Zack Harold

freelance journalist

America has a new national park but not all the locals are happy about it

This story was originally published in The Guardian on May 12, 2021.

The New River has spent millions of years carving a bucolic gorge in West Virginia. It is now home to one of the most biodiverse forests on the continent. And while humans have tracked prey along its jagged cliffs for thousands of years, now most people come to the gorge to find adventure.

Its sandstone cliffs make for world-class rock climbing. The whitewater rapids in the river below provide some of the wildest rafting on the east coast. Trails carve around the gorge’s hillsides, delivering hikers and bikers to some of West Virginia’s most scenic vistas.

This natural playground was something of a loosely kept secret for many years. But now, the secret is fully out. On 27 December 2020, the river became the New River Gorge national park and preserve, the United States’ newest national park. It is to the delight of many – but not all.

Locals are worried the area is not ready for the national spotlight. They say there simply aren’t enough amenities in the park or its surrounding communities to support the flood of visitors that will come, and the park does not have the money to fix these problems.

“There’s been so little thought put into this, it’s just kind of bizarre,” said Gene Kistler, co-owner of the outfitter Water Stone Outdoors in Fayetteville, West Virginia.

Click here to read the rest.

A Whole Different World

This story was originally published in the August 2017 issue of Wonderful West Virginia.

The rocky spine of Seneca Rocks. The Glade Creek Grist Mill at Babcock State Park. The gleaming Capitol dome set against a kelly green mountainside. The New River Gorge Bridge, as seen from the rocky outcrop at the end of the Long Point Trail.

No pictures are necessary to conjure these images in the mind of a well-traveled West Virginian, and for good reason. They’re gorgeous. Unforgettable.

They are also inescapable, emblazoned on countless coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, and mousepads.

It’s only natural to crave a view of our scenic state that hasn’t already been photographed to death. So, imagine a valley where a river once ran, with rock formations as big as houses and rock faces stretching to 50 and 100 feet, populated by animal life few people have seen in its natural habitat.

This place exists, and anyone can visit. You just have to find someone who will take you beneath the surface of Summersville Lake.

Diving the Dam

Danny Martin has been diving the lake since 1996, when he agreed to trade work on some jet skis for scuba certification classes. “I said, ‘What the heck, I’ll try it. If I like it, great. If I don’t, they’ll just have to pay me.’ I loved it.” He kept going back for training until he was certified to teach others how to dive. “I enjoyed it so much, I wanted other people to have the same experience,” he says.

Now, with more than two decades of diving under his weight belt, Martin knows the lake as well as anyone and can show his students all the most
interesting spots. Long Point is probably the most popular destination. Once the dive boat moors at this often-photographed peninsula, students have
the choice of heading off in one direction to explore cliffs, swimming another way to check out huge rock formations, or kicking their way through one of the multiple swim-throughs that run beneath Long Point.

Another popular diving spot is Bubble’s Cave. It’s not actually a cave, but an undercut in the rock that created an air bubble. Divers can swim up, fill the dome with fresh air from their regulators, and surface inside the bubble for a quick chat. Martin also takes divers to Waterfall Cove, where the bottom of the lake slopes off from the shore. It’s not uncommon to find a wristwatch lost by one of the scofflaws who risk a $5,000 fine to jump from the cliffs above.

But Martin’s favorite place to dive is the face of Summersville Dam itself. It’s not too scenic—”what you see above water is pretty much what you see below water,” he says—but it’s a great place to come nose-to-nose with a catfish or bass. “You just feel so free. It’s a whole different world.”

“A Good Deal of Dynamite”

The magic of Summersville Lake lies in its history. Before the reservoir was West Virginia’s largest body of standing water, it was a tangle of hollows hemmed by ancient rock faces.

When Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1938 as part of a raft of bills meant to loosen the grip of the Great Depression, the legislation included $48.5 million for the construction of the dam on the Gauley River in Nicholas County.

Construction would not begin for more than two decades as land agents bought up property for the project, including the entire communities of Gad and Sparks. Workers finally broke ground in February 1960. The dam took six years to complete.

In September 1966, President and First Lady Lyndon B. and Lady Bird Johnson came to Summersville for the dedication. “As we look out at this magnificent new dam and reservoir to our backs,” the president said, “I have renewed hope that still other resources—the power of science and
the determination of man—will, along with a little prayer and a good deal of dynamite, empower us to quench the thirst of generations to come.”

Boaters were on the water almost as soon as the lake was filled. The lake became an even more popular hangout with the opening of campgrounds and the beach. But not everyone was content to remain on the surface.

When State Police Sergeant Robert Adams transferred to the Summersville detachment in the early 1970s, it didn’t take him long to break out his scuba gear. “He could not believe what he saw,” says Mark Allen, who later heard Adams recall the experience.

Adams saw that the rock formations jutting above the water also continued deep below, providing a diver with lots of nooks and crannies to explore and aquatic life plenty of places to live. He also found that, because the shores of the lake were surrounded by rock cliffs and not sand or dirt, the wave action near the shores did not muddy the water. The underwater visibility, on good days, stretched to 20 feet and beyond. And because the dam was constantly pulling the coldest water from the bottom of the lake, the lake maintained a comfortable temperature.

The Army Corps of Engineers might have intended to build a flood control dam but, Adams discovered, it inadvertently ended up creating a scuba diver’s playground.

Adams sensed a business opportunity and, while still working as a state trooper, opened “Sarge’s Dive Shop” in a garage on U.S. Route 119. He and his sons began offering classes and outfitting fellow divers.

The Little Bahamas
Allen showed up at Sarge’s in 1979. Then 24 years old, he’d been obsessed with scuba diving since he was in seventh grade. He would rush home from school to catch reruns of Sea Hunt, which starred Lloyd Bridges as a scuba diving, crime fighting former U.S. Navy frogman.

There was nowhere to learn to dive in Allen’s native Moorefield, however, and his parents weren’t crazy about the idea anyway. But by 1979, Allen was teaching high school science at Midland Trail High School, just a 20-minute drive from Summersville. He took diving classes from a guy in Oak Hill named Cooter. On the day he completed his certification, Allen drove straight to Sarge’s to buy a set of diving gear. He kept taking classes until he was a master diver and began teaching classes and working at Sarge’s shop over the summers.

The dive shop eventually moved from the garage to a spot near the lake marina. Allen and his brother Eric bought the place in 1990 when Adams retired. Since then they have welcomed divers from all over the United States, who come to the lake to see why Skin Diver magazine once dubbed Summersville “the Little Bahamas of the East.”

Mike Nadler started going to the lake regularly after he opened Divehards International, his Pittsburgh-based diving instruction company. “It’s a little hike, but well worth my time.”

He says his students appreciate the wealth of hotel, camping, and dining options in the area. But the lake is the main attraction. “The biggest thing for me is, it’s warm and relatively good visibility,” Nadler says. The variety of depths available also make it a great place to safely train beginning divers.

If divers want lots of visibility, it’s best to avoid the lake right after it fills up
to its summer pool level in May. By mid-June things have cleared up a bit, and the conditions persist through August, when the Army Corps of Engineers begins drawing the lake down for Gauley Season.

There’s only one downside. “It’s sort of hard to explain why you don’t start your diving earlier,” he says. Since Summersville Lake is a flood control dam—filled to 300 feet each spring and drawn down to about 230 feet each fall—conditions aren’t right for diving until around mid-June, and scuba diving trips have to stop around the beginning of September.

