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First came the springs
then the rafting and skiing
then the lure of the outdoors
then the festivals, then the . . .
  Looking Back

The Springhouse

Berkeley Springs
Berkeley Springs

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Skiing Canaan

Oglebay Park
Oglebay Park

Cheat Mountain Club
Cheat Mountain Club

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1961 map 1967 map
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March 1, 1999

By Therese S. Cox
Daily Mail staff

LIVELY groups of ladies and gentlemen often traveled by entourage in late 1700s Virginia.

They journeyed from Warm Springs to White Sulphur to Sweet Springs and then to other medicinal resorts on the social circuit.

Entire summers were spent sipping the waters of the springs to escape the heat and disease of the lowlands, to mix with their equals and, perhaps, to capture suitable spouses.

Little did these wealthy plantation families realize they would begin the phenomenon known as tourism.

Of course, 200 years later, travel in the state is huge business, rather than an amusement for a very few.

Its small beginnings belie today's wide dependency on visitors. State Division of Tourism officials say tourism is the state's second-largest industry.

"Tourism is the economic jewel of the West Virginia economy," said Gov. Cecil Underwood, during Tourism Day at the Legislature Feb. 9. "It gets bigger every year."

All this hubbub over leisure time activities had to start somewhere.

A look at the mineral springs culture of the late 18th century provides the first written glimpse of tourism in what was to become West Virginia.


Actually, visitors were recorded in 1748 flocking to what became the town of Bath, and later Berkeley Springs, to relieve their chronic rheumatism.

Spa enthusiasts generally agree that Bath was the country's first spa.

Later, a resort tour included southern stops at Sweet Springs, Salt Sulphur Springs, Red Sulphur Springs, Blue Sulphur Springs and Capon Springs during the July to early September season, according to "Springs of West Virginia," by Jane S. McColloch.

But traveling wasn't easy.

"It was hard sledding through here in the 1770s and 1780s," said Robert Conte, historian at The Greenbrier.

Little more than Indian trails marked the overland routes. The key was to travel by water as much as possible, he said. Thus, the James River and Kanawha Turnpike, which connected rivers, became popular.

Fortunately, the rough byway also meandered right past the cottages that surrounded the springs of sulphur water, ushering the likes of statesman Henry Clay, President James Monroe and a slew of other American presidents to Greenbrier County.

"It was one of the earliest tourism areas in America," Conte said. "When people came up, they routinely went to three or four resorts."

The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad finally arrived in 1869, across the turnpike from the new Grand Central Hotel, The Greenbrier's predecessor.

And railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington, for whom the city of Huntington was named, used it. He and other distinguished visitors chose White Sulphur Springs for their getaways.

Passenger service guaranteed success for the legendary spa, which came to be called The Old White Hotel. Since the railroad opened up the area, The Greenbrier has represented a genteel destination on West Virginia's travelogue.

"It has adapted from summer to year-round and absorbed golf and tennis," Conte said.

And the spa aspect again is growing.

Rather than rest and relax, people now want to pack in as many activities as possible, he said. And, ironically, the resort's current attempt to establish a casino is neither radical nor new.

"For most of our history, there was gambling," Conte said. "But in the 1950s and 1960s, it was off-property. For probably 100 years it was right on the grounds. Everybody knew the reason we had all those luxury limos was to go gambling."

A rush from the rapids

The same year Collis Huntington enjoyed the sulphur springs, he traveled the New River, investigating another proposed route for his railroad.

He hired James R. Dempsey of Fayette County, along with five others, to transport his party in a flat-bottomed bateau boat downstream from near Hinton to Hawks Nest. It was the first recorded trip on the river.

Dave Arnold, president of Class VI River Runners, said because of this, the story of whitewater rafting reaches further back than many realize.


"Jon Dragan really was the first one who made it a successful business," said Arnold, who also is a member of the state Tourism Commission and chairman of the West Virginia Hospitality & Travel Association. "But many ran the river commercially in the early 1800s."

Dragan, considered to be the father of commercial whitewater rafting, led his first chartered trip from Prince to Fayette Station in 1968.

