WV Travel Team: Tall monuments, taller tales
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The quirky nature of some prominent West Virginia monuments is underlined by the occasional question of authenticity.
Generally, the world reserves its effort to create a symbol of a particular civilization to a person or event that actually occurred.
Touring the state brings a traveler face to face with questions — Is the subject real or not? Is the statue who it claims to be? — as well as subjects ranging from monsters to space travel.
Best of all are the monuments important enough to have their own major festival or Hollywood movie.
It’s a challenge to decide whether John Henry or Mothman is the most fictitious.
Mothman may be an implausible monster, but there are numerous people still living and working in Point Pleasant who claim to have seen it.
John Henry has a famous song. Widely known through folk tunes, the steel-driving John Henry was memorialized in 1972 by a larger-than-life bronze statue — 2.5 tons and 8 feet tall, to be precise — in a small park above Big Bend Tunnel in Talcott. John Henry allegedly challenged the railroad’s track-building machine a century earlier. Witnesses claim the competition was fact and that ex-slave John Henry collapsed after beating the machine, never to work again. The naysayers presume the entire tale is machines-take-men’s-jobs propaganda.
The actual tunnel Henry reportedly helped carve from the mountain is 6,500 feet and carried traffic for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway; a twin tunnel was added in 1932 with no legends attached. Two years after erecting the John Henry statue, all rail traffic through Big Bend Tunnel ceased. Talcott’s hometown festival in mid-July includes a parade, fireworks and music performed at the mouth of the tunnel.
Mothman is more problematic since it’s not even human — but it does have a more contemporary public image, including a major Hollywood movie, and an authentic disaster. Artistically, it has a better statue.
In 2003, Point Pleasant erected a locally sculpted 7-foot stainless-steel statue of Mothman complete with wings and glowing red eyes cast by Blenko Glass. If the town established a photo fee, they could probably eliminate taxes. It’s an ongoing photo opportunity in the small square as visitors come from around the world to be photographed with Mothman.
Across the street is the Mothman Museum with a copy of the Death List that includes all the strange deaths linked with Mothman and more than 100 handwritten witness accounts of the sightings. The accounts describe encounters with a giant winged creature in and around Point Pleasant from 1965-68. Witnesses generally agreed that it had red, saucer-shaped eyes. Government-built grass-covered concrete domes used to store explosives — or, later, atomic waste — were reportedly Mothman’s favorite perches.
This being West Virginia, scores of folks came out to try and shoot it. Today, the domes are part of a wildlife station, eerie and overgrown with brush and trees. Organized tours, often with a Mothman witness as a guide, can be arranged.
During the midst of the sightings, on Dec. 15, 1967, the collapse of Point Pleasant’s Silver Bridge and the resulting deaths of 46 people brought the town to the attention of the world.
It was the worst bridge disaster in U.S. history. Soon after the collapse, Mothman disappeared. Did Mothman cause the bridge collapse, or come to warn of it?
The annual Mothman Festival draws thousands in September. So far, no one has been able to book the monster for a return appearance to face questions about the Silver Bridge.
Located in the same town as Mothman and also linked to the Silver Bridge disaster is one of West Virginia’s monuments to its American Indian roots.
Cornstalk was one of the great Shawnee chiefs and leader of the Northwestern Confederacy of Indian tribes. In October 1774, he led nearly 1,000 Shawnee and other warriors to engage an equal number of Virginia militia in a fierce, day-long battle on a thumb of land between the juncture of the Ohio and Kanawha rivers. Hundreds of Indians and Virginians were slaughtered in the hand-to-hand combat. It was the biggest Indian battle to take place on West Virginia soil and turned out to be the end of the Indian wars in West Virginia and the Ohio Valley.
Cornstalk led his men away undefeated, but later was murdered by Americans when he went to warn them of an Indian alliance with the British. Legend has Cornstalk cursing Point Pleasant with his dying words. The collapse of the Silver Bridge within sight of the historic battlefield is linked to his curse.
Today, the 4-acre Tu-Endie-Wei State Park, in Point Pleasant, is dominated by an 86-foot granite obelisk honoring the fallen Virginians and dedicated in 1909. Almost as an afterthought, nearly a decade later a smaller monument was erected to Cornstalk and eventually moved to the park from the courthouse. His bones are in a metal box at the base of the monument. Later the state park placed restrooms nearby — hardly a way to relieve the curse.
Chief Logan of the Mingo tribe is another notable American Indian honored in various sectors of the state. There is a large statue of him deep in Monongahela National Forest at Mingo in Randolph County.
A little farther along the same road is another historic statue which claims to be a rare, clean-shaven, young Robert E. Lee but is most likely one of more than 30 generic Confederate soldier monuments in West Virginia. Logan trumps the supposed Lee, being both clean-shaven and bare-chested.