It’s just part of doing business for Nadler, but he says it sometimes leads to confused calls from customers. “What do you mean they’re filling the lake?”

No Stone Unturned

This story originally appeared on the October 2017 issue of Wonderful West Virginia.

Not much remains of the ancient stone walls on Mount Carbon except some piles of rock and lots of questions.

This is a mystery story, but not the kind with private detectives or jewel heists or purloined letters. This is something deeper, older, stranger.

Along the Kanawha River, on a steep hillside above the tiny community of Mount Carbon, loom the remains of ancient stone walls. No one knows who built them. No one knows how old they are, although they are certainly very old. No one knows why they were built.

Dr. John Rutherford stands beside Wall 3 in 1961 during one of the many expeditions to Mount Carbon in western Fayette County. Courtesy of The Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex.

The investigation into this mystery has been underway for well over 100 years. So far, it has yielded little result. The answers, for reasons this article will soon reveal, are probably lost to time. Yet generation after generation of detectives have taken on the case—and the inquiry continues even to this day.

Dark and Profound

The first written mention of the Mount Carbon walls dates to 1876, in George W. Atkinson’s A History of Kanawha County. The author talked with locals but did not personally visit the site, and it shows. Atkinson describes the construction as a continuous three-and-a-half-mile wall running from Armstrong Creek on the mountain’s west side to Loup Creek on its east—even though subsequent research has shown the walls were likely never connected.

The first detailed study did not occur until October 1897 when Dr. John P. Hale—a Kanawha County salt and ferryboat magnate, Confederate Army surgeon, banker, and historian—hired a team of surveyors to investigate the walls.

His report, compiled in the 1898 pamphlet Some Local Archaeology, provides a much different image of the ancient stoneworks from what earlier writers cooked up. Instead of tall fortifications, Hale describes four separate windrows of stones “piled up irregularly and loosely.”

In addition to mapping out the walls, Hale’s expedition also searched for artifacts that might offer clues about their provenance. The team found no evidence of burials, pottery, tools, or other proof of human habitation. “This examination … unfortunately gives us no clue which might lead to the history of (the walls’) origin and use,” he wrote. “These, as heretofore, are shrouded in mystery dark and profound.”

Studies of the walls continued into the 20th century. John Inghram and Sigfus Olafson of the West Virginia Archaeological Society produced a detailed report about the walls and previous explorations of the area. They describe five windrows scattered hundreds of yards apart on the hillsides above Mount Carbon. Although the structures were all built in a similar curved shape, they came in varying sizes: Wall 1, for instance, was only about 2 feet high, 20 feet wide, and a few hundred feet long, while Wall 3 was significantly larger at 25 feet wide, 4 feet tall, and longer than two football fields.

Inghram and Olafson’s report also mentions rumors of a sixth wall segment, although “detailed data on this structure are not available.” “It is possible that there are additional features of this site farther south, but the mountain top has only been explored in detail five or six miles from the river. The ridge however winds south for a considerable distance,” the report states.

In the summer of 1958, University of Georgia archaeologist James Kellar spent six weeks on Mount Carbon as part of an expedition sponsored by his institution and the West Virginia Archaeological Society.

Heavy rains had turned the mountain into a “lush entanglement of nettles, greenbrier, sassafras, and other saplings,” Kellar wrote. He had to bushwhack through the thicket with a machete just to reach the walls, so he made camp on the hillside to avoid a treacherous daily commute. The primitive accommodations required “the breaking of a few habits of personal hygiene,” he admitted, but allowed his work “a degree of efficiency not obtainable otherwise.”

During his month and a half on the mountain, Kellar excavated three purported stone mounds, one of which turned out to be a cleverly constructed moonshiner’s hangout. He searched for artifacts in 11 areas with high concentrations of flint but found only one relic of consequence: a scraping tool.

Kellar also deconstructed a segment of the largest of the walls, dubbed Wall 3, which was constructed of “many tons of slab and some blocks of black flint.” He disassembled the wall in an eight-foot trench, going all the way down to the topsoil, unpacking stones that sometimes weighed over a hundred pounds. He discovered the rocks were laid in no apparent order—the builders, whoever they were, set some vertically, others horizontally, and some tipped at an angle.

The excavation must have been back-breaking, shirt-wringing work, especially in the humid West Virginia summertime. And to make matters worse, Kellar didn’t find anything. He left Mount Carbon with some guesses about the builders and their motives but conceded, with apparent frustration, the structures’ function and age were both “unknowable.” Just like Hale six decades earlier, Kellar went home with lots of questions and not many answers.

“Every archaeological excavation has involved an element of change, but it rarely happens that the results are negative in their entirety,” he wrote. “However, this was the case at Mount Carbon.”

Educated Guesses

Despite the lack of historical evidence, researchers have been able to make some educated guesses about the walls. Olafson hypothesized they might date to the Archaic period, 8,000 to 2,000 B.C., given the design of the flint tools found in the area. Kellar meanwhile, dismissed the flint artifacts, given the material’s widespread use. He suggested that, since the Mount Carbon walls were similar to the earthen-walled hilltops in the Ohio Valley built by people of the Middle Woodland era—200 B.C. to 500 A.D.—the structures might date from that era.

Around the time of Kellar’s report, West Virginia state archaeologist Edward McMichael released his own observations of the site and proposed the Adena people as likely suspects. He says that group, which inhabited the valley from 800 B.C. to the first century A.D., was the only one with sufficient population and social organization to carry out such a large-scale project. McMichael admits, however, that “all major prehistoric cultures could be advanced as responsible for the walls, save the Paleo-Indians.”

Archaeologists have some guesses about the purpose of the walls, too. Atkinson, in his falsehood-filled report, surmised the walls were used as animal pens. Others suggested they might have been used for military purposes. But researchers quickly dismissed these theories. The walls, even if continuous, would not keep an army out nor keep game in,” Hale wrote in 1898. Lacking any other explanation, Kellar and most subsequent researchers have concluded the walls must have been used for ceremonial purposes.

This is, likely, as close as we will ever come to the truth about the Mount Carbon walls. A dozen years after Kellar’s summer expedition, walls 3, 4, and 5 were destroyed by strip mining. State archaeologists wrote to the Hawks Nest Mining Company, which had the property at the time, asking that the walls be protected. The company agreed. But workers—who were under the false impression the walls were tall, conspicuous structures instead of loose piles of stone—ended up bulldozing them anyway. “It was a lack of information on our part,” Gordon Billheimer, vice president of the mining company, told the Sunday Gazette-Mail at the time. “Nobody wants to deliberately destroy anything like this.”

It’s impossible to know what clues might have been lost when the machines erased the stoneworks from the landscape. But not all was lost.

An Ongoing Search

In early April 1992, West Virginia Archaeology Society members Orville Thomas and David Martin went looking for what might remain of the walls. Both men had been part of a similar, unsuccessful expedition a few weeks earlier with other WVAS members. But then Thomas found a different map of the area and decided to try again. He invited Martin, who quickly agreed. “It was one of the old but unsolved mysteries of West Virginia that I could still check out,” he says.

The men climbed into Martin’s Nissan Stanza, followed West Virginia Route 61’s curving yellow lines to Mount Carbon, and wound their way back onto the mountain with the help of a logging road. The duo looked for remains of Wall 1 but never found anything. Since this structure ran parallel with the ridge, Martin figures the rocks probably washed down the hillside over time.

