While the majority of West Virginia roads are scenic, some of the most inviting are in and near Barbour County. After rambling through the area for several days, I devised a driving tour featuring some of the loveliest roads and most interesting sights in the area. This tour is approximately seventy-five miles long and takes four or five hours, depending on driving speed and "dawdle factor."
Old Mummies and Older Bridges
Start in Philippi, at the Barbour County Historical Museum, home of the Philippi Mummies. Although no one knows their names, they’re undoubtedly Philippi’s most famous residents, granted a peculiar sort of immortality back in 1888 by Graham Hamrick, who used a mummification process he’d invented. It worked extremely well.
After visiting these wizened residents, take a few moments to walk across the lovingly restored Philippi Covered Bridge across from the museum. Then begin the drive by passing through the covered bridge across the Tygart Valley River, heading north on Rt. 119/250 toward Grafton.
Speaking of Mummies…or Mommies
Some ten miles along 119, stop in Webster, a town whose chief claim is its association with Anna Jarvis, the founder of Mother’s Day. Across from the park and tourist information center is the Anna Jarvis House, which has been set aside as a museum. During the Civil War, the house was used as General McClellan’s headquarters. Webster’s a charming little town; however, behind its façade of respectability, it apparently has a darker side. Or at least that’s what this sign infers:
Happily, before 5 p.m. vagrancy is perfectly legal. Bear that in mind when passing through Webster.
The Army Corps of Engineers, at Your Service
Four miles up the road from Webster lies Grafton, featuring one of the largest and oldest concrete dams east of the Mississippi, the Tygart Dam. Built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1938 to control flooding, the lake formed by the dam is now the site of Tygart Lake State Park. The park’s tranquil lakeside cabins are much in demand, and recreational boating on the lake is a popular activity. Dam enthusiasts should follow the signs from Grafton to the state park, located three miles south on County Rd. 9. There’s a Visitors Center overlooking the dam that provides a good view and information. After returning to Grafton, pick up Rt. 50 heading east. A few miles past Evansville, turn south on Rt. 92.
A View of the Valley
Views of the Tygart Valley are the sole attraction on Rt. 92 heading south, but that’s saying a lot. Rt. 92 may not provide much in the way of excitement, but it provides some lovely vistas as the road threads its way through the hills, suddenly opening out to stretches of green valley. The road passes through the towns of Kasson, Nestorville, and Meadowville, each as bucolic as its name implies. Most of the level land in West Virginia lies in bands bordering the rivers. On these narrow strips of flat land, historic barns are framed against a backdrop of undulating hills.
As people first settled in these remote valleys, the barns were often the first structures built. The weathered barns generally sit smack in the middle of fields with absolutely nothing around them, as if posing for a photograph.
Another Civil War First
Approaching Belington on Rt. 92, keep an eye out for historical markers for Camp Belington and Camp Laurel Hill. After the rout of Confederate troops at Philippi, Union troops under General T.A. Morris established a camp at Belington, about two miles from the Confederate camp under General Garnett''s command at Laurel Hill. Confederate troops were massed on two strategic mountains: Rich Mountain and Laurel Hill.
The battles fought in West Virginia did not usually result in many casualties, but were strategically important as they decided which side controlled to key lines of transportation and communication. By driving the Confederates from Rich Mountain and Laurel Hill, Union troops gained control over the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike (modern-day Rt. 250), as well as the B&O Railroad.
In his retreat from Laurel Hill, General Garnett was killed, becoming the first general to die during the Civil War. His troops made a disorderly retreat across the mountains into Virginia, though some remaining Confederate guerillas, or "bushwackers," kept Union troops continually off balance by engaging in a campaign of harassment, striking and then vanishing into the rugged mountain terrain.
In Belington, follow the brown state park sign for Audra State Park, turning right on Rt.11.
Down by the Riverside
There’s no better place to lay down your burdens than at Audra State Park, a riverside gem some eight or nine miles along Rt. 11. Picnic tables and a refreshment stand near the natural swimming hole provide a good opportunity to get out and stretch…or to jump right in, as the case may be. The swimming hole is surrounded by huge flat rocks which deflect the river current and provide a perfect place for sunbathing.
Leaving the park, cross a bridge spanning the Middle Fork River and bear right at the T junction. Just a few miles further, there’s a sign indicating that the Rt. 36 is closed through December 2003. Ignore it and head down this narrow lane that terminates about three miles later at the Carrollton Covered Bridge. This is the second longest covered bridge in West Virginia, after the Philippi Bridge. While the bridge is still used, road construction on the opposite side of the bridge prevents passage through it, and also makes approaching the bridge from Rt. 119 less feasible.
After admiring the bridge, backtrack to Rt. 11, and proceed through little town of Volga, which is followed by the mysteriously named Century. Then comes the even more oddly named Century 2. Shortly after that, Rt. 11 ends back at Rt. 119. At this point, the route has come nearly full circle - a right turn leads back to Philippi. However, there’s one more diversion that I’d recommend before returning.
The Pringle Tree
The Pringle Tree ranks right up there with the Philippi mummies on the odd-ometer, though a bit more imagination is required to fully appreciate it. Turning left on Rt. 119, head south towards Buckhannon. About a mile from Buckhannon, keep a sharp eye out for signs to the Pringle Tree.
Okay, so what’s with the tree? Well, back in 1761, two brothers, John and Samuel Pringle, deserted from the British Army at Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh), making their way southward. After a number of harrowing events and various run-ins with Indians, in 1764 the two men came upon a huge hollow sycamore tree. It provided the perfect hide out, and they spent the next three years living in the tree, hunting and foraging in the surrounding countryside. The interior of the tree measured 11 feet across, a bit cramped, perhaps, but livable. They finally ran out of ammunition and ventured back to civilization, where they learned that the war (and their troubles) were over. However, they had become so enamored of their spot in the wilderness that they led a group back to the area, establishing the first settlement there
The Pringle Tree is long gone, but there’s a dead tree, supposedly descended from the third generation of the original, in its place. Truth to tell, it takes some imagination to summon up an image of what the original tree must have looked like, as the present tree is a skeletal, frail-looking thing. A large white historical plaque marks the tree. However, the road leading to the Pringle Tree tracks along a ridge offering some outstanding views of the peaceful countryside.
The day of my visit, a field of cream-colored draft horses, Belgians by the look of it, swished flies with their stumpy tails as they grazed in a field alongside the road. The hum of bees attracted to a massive clump of blue campanula at the base of the Pringle Tree was audible from yards away. In the park near the tree, a group of children from the New Covenant Church summer camp were playing tag.
"Ah’m it!" proclaimed a freckle-faced boy. "No, AH ayum!" called another. "Ya’ll sha-yur!" admonished a young woman supervising from a seat on the swing set.
Everything in this fold of land pinched between gentle hills seemed benign. No wonder the brothers came back.
Return to Philippi
Back on Rt. 119, it’s a mere mile further south to the bustling city of Buckhannon, but I can’t honestly recommend going there (at least on a driving tour), as the sudden increase in traffic pouring off of Rt. 33 seems like a rude jolt after such pastoral ramblings. Instead, head north on Rt. 119 back to Philippi, a distance of about eighteen miles. Coming into town, stop at the Blue and Gray Park on the near side of the covered bridge and stretch out on the grass or take a stroll along the riverside.
There’s more to see in Philippi, of course, but chances are this is more than enough for one day. Save the rest for tomorrow.