Of course, we’ll never know if Logan was as “ripped” as the statue makes him.
Before we leave our Indian heritage, mention must be made of a monument that could be billed as John Henry meets Cornstalk. Tucked along a roadside in Calhoun County is a shrine to legendary mountain man and fighter Mike Fink. It commemorates Fink and an unknown Indian, noting: “Killed each other — 1780.”
Another Confederate monument with a debatable story is the impressive one in Monroe County. Anticipating continued growth, in 1901, town fathers of Union placed the 20-foot Monroe County Confederate Monument in an empty field south of town. The Italian marble statue carved in Hinton remains on its native blue limestone base in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by grazing cows.
For more than a century, Devil Anse Hatfield starred in print media as patriarch in America’s most famous feud. Then came Kevin Costner and the History Channel’s award-winning miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys” that broke viewer records.
Fortunately, Devil Anse’s lifesize Italian marble statue in the family cemetery near Sarah Ann is sufficiently impressive for an enduring global superstar.
Another Hatfield monument is somewhat less traditional. Down the road in Matewan, bullet holes in the brick walls of the old Matewan National Bank building are memorialized, marking the deadliest gunfight in American history.
In 1920, Sid Hatfield was chief of police in Matewan. He sided with the miners and locals in a May 19 battle against a coal company and their Baldwin-Felts detectives.
A year later, Hatfield was gunned down by retaliating detectives on the McDowell County Courthouse steps in Welch. Later in the month, miners staged a violent uprising at Blair Mountain. John Sayles captured this bloody chapter in his film “Matewan.”
The Eastern Panhandle has two fascinating monuments to a pair of important early American heroes who were closely connected — George Washington and James Rumsey.
George Washington’s Bathtub in Berkeley Springs State Park memorializes America’s first president and its premier land developer. Washington’s footsteps crisscross the state that was his favorite piece of 18th-century real estate.
He eventually acquired 30,000 acres in “West Augusta,” a common colonial designation for the trans-Allegheny area now known as West Virginia.
The world’s only monument to presidential bathing is appropriately located in Berkeley Springs, where Washington’s journals note several occasions of his traveling there to “take the waters.” Promoters acknowledge the hollow lined with stone and sand that encloses one of the noted springs is a “historic re-enactment” of conditions when Washington first came to bathe in the 1750s.
George Washington’s Bathtub always puts a smile on visitors’ faces and is a hugely popular photo opportunity. A mid-March Washington’s Bathtub Celebration features local history events and $1 shopping.
Washington met James Rumsey, one of America’s earliest and most prolific inventors on a visit to Berkeley Springs. Rumsey was part-owner of a local inn and was working on his steamboat. He later moved to Shepherdstown, where he successfully demonstrated the world’s first steamboat in 1787, more than 20 years before Robert Fulton.
Devotees of Rumsey included Benjamin Franklin and a group of 20th-century Shepherdstown residents that revived Franklin’s 18th-century Rumseian Society. In 1914, the Rumseians erected a sleek Ionic column of granite topped with a globe atop the cliffs along the Potomac to celebrate their hero’s achievements.
Three unusual mid-20th-century monuments celebrate air and space travel, not usually attributes connected to West Virginia. America’s first memorial to an aviator celebrates Weston native Louis Bennett Jr., organizer of the West Virginia Flying Corps, who was shot down during World War I.
The bronze figure on a granite base in Wheeling sports period leather helmet and goggles as well as a surprising full-size pair of wings.
Native son Chuck Yeager was the first man to break the sound barrier in an airplane. His impressive monument is a white-tipped rocket, erect and ready to fire.
An authentic NASA rocket was obtained by Coalwood’s most famous son, Homer Hickam, and placed in a new municipal park. Hickam’s childhood memoirs became a popular book and a hit movie, “October Sky,” making the coal camp and slag pile where he designed his prize-winning rocket a tourist attraction.
An October Sky Rocket Boys Festival was spawned in Coalwood and is now held in Beckley.
The most recent memorial is one of the most compelling. The Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster of 2010 killed 29 men. The disaster led to an inspired black granite monument outside Whitesville. “Faces of the Mine” has silhouettes of coal miners on the mountain ridge with the names but not faces of those who died.
Learn more about the Mountain State’s oddities and wonders in Jeanne Mozier’s popular book “Way Out in West Virginia,” now in an expanded and updated fourth edition. The second printing of “West Virginia Beauty: Familiar and Rare,” by Jeanne Mozier and photographer Steve Shaluta, is scheduled for release later in July. Both books are available from the West Virginia Book Co.