But a decade before that, Bob Morgan considered -- and rejected -- the notion to build a business on the river. Without four-lane roads, visitors from large East Coast cities would have to drive as many as 10 hours to find Fayette County.

Morgan, who later was to rue his decision, now is one of the nation's largest canoe outfitters, Arnold said.

"The interstate system is absolutely critical," he said. "It is the defining reason why our industry has grown."

Dragan, meanwhile, took both physical and economic risks to launch a charter company on an unpredictable river. Even if paddling enthusiasts could get to the launch sites, they had to use hard fiberglass or metal boats and wooden paddles.

Three decades later, 38 whitewater outfitters are licensed in the state. They use computers and radios and record the adventures by video and photograph. Trained chefs supply gourmet meals.

While enthusiasts paddle down the Cheat, Tygart, Gauley and Shenandoah rivers, the New remains the most requested.

Today, the town of Fayetteville has reinvented itself. Visitors also are attracted by the excellent rock climbing, horseback riding and hiking. Art galleries, gift shops and restaurants like the Sedona Grill help support the 100,000 visitors who flock to the town during rafting season.

"My company alone has 20 to 25 spinoff businesses," Arnold said. "I've seen amazing changes in the last couple of years."

Lure of the landscape

Occasional tourist parties visited western Virginia and West Virginia in the 1800s and early 1900s searching for elk hunting, brook trout fishing and other outdoor adventures.

An exclusive men's sporting club in Cheat Bridge catered to some of the wealthiest. The massive, hand-hewn spruce log structure for the Cheat Mountain Club was built in 1887 on the banks of Shavers Fork high on a Randolph County ridge.

Most prominent in the club's guest book are the signatures of Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford, who arrived in 1918 in their new automobiles.

Arnold, a devotee of tourism history, suggests the trip was a mere publicity stunt.

"They were saying vehicles could be used for recreation," Arnold said. "It was the start of car touring -- no different than what the state does today when they bring writers in from New York to Canaan."

In 1927, the state Department of Agriculture sought to capitalize on the growing number of automobiles in the United States. It published "West Virginia by Rail and Trail," a 52-page travel guide that outlined each area of the state with maps and suggestions for sight-seeing.

"West Virginia! away from the heat and turmoil; beyond the reach of floods or devastating storms," read the introduction. "Breathe deep of her mountain air. Enjoy her clear sunshiny days and her cool, refreshing nights. Feast your eyes on her never-ending panoramas of forest and field, mountain and plain. Marvel at Nature's prodigality, unbelievable wealth below and matchless beauty above. Meet her hospitable people, blending the best of the North, the South, the East, the West."

About the same time, the groundwork was being laid for West Virginia's most famous municipal park, located in the Northern Panhandle.

Just before the Great Depression paralyzed the nation, a farsighted philanthropist willed 700 acres of "splendid drives, magnificent shade trees, beautiful gardens, lawns and rolling meadows" to the people of Wheeling.

Earl Oglebay's generous gift became part of the just-founded Wheeling Park Commission. Its members already had transformed a neglected private beer garden/amusement park into a beautiful park off National Road.

W.E. Stone, a founder of Stone & Thomas, and other donors backed the commission's initial efforts.

The National Recreation and Park Association drew up the first master plan for Oglebay, cementing what would become the park's acclaimed reputation as one of the finest -- and the only self-sustaining -- parks in the country.


Randy Worls, chief executive officer of the commission since 1972, said the park attracted thousands of tourists from northern West Virginia and northern Ohio.

"The thing that changed the complexion of the park system was when we went into the lodge operation in the middle '50s," said Worls, who started working at Oglebay at age 15 retrieving golf balls at the driving range.

When the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund began to distribute grants for park improvement, Wheeling was the first community in the state to participate. Because of the park trust fund, established in 1945, officials had the reserves to match the grants, Worls said.

What resulted were Speidel Golf Course, the Good Zoo, tennis courts, trails and a swimming pool and skating complex at Oglebay's sister facility, Wheeling Park.