But after some searching, they came across the remains of Wall 2. The bulldozers that carved the access road had bisected the structure where it crossed the ridge, but the sections trailing down the slopes on either side remained intact.

Martin chronicled the event with a Hi8 camcorder. “There’s so much underbrush, it’s hard to see through it,” he says. Still, the wobbly, grainy footage shows Thomas in red ballcap and light blue shirt standing atop a long, low pile of rocks trailing down the hillside.

Not much has changed in the intervening quarter-century. Writer Catherine Moore hiked up Mount Carbon in spring 2017 as part of her research for an essay about the walls. “It’s maybe the hardest hike I’ve ever made in my life,” she says. She fought through snarls of briars, just as Kellar did back in 1958. By the time she reached the ridge, she didn’t have energy or daylight to conduct a thorough investigation. She was able to find Wall 2, however, just as Thomas and Martin last saw it.

Moore has been interested in the walls for years. “It’s hard to pinpoint when I first heard about them. I’m a local history junkie, so it was probably in one of those obscure local history books I often pick up,” she says. “I was fascinated by this idea that there was something as ancient as these walls in the county where I live.”

The essay, to be published in 2019 as part of a collection of Moore’s work, will deal with the history of the walls as well as the lack of information about them. “I think Mount Carbon has been discounted and ignored by archaeological communities,” she says.

She’s not dissuaded by her predecessors’ lack of success. “I think we shouldn’t allow that seductive air of mystery to keep us from really investigating the walls themselves and thinking about the people who built them.”

And so, the investigation continues.

Blue, but not the Bayou

This story was originally published in the February 2018 issue of Wonderful West Virginia.

On June 14, 2017, smartphones around the world buzzed with the arrival of a new video from the Brave Wilderness YouTube channel.

The 10-minute documentary carried a clickprovoking title: “NEW SPECIES FOUND?! Rare Blue Crayfish!” It opens with host Coyote Peterson hiking down a gravel road in Durbin, Pocahontas County, with herpetologist Tim Brust.

Brust, who completed his master’s degree at Marshall University, had been hired to serve as the Brave Wilderness team’s guide in West Virginia. The crew was initially interested in finding a hellbender, one of those giant salamanders that slither along in West Virginia’s streambeds. “Apparently what gets people excited on YouTube is something creepy, crawly, and colorful,” Brust says.

But the production crew couldn’t come to West Virginia for just one slimy salamander. Before they arrived, they asked Brust to find additional critters to film. After talking with some fellow biologists, he decided on cave salamanders and blue crayfish and began scouting spots for filming. That’s how he found that gravel road in Durbin. “I was trying to get them an easy access place so we could bring the cameras in,” he says.

It was also ideal because the road runs along the base of a hill with a muddy seep at the bottom. Unlike other crayfish, which live in moving water, blue crayfish live in burrows they dig in the muddy soil. Brust figured this road would be the perfect place to find crayfish but, when he visited the gravel road two weeks before filming, he didn’t have any luck. “I told them that was the one species I was worried about finding.”

Then came the day of the shoot. The video shows Peterson flipping two rocks over before digging his hand into the muddy ground and pulling out a crayfish, but that’s just a little television magic. “It took us about an hour and a half to find that one,” Brust says.

When they finally uncovered a blue crayfish, Peterson couldn’t have been happier. “I can’t believe it. It’s as blue as the sky is,” he remarks to the camera. Brust says that disbelief was genuine—the crew did not expect the crayfish’s coloring to be so bold in real life. “In the pictures, it looks photoshopped,” he says.

After the filming ended, Brust took the crayfish Peterson found, put it in a container with some water, and shipped it off to West Liberty University professor and crayfish expert Zac Loughman. It turns out Peterson’s video, while good entertainment, is a little misleading. The crayfish he dug up isn’t really a new find. Scientists have long known about it—the little creature just hasn’t been officially named.

A Crayfish with no Name

You’ll find four varieties of blue crayfish mucking around in West Virginia. “Blue shows up frequently in crayfish, but no place has as many blue crayfish as West Virginia,” Loughman says.

There’s Cambarus monongalensus, named for the Monongahela River. This crayfish shows up all through central West Virginia into the Northern Panhandle and western Pennsylvania. There’s also Cambarus pauleyi, which lives in a very small range along Interstate 64 just east of Lewisburg. This species was first described in 2015 and was named by Loughman and his colleagues after Loughman’s master’s degree adviser, longtime Marshall herpetology professor Tom Pauley.

The state also is home to two unnamed species of blue crayfish. One lives in the Teays Valley area and is currently being studied by some of Loughman’s students. Then there’s the unnamed species that lives in the Allegheny mountain range, the one Peterson “discovered” and Loughman is working with his colleagues to officially describe and name.

The Cambarus monongalensus, named for the Monongahela River, can be found all through Central West Virginia into the Northern Panhandle.

This crayfish is hardly undiscovered. “It is probably one of the most photographed species (of crayfish) that lives in West Virginia,” Loughman says. Because these critters live in one of the wettest parts of the state, they’re frequently flooded out of their burrows during heavy rains. “It’s totally possible for you to be hiking in the Cranberry Wilderness or Dolly Sods and look down at the path and see a bright blue crayfish lying there,” he says. “I get photos emailed to me all the time.”

It only remains unnamed because, up until now, no one has been able to prove it’s a unique species. Biologists have long suspected it was different, especially since blue crayfish occur at lower elevations, are replaced by a red crayfish species a little higher up, which are themselves replaced by blue crayfish in the highest elevations.

But Loughman and his colleagues have now used genetics to prove the high-elevation crayfish is a species all its own. “The goal is to have a name on it by the end of 2018,” he says. “Naming a species is a somewhat arduous task. You have to be able to show how they’re different, and you have to go through this process of measuring a bunch of different individuals and showing how they’re different morphologically.

“Until we name it, it’s going to share the name of the guy that’s down in lower elevations.”

Burrowing Cows

Although West Virginia’s blue crayfish are biologically distinct, they share similar ecologies. They all live in muddy burrows, which can be up to 7 feet deep. Crayfish primarily live in resting chambers, where they stockpile food and rear their young, but the burrows also have many side tunnels.

Burrows built by the unnamed high-elevation crayfish featured in Peterson’s video are especially interesting. The side tunnels meander out in all directions, frequently running into other burrows. “You get this effect where you’re digging them, you’ll find multiple individuals in a colony. Which is intriguing,” Loughman says. “I go all over the country chasing these things. I’ve sampled at least 20 different species of burrowing crayfish. None of them have colonies quite like our highelevation blue crayfish.”

Scientists used to think blue crayfish “just lived in their holes and ate roots and were kind of boring,” Loughman says. But he and his students set up night vision cameras around burrow openings to capture the crustacean’s nighttime activities.

If the night is humid and warm, there’s a good chance you’ll find a crayfish resting at the opening of its burrow. When something scurries by, the crayfish grabs it. Loughman has seen them eat worms, salamanders, and beetles. “At the same time, they’re grazing like little burrowing cows,” he says. Although they don’t have a taste for ferns, the blue crayfish will eat any kind of broadleaf plant.

This makes blue crayfish very important in their ecosystems. Their omnivorous eating habits allow them to absorb all kinds of energy, which transfers to animals higher on the food chain when crayfish get eaten.

