlin said. Many of the men went off to fight in World War II.
CCC members began to polish what McLaughlin referred to as the "jewel of Kanawha County," transforming it from an industrial wasteland into an outdoor recreation facility used by thousands of people each year.
They removed old coal tipples, industrial equipment and abandoned houses, McLaughlin said. They also built roads and a dam on Davis Creek, Dials said.
Workers built five of the forest's 10 picnic shelters. The iconic CCC-style shelters that can be seen at project sites around the country are made of oak and chestnut harvested from the area as well as rock quarried right on site, Adkins said.
Dials estimated the CCC cleared about 25 miles of the forest's 50 miles of walking trails.
"And they did conservation work here like planting trees, and they may have even stocked game," Dials said.
The dam on Davis Creek created a small lake. Many locals used it as a swimming area. Sand was trucked in and placed along the lake's shoreline to simulate a beach, Adkins said.
"I've seen pictures of the swimming area, and it looks like it was crammed full of people," Dials said.
It was closed in the 1960s after the swimming pool was built, he said. It is now used for fishing and has been named Ellison Pond.
The fishing area is restricted to handicapped individuals and children 10 or younger from the beginning of March to the end of May, Dials said.
"We stock it with trout a couple of times during those months," Adkins said.
Activities for all
The forest increased to 9,302 acres after the purchase of 2,500 acres in 1973. It is also a public hunting area.
"This is the premier outdoor recreation opportunity for the Charleston area," Dials said.
Hikers often head out on the 50 miles of public trails, and bicyclists are seen throughout the forest, Adkins said.
"I'd say the bikers are the largest group of people we have in the park now," he said.
Irish road bowling events are also held there, and a shooting range is popular.
"And we have an archery range, too," Dials said.
The pool should be reopened next spring. It sustained damage during the June 29 derecho.
There also are playground areas.
"This is a family forest," McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin, 65, of Cross Lanes, works with troubled youth for Kanawha Circuit Court.
He brings some of the juveniles to Kanawha State Forest to see what recreational opportunities the area has to offer and to hear Dials speak.
"Kevin (Dials) talks to them about jobs at state parks," McLaughlin said.
The juveniles also take hikes, he said.
Such an introduction is often all it takes to create a forest fan, and that's what officials are hoping will come of the quiet birthday party.
"If anyone spends half an hour here, they'll be coming back," Superintendent Ernest Adkins said.