Oglebay's largest tourism draw is its Festival of Lights. Some 3,000 tour buses help bring 1 million visitors a year to the festival.

Today, Oglebay employs 1,000 and has 45 separate recreation facilities. Its annual budget is close to $20 million, larger than that of the entire city of Wheeling.

Just after Oglebay came into being, state officials acquired the first tract of land signifying the establishment of the state parks system. That first purchase was 125 acres at Droop Mountain, according to "Where People and Nature Meet, A History of the West Virginia State Parks."

But it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt's answer to the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps, that really gave birth in the early 1930s to what became the state's outstanding system of parks, forests and historic and wildlife areas.

Today, state parks operate a $27 million budget, said Ken Caplinger, the state's deputy chief of parks and recreation. And they generate $105 million in income a year, studies have shown.

"We have been the cornerstone of the tourism industry," said Cordie Hudkins, the state parks and recreation chief.

Downhill skiing heads up

Skiing in West Virginia got a much later start.

In 1955, University of Virginia law student Bob Barton launched the first commercial ski area south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

He had discovered Cabin Mountain in Canaan Valley, the same general area where alpine skiers from Washington, D.C., had been playing since 1950.

Named Weiss Knob, it is the site of today's Canaan Valley Ski Resort.

Ten years later, too much of a good thing forced Barton, known as the "grandfather of West Virginia skiing," to close his ski area for good.

Between Thanksgiving 1959 and May 1960, just after Burton debuted the state's first snow making equipment, 452 inches of natural snow fell in Canaan, burying the machine until April.

Nature overcame the business operation and Burton shut down.

The area was not to be skied commercially again for more than a decade, when it opened in 1972 as Canaan Valley, the state's first major ski area.

The state's second commercial ski resort opened in 1958 at Bald Knob, near today's Winterplace Ski Resort. Developer John McKay sold stock and invested $250,000 in the resort. It closed three winters later.

"There just weren't enough people then who knew how to ski," McKay said later in a published account. "We were probably 15 to 20 years premature."

In 1974, two years after Canaan Valley opened, Thomas "Doc" Brigham welcomed skiers to the new Snowshoe Mountain Resort, featuring an upside-down design with lodges and amenities at the top of the mountain.

Brigham, a dentist and ski fanatic, already had developed Sugar and Beech Mountain resorts in North Carolina.

With 200 inches of annual snowfall and an elevation 500 feet higher than any ski area in New England, Pocahontas County had what it took, Brigham reasoned.

Randy Johnson, now editor of United Airlines magazine "Hemispheres," was at Snowshoe on opening day in December 1974 when nine slopes and three chairlifts served skiers.

"I found myself on a wind-whipped mountain top," Johnson wrote in the 1998-1999 anniversary issue of Snowshoe Mountain Guide.

"Precious few snow guns were spritzing barely 30 acres of skiable terrain. Spruce shivered in savage gusts. My wool-bedecked buddies and I, all college students from Richmond, Va., looked decidedly out of place among the ski crowd in the newly opened Shavers Center Lodge."

Waking the next morning in a crude long cabin to a cup of steaming hot chocolate, Johnson stepped outside and wandered through the woods to find a knot of skiers standing behind a rope, blocking the slope.

Apparently believing Johnson and his group were resort employees, a skier asked if he could ski down early and wait for the lift to start.

"We don't care," Johnson's friend muttered.

"Only as the crowd skied away did we realize that we'd inadvertently opened the resort," Johnson wrote.

Since Intrawest purchased Snowshoe Mountain in 1995 from its Japanese owners, the Canadian company has invested nearly $60 million in snow-making equipment, lodges, enlargement of the reservoir and other improvements.

With the addition of nearby Silver Creek, skiers today can choose from 56 slopes and 11 lifts, two of which are high-speed quads, and 22 restaurants and pubs. The resort employs 400 year-round and as many as 1,200 at the height of the season.

The whole operation generates $30 million a year, said spokesman Joe Stevens.

Together, West Virginia's four ski resorts, including Timberline in Canaan Valley and Winterplace host more than 775,000 skiers a year.

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