Their burrows serve an important purpose, too. Once crayfish have moved on, their former homes provide ready-made habitats for other animals seeking comfortable underground dwellings. “We’ve found frogs, toads, salamanders, chipmunks, mice—all kinds of animals go down in those burrows,” Loughman says.

Loughman and his students have been all over West Virginia looking for crayfish, wading into thousands of streams in all 55 counties. And yet, there are still lots of questions surrounding the blue crayfish.

Mysteries Remain

“I don’t even know why they’re blue,” Loughman says. It’s something he often discusses with students as they wind down country roads in search of streams. “Blue is a rare color in the animal kingdom. There’s a blue jay, a kingfisher, and—your list kind of stops.”

It could just be a biological fluke. But Loughman has noticed a trend. Not all burrowing crayfish are blue, but all blue crayfish are burrowers. In addition to his work in West Virginia, he’s studied blue crayfish in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Kentucky. “And all of those species are burrowers. To my knowledge, none that live in streams are entirely blue.”

That leads Loughman to think the crayfish’s blue coloring must provide some kind of evolutionary advantage. He suspects it could be a form of nocturnal camouflage, since blue absorbs more light than other colors. “But that’s nothing but pure postulation.”

Solving these mysteries will require further study. That’s easier said than done, since test subjects are difficult to come by. “Collecting burrowing crayfish is a bit of a nightmare because you’ve got to dig a damn hole,” Loughman says.

So Loughman needs some help. He asks that, if hikers come across blue crayfish in the wild, they send him photos with descriptions of the locations—GPS coordinates, too, if possible. He is particularly interested in seeing more Cambarus pauleyi from Greenbrier County. According to existing data, there are only about a dozen known locations for these rare crayfish. “I think they’re more widely distributed than my data demonstrates.”

Contact Loughman using the West Liberty University Crayfish Conservation Laboratory page on Facebook, @wlucrayfish, or by email at zloughman@westliberty.edu.

Romancing the Stone

This story was originally published in the March 2019 issue of Wonderful West Virginia.

In early February 1839, subscribers of the Cincinnati Chronicle opened their newspapers to find a 4,000-word article about some strange happenings in Moundsville, Virginia.

Two archaeologists were in the process of excavating a large mound at the “flats of Grave Creek.” The author of the article, Thomas Townsend, predicted their findings would bring worldwide fame to the tiny panhandle town, making it “a place desirable to be visited by foreigners, by the curious and by the antiquary from all parts of the world.”

It was a bold claim, given how few artifacts were found inside the mound. The archaeologists discovered three poorly preserved skeletons, some seashells, decorative stones, beads, and a few copper bracelets. Impressive, sure, but other excavated mounds had surrendered similar treasures in much greater quantities.

It was a single discovery that set the Grave Creek Mound apart from all the others. Diggers had come across a “small thin flat stone of common fine grey sand stone” with “some hieroglyphics engraved upon it,” Townsend wrote.

The Chronicle included a drawing of the stone alongside Townsend’s article. The 23 symbols did not appear to come from any known language, but 22 of them were arranged in three neat horizontal rows. The 23rd symbol stretched across the bottom of the stone, almost like the signature at the end of a letter.

To Townsend, the engraved stone and the copper bracelets signified “considerable advancement” in whatever ancient society was responsible for the mound. This raised many questions. When was the mound built? Who built it? Where did those people come from? And what was the Grave Creek Stone, as it became known, trying to tell us?

We now have answers to each of these questions, although they probably aren’t the kind of answers Townsend and his readers expected. This is especially true when it comes to the Grave Creek Stone. Thanks to years of research, we now know exactly what the tablet is: a great big fraud.

The Grave Creek Mound began as a naturally occuring hill, formed eons before humans arrived in Appalachia. When the Adena people moved into the region around 10,000 B.C. and discovered the landform, they decided it would be a good place to bury important members of their community.

The Mound Takes Shape

To bury their dead, the Adena dug a rectangular trench in the hill, lined the sides of the hole with logs, and covered the top with wooden beams, on which they laid stone slabs. Somewhere around 250 to 150 B.C., they started adding soil to the hill. By the time they were finished, they had dumped an estimated 60,000 tons of earth on top. If we estimate each load of soil weighed about 30 pounds, that means the Adena added about 3 million basket loads of dirt to the mound.

They also dug a moat around the mound. The sandy soil would not have allowed the trench to fill with water, so the moat likely served as a symbolic barrier—maybe a dividing line between the sacred and the profane. “But that’s just an interpretation. We really have no way of knowing,” says Andrea Keller, programming coordinator at the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex.

Tribes built similar burial mounds throughout the Ohio Valley and then disappeared, leaving the mounds behind. By the time Europeans arrived in the New World, they were captivated by these gargantuan earthworks. They understood the mounds were man-made, judging by their size and locations, but had no idea who built them. Theories arose, claiming the mounds were built by lost societies of European or Middle Eastern people who came to North America long before Christopher Columbus.

Tribes built similar burial mounds throughout the Ohio Valley. Then they disappeared, leaving the mounds behind. When Europeans arrived in the New World, they were instantly captivated by these gargantuan earthworks. They understood the mounds were man-made but, because they had no idea who built them, they came up with theories that the mounds were built by lost societies of European or Middle Eastern people who came to North America long before Christopher Columbus.

These theories were largely based in racial prejudice. It would have been logical—and correct—to assume Native Americans built the mounds, since both Native Americans and mounds were present long before Europeans arrived. But that origin story didn’t jibe with the white settlers’ view of the “savages” who inhabited North America. “They thought it spoke to a level of civilization that the American Indians didn’t meet,” says Brad Lepper, curator of archaeology at the Ohio History Connection in Columbus, Ohio.

So if the Native Americans didn’t build the mounds, the settlers wondered, who did?

Eventually people started excavating burial mounds to see what answers they might hold. Thomas Jefferson even dug up a burial mound at Monticello in 1784, just a year after the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War.

Digging In

The excavations at Grave Creek began in March 1838. The efforts were led by Abelard Tomlinson, whose grandfather discovered the mound while hunting and whose family now owned the land, and his brother-in-law Thomas Biggs. They started their work low on the mound, unearthing a tomb that contained a pair of skeletons arranged so their heads were almost touching and the feet were pointing in opposite directions.

The bones were too deteriorated to determine the gender of the dead, but each had a perfect set of teeth. Judging by the wear on these teeth, the researchers guessed the people had been about 60 years old when they died. One of the skeletons was adorned with hundreds of beads made from either shell or ivory, as well as a “rude ornament of stone,” according to Townsend. Tomlinson and Biggs surmised the decorated skeleton belonged to a chief and the unadorned remains were his wife.

A few months later, Tomlinson and Biggs began digging out a second burial chamber a little higher on the mound. Here they found a single skeleton—also with perfect teeth—along with five copper bracelets, 1,700 ivory beads, 500 seashells, and 66 pieces of mica.

This is also where the diggers found the Grave Creek Stone. Accounts of its discovery differ. Tomlinson said he found the stone inside the upper burial chamber, but workers said they found it in a wheelbarrow as they hauled away a load of earth.

Either way, it seems the excavation crew didn’t give the stone much thought. Controversy about its origins did not begin until some months later, when noted 19th century ethnologist and Native American expert Henry Rowe Schoolcraft studied the stone and decided it had been carved by ancient Celts from Britain or Spain. This invited theories from other scholars, who attributed the writing to the Egyptians, Greeks, Phoenicians, and Tunisians, among others.

Still other scholars did not view the Grave Creek Stone as a relic of an ancient lost civilization. They smelled a fraud. Chief in this camp was archaeologist Ephraim George Squier. He viewed the stone as suspect because a published version of the excavation’s daily log failed to mention its discovery.

As years passed, more and more archaeologists began to cast doubt on the Grave Creek Stone’s authenticity. For one thing, there is no proof of pre-Columbian immigration to the modern day United States. ”We’ve got ancient DNA from Native American skeletons that date back 10,000 years. And as far back as we go, there’s no element of Africans or Europeans,” Ohio History Connection’s Lepper says. “The genetics, the archaeology, everything is consistent with the story that we have developed.”

But one important question remained unanswered: If the stone was fake, who made it?

In the early 2000s, New York anthropologist David Oestreicher decided to take on the case of the Grave Creek Stone. He had made a career studying the Lenape Indians, who originally hailed from New England before being forced onto reservations in Oklahoma. This research led him to the Walam Olum, a collection of Lenape creation and migration myths that caused some controversy when they were published in the 1830s.

“An Open and Shut Case”

A noted ethnologist from the time—none other than Henry Rowe Schoolcraft—believed the literature was fake, while his rival, the archaeologist Ephraim George Squier, believed it was legitimate. Oestreicher spent years researching the controversy and was eventually able to prove the Lenape myths were, as Schoolcraft suspected, a contemporary fabrication.

When Oestreicher learned that Schoolcraft and Squier later found themselves on opposite sides of the Grave Creek Stone controversy as well, he couldn’t resist digging into the story himself. He uncovered lots of manuscripts that had never seen the light of day. This included the original, unedited manuscript of the record book that had caused Squier to doubt the stone’s authenticity.

Oestreicher discovered the logbook had been penned by Dr. James W. Clemens, a prominent Wheeling physician, city councilman, poet, and, apparently, archaeology booster. He also noticed that Clemens’ original manuscript did in fact contain an account of the Grave Creek Stone’s discovery. And Clemens didn’t just mention the stone—he expounded on its potential significance. For some reason, this passage had been edited out of the final published text.

Instead of giving him faith in the stone’s authenticity, the manuscript made Oestreicher suspicious of Clemens. He dug into the doctor’s life and learned that Clemens had had a lot riding on this excavation. Convinced the mound would contain a king’s store of treasures, Clemens had borrowed about $2,600—more than $60,000 in today’s money—to fund the venture. Clemens had also tried to get others to buy into the project. Oestreicher discovered an 1838 Marshall County Sentinel article the doctor wrote in an attempt to solicit investment in the excavation. He’d told readers the mound would yield heaps of treasure, become a global tourist attraction, and induce the growing Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to route its railway through Wheeling.

All this gave Oestreicher a hunch that Clemens fabricated the Grave Creek Stone in an effort to save the lackluster excavation project. But what about the characters on the stone? Surely random scribblings would not fool experienced archaeologists, ethnographers, and linguists.

Oestreicher found his answer in a 1752 volume titled An Essay on the Alphabets of the Unknown Letters That are Found in the Most Ancient Coins and Monuments of Spain, written by Spanish historian Don Luis Jose Velazquez. “Everything on the stone can be accounted for in Velazquez’s book,” Oestreicher told Rick Steelhammer of the Charleston Gazette in 2008. “Identical clusters of letters from the book show up on the Grave Creek Stone, sometimes in the same order.” Even some of Velazquez’s errors show up on the stone.

It isn’t a stretch to imagine Clemens would have access to Velazquez’s book. He was a known bibliophile with more than 600 volumes in his personal library—not a small collection today, but especially impressive in a time when books were very expensive. Clemens even had a machine shop where he could have easily engraved the stone.

Just like a good prosecuting attorney, Oestreicher proved Clemens had the means, motive, and opportunity to commit the fraud. His case was so strong that most academics now agree that Clemens was the culprit. Even the exhibits at the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex, which originally focused on attempts to translate the stone, were recently updated to reflect Oestreicher’s findings.

“After Oestreicher, it’s an open and shut case,” Lepper says.

Enduring Mysteries, Lasting Legacy

Although researchers have answered many questions about the Grave Creek Mound, mysteries still surround the landmark.

First and foremost, no one knows the whereabouts of any of the artifacts pulled from the Grave Creek Mound, including the Grave Creek Stone. About a year after the excavation was completed, Tomlinson and company opened a small museum inside the mound to display the artifacts they had unearthed. The tourism boom that Townsend predicted in the Cincinnati Chronicle never happened, though. The museum was bankrupt within two years and the owners sold off its collection.

Documentation of the sale has been lost to history. Some have suggested the collection went to the Blackmore Museum in England, which was later absorbed by the British Museum, “It’s possible the Grave Creek Stone is in England somewhere. But that’s just one thread,” says Keller at the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex. Other accounts place the stone in Tennessee, or in the bowels of a library somewhere in West Virginia. It is certain that the stone passed through the Smithsonian Institution at some point, because the museum has photographs and four wax casts of the stone in its collection.

We also do not know if the mound contains any additional burials. “It’s not out of the realm of possibility,” Keller says. During the original excavation at Grave Creek, one of the archaeologists identified a few more potential burial chambers, although they were never investigated. A graduate student recently studied the mound using remote sensors and discovered “anomalies” in the mound. “At this point, we don’t know what they are. They could be anything from a tree root to a rodent burrow to a little excavation—or it could be something prehistoric,” Keller says.

If treasures remain in the mound, we will likely never see them. Since there’s no pressing reason to disturb these sacred grounds, it’s unlikely another excavation will ever take place. “Once you dig it up, you can’t put it back,” Keller says.

Besides, there’s plenty to appreciate about the mound without removing one shovel of soil. Whether you’re standing at the top looking over the gothic stone walls of the West Virginia State Penitentiary, located just across the street, or standing at the base of the mound looking up at the tons of earth that human hands and feet moved to this spot, the people who built this colossal tomb don’t seem 2,000 years away.

“It’s very elaborate, when you think about it. It’s a monument,” Keller says. “I’m sure it wasn’t any more fun to carry dirt around than it is now. They were really making a sacrifice.”

A Ruffed Way to Go

This story was originally published in the January 2018 issue of Wonderful West Virginia.

Perhaps you’ve heard it—you’re walking through the woods, when a bass note suddenly breaks through the forest chatter. Whoop.

The sound might not register at first but, in an instant, it comes again. Whoop. And again and again. Whoop. Whoop.

The noise then crescendos and accelerandos into a frantic rhythm, like a tiny helicopter about to take off. Whoopwhoopwhoopwhoopwhoopwhoop.

And then it’s gone.

The sound might not be impressive to human ears. But to a ruffed grouse, this “drumming” is the equivalent to Fonzie’s finger snap on Happy Days—other guys scatter and the girls all swoon.

A ruffed grouse cock is fiercely territorial, keeping a six- to 10-acre home range all to himself and one or two hens. He displays his dominance and tries to attract females by climbing onto a log and making that whoopwhoopwhoop thumping noise. But contrary to common misconception, the sound does not come from thumping the log. The downed tree is just a stage. The drumming comes from the bird’s wings beating against his chest.

If you’ve heard the sound, count yourself lucky. In recent years, it’s become a scarcer and scarcer element of West Virginia’s forest soundscape.

Where Did They Go?

It’s unclear how many grouse remain in the state. Up until a few years ago, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources conducted a statewide survey of drumming males, although that only provided an index to measure the health of the population. But ask any bird biologist or upland bird hunter and they’ll tell you—populations have declined severely over the past few decades.

There has been some research, particularly in Pennsylvania, that ties grouse population declines to disease, specifically West Nile virus. But Mike Peters, game bird and small game project coordinator for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, says there’s little evidence disease is the main cause for grouse population declines in West Virginia. “The driving force is habitat,” he says. “If a species has the right habitat, it’ll withstand disease.”

Grouse prefer young-growth forests thick with plant life. This provides good cover from the wind as well as camouflage from predators. Those kinds of habitats are increasingly difficult to find in West Virginia, however.

In northern latitudes, grouse live on aspen leaves and buds. But here in Appalachia, the birds have a more varied diet because of what’s available—including cherries, berries, bugs, beechnuts, and acorns.

At the turn of the 20th century, the state had more than 90,000 farms covering nearly two-thirds of the state. Many of those farms slowly began to revert back to forest as rural people left their farms for urban areas. That left West Virginia covered with young forests where grouse could thrive. “It was just perfect conditions,” Peters says.

West Virginia is now about 90 percent forested. But, for the most part, it’s the wrong kind of forest. “We have lots of forest, but it’s a lot of mature forests,” Peters says. Mature forests aren’t as thick, so they don’t provide grouse adequate protection, leaving them open to predation and the elements.

“It kind of seemed like the ’80s was a peak for grouse populations,” says Linda Ordiway, regional biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society. “It was also the most recent peak for commercial timber harvest.”

Grouse lay between nine and 14 buff-colored eggs at a time. The birds are precocial, meaning they hatch with feathers and are ready to leave the nest to feed as soon as they hatch.

Natural phenomena like wildfires allow forests to refresh themselves. But since humans have suppressed wildfires for the past century or so, the clock is no longer being reset.

“What’s an aesthetically pleasing forest? Most people are going to say big trees and ferns. But what’s the most productive forest?” Ordiway asks. Usually, the most productive forest is a 10-to-20-year-old forest, thick with trees and undergrowth.

One way to maintain that kind of environment is through timber management. But members of the public are usually averse to cutting down big, old trees. “They’ve confused the two terms ‘conservation’ and ‘preservation,’” Ordiway says. “We can love a thing to death.”

Conservation science is advanced enough now that we can strike a balance between preserving big, old trees for future generations and creating areas where nature can take its course.

A little larger than a pigeon with a triangle-shaped chest and a large fanned tail, they’re called “ruffed” grouse because of the shiny black or brown feathers on their necks that come on prominent display when a male is defending his territory or is showing off to a female. With a puffed-up neck and fully-fanned tail, the male can appear twice his actual size.

Less than 1 percent of the Monongahela National Forest is now made up of young-growth forest, Ordiway says. If that were increased to 20 percent, we would likely see a rebound in grouse populations, along with other species. “You create a quality habitat for grouse, and you create a habitat for lots of migratory songbirds and everything from butterflies to black bears,” she says.

Landowners Do Their Part

Conservation efforts on public lands can only go so far, however, since 80 percent of West Virginia land is privately owned. That’s why the DNR is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the state Division of Forestry, the National Wild Turkey Federation, and others to encourage landowners to create habitat on their properties.

The program is actually focused on creating more habitat for the golden winged warbler, but Catherine Loucks, an avian biologist for the USDA, says the work has implications far beyond the warbler. Grouse live in the same kinds of habitat, as do many songbirds, mammals, and bugs.

Since the program started in 2012, 150 acres have been transformed into breeding habitat. “There’s quite a bit more in the works for this year and next year,” Loucks says.

Any landowner in West Virginia can apply but, because funding is limited, properties closer to existing warbler populations are given higher priority. That region includes much of the eastern part of the state.

Participating landowners receive financial assistance for habitat creation—covering up to 75 percent of the cost—as well as technical assistance. Almost any kind of property, except wetlands and conifer forests, can be transformed into a thriving young forest habitat. Loucks guides landowners through the process. She might recommend a limited timber harvest, or mowing certain areas to create open pasture. Landowners then introduce fast-growing shrubs and trees like blackberry bushes, blueberry bushes, dogwood trees, American chestnut trees, and fruit-bearing trees.

It can take some convincing to get people to cut down trees on their property, Loucks says. A timber harvest might not look pretty at first but, within just a few years, the area is filled with all kinds of plant and animal life that wouldn’t otherwise be there. By that time, there’s not much convincing needed.

For more information, visit your local U.S. Department of Agriculture service center or contact Loucks at 304.364.5103 ext. 104 or catherine.loucks@wv.usda.gov.

A Creek Runs Through It

This story was originally published in the September 2016 issue of Wonderful West Virginia magazine.

The fish weren’t biting when Rick Burgess and his twin brothers Denny and Danny arrived at Spruce Knob Lake for a weekend camping trip in 1976, so Denny suggested they try their luck in a nearby stream he’d heard about. He and Rick threw their gear into the Mustang II they’d driven on the trip—Danny stayed behind—and the brothers drove the winding roads about 15 minutes away to a property separated from the road by a farm gate. They parked the Mustang, hopped the gate, and began walking a path they hoped would lead to Denny’s trout stream.

The brothers rounded a bend. They found the stream. And then they saw the ground open up and swallow the creek whole.

Rick and Denny had found Gandy Creek. But they had also stumbled across one of West Virginia’s geologic treasures. “I had no idea what I was looking at. We were on this beautiful little trout stream and all of a sudden it goes into this cave,” he says.

It wasn’t until later, a good while after they returned from the camping trip, that Danny saw a feature in the Sunday newspaper and finally learned the name of the cave his brothers had found: the Sinks of Gandy.

This popular cave is located in eastern Randolph County just a few miles from the highest point in West Virginia, Spruce Knob. Gandy Creek runs through the Sinks for a mile and a half beneath Yokum Knob before emerging near Dry Fork Road. Thomas Komir, a course director at the nearby Mountain Institute, has led hundreds of summer campers through the cave. Because the cave requires little technical skill, he says it’s a perfect introduction to spelunking. “There’s very minimal climbing,” Komir says. “You’re basically walking in the streambed, and it’s mostly flat.”

Although his campers are often intimidated at first, Komir says it doesn’t take long for them to overcome their hestitations. “They usually love it,” he says. “We walk through the water in the cave and when we reach the other side, they’re ready to do anything. Oddly enough it’s the adults who have a harder time with it.”

The Sinks are named for a family of early settlers in the area. According to family legend, the cave served as a hideout after Samuel Gandy deserted from the Revolutionary Army at Valley Forge. He was captured, jailed, and sentenced to hang but his brother Uriah broke him out. They escaped to Virginia and sheltered in what would become known as the Sinks of Gandy until spring.

That explains the Gandy connection, but where did “the Sinks” come from? Ken Ashton, a geologist with the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey, says no one really knows. He suspects it might be related to old-timey geological vernacular. A stream that flows into a cave used to be described as a “sinking creek.” Therefore, the “Sinks of Gandy” is the spot Gandy Creek sinks into the ground. But Ashton admits that’s just a guess. “I don’t think there’s an official (answer). I’ve never seen it traced back to the initial naming.”

The general public first learned of the Sinks through “The Mountains,” a fictionalized account by David Hunter Strother published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1872. In the story, a band of Virginia gentlemen organize an expedition to find the “tunnel of Gandy.” Although the story captured the imagination of readers nationwide, Strother, writing under the nom de plume “Porte Crayon,” did not paint locals in a flattering light. His narrator imagines West Virginians as “mountain nymphs” and “rude swains” with “loutish movements” and “bobbing steps.”

Today the cave’s upper entrance is owned by the Teter family, who purchased the land in 1939 to use as a cattle farm. The downstream entrance is owned by the Tingler family. And while the Sinks are still technically private property, the landowners have traditionally welcomed respectful visitors. “We’ve always just let folks walk in and visit it. A lot of people go in and take pictures, people have painted pictures of it,” says Donley Teter, who now owns the property with his five brothers and sisters. “Most of the time people are pretty good. You have a few that are kind of disrespectful, but for the most part it’s pretty good.”

This, of course, is only recent history. The real story of the Sinks of Gandy goes much further back—more than a half-billion years.

A Living Cave

Our tale begins in a time of great geological turmoil. At the beginning of the Paleozoic Period, more than 540 million years ago, all the dry land on Earth was joined in a supercontinent geologists call Pannotia. But the tectonic plates below the planet’s crust began to shift, and the land slowly began to break into several smaller continents.

These changes were accompanied by a dramatic change in the Earth’s climate. The oceans rose and created warm, shallow inland seas that covered parts of what is now North America. Over the next 290 million years, the bottom of those seas became littered with shell material, coral, algae, fish waste, and the remains of all manner of marine life. As that material piled up and was covered over by sand, dirt, and rock, the pressure compressed this sediment and formed limestone. “All throughout the Paleozoic, you have layer after layer after layer of different rock types forming. It’s like a big layer cake of different rock,” says geologist Ken Ashton.

By this time the continents began to slowly drift back together, forming another supercontinent known as Pangaea. The immense pressure created by these colliding landmasses caused the sedimentary rock to fold and crack. “That nice bed of limestone, now it’s being pushed up,” Ashton says. Eventually this created a long line of towering crags we now call the Appalachian Mountains.

At the time, the range was as tall as the Himalayas. Over the next few million years glaciers and prehistoric rivers whittled down the peaks to the gentle rolling hills of today. The limestone remained, however, buried deep beneath the mountains. And the water that eroded the tops of the mountains also started to cut caves beneath them.

The Sinks were formed in the same way as most of Earth’s caves—the slow, gradual dissolution of limestone. “Limestone is the cave-forming rock. Anywhere you’ve got limestone, you have a potential for caves,” Ashton says.

The process is familiar to anyone who suffers heartburn. Limestone is made from calcium carbonate, the same stuff as antacids like Tums. “You might as well chew on a piece of limestone. It neutralizes acid. Consequently, acid will dissolve calcium carbonate,” Ashton says. Because natural water can be slightly acidic, over time rivers and streams began to cut paths through the limestone. “Everything you see in a cave, everything about any cave was formed by acidic water dissolving limestone,” Ashton says.

Over years and years, Gandy Creek pounded against the limestone under Yokum’s Knob and slowly began to work its way underground. Cracks formed, allowing more water to flow through, which increased the process of dissolution. “The cracks just kept getting bigger and bigger, and that’s how the Sinks of Gandy were formed,” Ashton says.

Of course, Gandy Creek still flows through the cave today. And since water still dissolves limestone, the Sinks continue to grow and change before our eyes. It’s just taking so much time we don’t notice. “Geologic time is very slow,” Ashton says.

Time has moved faster for Rick Burgess. He left West Virginia for Texas a few years after that fishing trip with his brothers. He returned to the Mountain State in the mid-1990s and still thought about the Sinks from time to time, but never made the trip back. At some point, he realized it had been nearly three decades since he first laid eyes on the Sinks of Gandy.

A Lasting Impression

“I always wanted to go back. I knew it was a place not many people knew about,” Burgess says. “I wanted to see it again, because it had made such an impression to me the first time.” In 2013, he decided to try and find his way back. There was just one problem. “I had no idea how to get there,” he says.

Burgess drove around, trying in vain to find the gate he and Denny hopped all those years ago. He eventually flagged down a pickup and the driver pointed him to the right spot. He climbed the fence, walked down a gravel road, and found the familiar depression in the earth.

Although he did not explore the cave’s gaping mouth on his initial visit—he was pretty claustrophobic back then—Burgess was braver this time. He waded into the cave’s entrance with his Nikon camera.

As he entered, a thunderous noise erupted around him—he had disturbed a family of swallows nesting in the crevices of the rock. “They just start darting out everywhere. You’re in a natural sound chamber, so the sound is incredible,” he says.

Eventually the noise settled down, and Burgess was able to tune into the other sights and sounds of the cave—the logs stuck in the ceiling from long-ago floods, the bird nests in the rock, the trickling of the water, the light reflecting off the surface.

After going nearly 30 years without seeing the Sinks of Gandy, Burgess is now a regular visitor. He’s taken photos of the cave in the spring, summer, and fall. He hopes to go back soon for some wintertime shots. “A lot of times that area, there’s always a lot of snow. I’d like to get a shot where there’s a few inches, being on the inside looking out.”

His photos have caused others to ask how to find the Sinks and see the cave for themselves. But, like an angler guarding a favorite fishing hole, Burgess is hesitant. “On one hand you want other people to know about it and experience it for themselves,” he says. “And on the other hand—it’s kind of selfish, I guess—you don’t want people to know about it.”

How West Virginia’s decade of bad luck steeled it to fight Covid

This story was originally published by The Guardian on February 10, 2021.

It’s usually bad when West Virginia makes headlines. The state has a long, sad history of severe poverty, bad health outcomes, political corruption and disasters both natural and manmade.

But by mid-January, some very good news started coming from West Virginia: somehow the Mountain state was putting 81% of its available vaccines into the biceps of its citizens while bigger states struggled to distribute even half of their available vaccines.

As national media descended on the state to figure out why, much of the reporting focused on the state’s decision to distribute vaccines through local pharmacies, bucking the federal plan to use the national chains CVS and Walgreens.

That isn’t the whole story of West Virginia’s vaccine triumph, however. The state’s path to success started long before there was a thing called Covid-19, much less a vaccine to fight it, and was grounded in the state’s unique response to a series of tragic disasters. One that may be hard to replicate.

In March 2020, as Covid-19 cases crept higher, West Virginia’s governor, Jim Justice, established a “joint interagency taskforce” to oversee the state’s pandemic response.

It’s a simple idea borrowed from the world of military strategy: bring anyone involved in an operation to the same table, so everyone can share information and coordinate their efforts. This particular taskforce would be made up of federal, state and local government agencies, the West Virginia national guard, and groups representing hospitals, pharmacies and nursing homes.

“We took the construct of what the military does in operations, mission planning, and we applied it with our public health partners. We operationalized a public health emergency,” said Maj Gen James Hoyer, who serves as director of the Covid taskforce.

Hoyer, who recently retired from the military after 40 years in uniform, has participated in several joint interagency taskforces during that time, because West Virginia has suffered an extraordinary run of bad luck over the last decade.

Click here to read the rest.

Patrick Morrisey and the Five Bears — a story in five parts

“Morrisey and the three bears: There’s a story behind popular figures guarding attorney general’s office”

This story originally appeared in the November 29, 2012 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

Heads are bound to roll when Patrick Morrisey becomes West Virginia’s attorney general in January, but it now appears some of Darrell McGraw’s most popular staff members will get to keep their jobs.

Political adviser Scott Will said Morrisey currently has no plans to remove the stuffed black bears from outside the attorney general’s office.

“We will not rush to judgment on this critical issue of whether to keep the bears,” Will wrote in an email earlier this week. “We may even decide to hold off deciding until we finish our first 100 days in office. Getting this decision right is that important.”

The three bears came to live outside McGraw’s office in 2001, but the display originally started with just one bear outside former Secretary of State Ken Hechler’s office.

When Hechler took office in January 1985, he already had a collection of art depicting the state fish, the state tree and the state flower.

“Since the black bear is the state animal, I wanted to obtain a black bear or two to keep in the entrance to my office,” he said.

He called up the state Department of Natural Resources. Employees there had killed an ornery black bear in Clay County a few years before when it was caught robbing people’s beehives.

The animal was already at the taxidermist’s shop, so Hechler called up the owner and made arrangements to purchase it, according to a Daily Mail story at the time.

He parked the bear outside his Capitol office, where it quickly became a popular stop for passing constituents. Members of the public often would stop by his office, to be photographed not with the secretary of state, but with his pet bear.
Hechler added another bear to the collection in 1994.

The original bear was looking a little scraggly after many encounters with visiting school children, so the secretary decided to have it restored and get another one.

It’s unclear where this second bear came from.

Three years later, Hechler used the bears for a tongue-in-cheek statement on the Second Amendment. He placed a rifle in each animal’s paws and hung a yellow sign around one’s neck. It read, “We support the right to arm bears.”

After announcing he would not seek re-election in 2000, Hechler began hunting for a new home for his bears. His only requirement was the new owner must continue to display the “arm bears” sign.

According to a Daily Mail story from the time, he received more than 30 offers from around the state to adopt the creatures.

It was Attorney General Darrell McGraw’s offer that won over Hechler.

He said McGraw had always expressed interest in the bears, and the attorney general promised to keep them outside his own Capitol office so they would remain on public display. In return, Hechler eased his requirement on the sign.

When Hechler left office in January 2001, the bears were wheeled down the Capitol’s West Wing, through the Rotunda, and into an alcove outside McGraw’s office.

A third bear joined the family some time after the display arrived in the East Wing. This one is smaller than the first two, but strikes a much more ferocious pose with its teeth bared and one paw raised, ready to strike.

It hasn’t scared anyone off, however.

“You’ll see people down there taking pictures all the time,” said Capitol tour guide Mary Ann Long.

Although the bears are not on the official tour, Long said she takes groups past the animals if they request it.

Tour guide Grace Welch said the bears are especially popular with students, who like to stop on their way to the state Supreme Court chambers.

 

“Capitol office bear-en, bear-eft”

This story originally appeared in the December 4, 2012 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

The halls outside Attorney General Darrell McGraw’s office are looking a little “bear.”

That’s because on Monday, some of McGraw’s office staff loaded up the three stuffed black bears that have lived outside the office for the last decade and transported them back to their original owners.

“The attorney general wanted to return them to their rightful owners. They were always on loan to him,” said Joe Clay, McGraw’s chief financial officer.

Clay also serves as the office’s comptroller and, by his own admission, “occasional bear distributor.” He and some other staffers unbolted the bears from their wooden pedestal Monday morning and loaded them into a truck.

Two went back to Ken Hechler, the former secretary of state who brought the first stuffed bear to the Capitol in the 1980s.

“Since the black bear is the state animal, I wanted to obtain a black bear or two to keep in the entrance to my office,” he told the Daily Mail last week.

Hechler added another bear to his collection in the 1990s, and then loaned the animals to McGraw when he left office in 2001 after the attorney general promised to keep them on public display.

When McGraw lost to Republican challenger Patrick Morrisey in November, he called the former secretary of state and asked if he wanted his bears back.

“Ken was very excited to see them this morning,” said Linda Harvey, Hechler’s administrative assistant.

The animals now will reside at Hechler’s Kanawha City office. Harvey said they would remain in the office until Hechler, 98, dies.

“They’d been putting all kinds of stuff in the newspaper, as if the state government was going to decide where they went,” she said.

She said the government never had any claim to the bears, however, since Hechler purchased them with his own money.

Upon their return, Hechler promptly renamed one of the bears “Gibson,” after his friend, mountaintop removal activist Larry Gibson.

The third bear, the baby of the family, came to live at the Capitol sometime after 2001, when Hechler left office and loaned the animals to McGraw’s office. That bear belonged to former senior assistant attorney general Rex Burford.

Burford now lives in Wilmington, N.C., but said in a short phone interview Monday that his bear would be sent to live with “a nominee” here in the Mountain State.

The Daily Mail’s interview with Burford was cut short.

“You’ve had your fun,” he said before hanging up. “It’s over.”

Clay said the animals would be missed around the Capitol. Visitors, especially schoolchildren on class trips, often stopped by the Attorney General’s Office to pose for photos with the bears.

“You get a 3- or 4-year-old running through the Capitol, it’s something they like to look at,” Clay said.

“The bears have been quite a staple around here for quite a while. Maybe somebody else will start a bear collection.”

 

“Attorney general’s office: incoming official taps key staffers”

This story originally appeared in the January 10, 2012 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

When attorney general-elect Patrick Morrisey takes office next week, he will take a Charleston city councilman, a former attorney general candidate, a former U.S. Supreme Court clerk and the executive director of a lawsuit abuse group with him.

There also could be a few black bears tagging along.

Morrisey announced upcoming changes to the Attorney General’s Office during a press conference Wednesday afternoon in the state Capitol Rotunda.

….

Although he would not say how many former McGraw staffers would get to keep their jobs, Morrisey said not everyone from his predecessor’s administration would be fired.

Also at Wednesday’s press conference, Morrisey showed off a letter from the West Virginia Bear Hunters Association, promising his office “one or more black bear displays” to display at his Capitol office.

McGraw’s office previously had three stuffed black bears sitting outside the East Wing office, but those were on loan from former Secretary of State Ken Hechler. When McGraw lost in the November election, attorney general staffers took the bears to Hechler’s Kanawha City office.

Morrisey said his office would hold an official ceremony and naming contest when the new bears arrived at the Capitol.

He said he also would announce how the office would handle leftover “trinkets” from the McGraw’s administration.

“I think this is going to be a made-for-TV event,” he said.

 

“Office of Attorney General vandalized, theft of bear’s paw called ‘serious crime'”

This story originally appeared in the August 12, 2013 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

Each day, dozens of people walk past the taxidermied bear sitting in front of Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s office. Visitors often stop to take its picture. School children frequently pet the animal.

For Capitol regulars, the bear sometimes just blends into the east wing’s marble walls.

But last Tuesday, a receptionist noticed something that gave her pause.

“Somebody, we don’t know who, cut part of its paw off,” said Attorney General spokeswoman Beth Ryan.

The two middle toes on its left front paw are gone, and the taxidermy mold is showing from underneath.

“It looks like they used a pocket knife or something,” Ryan said. “It’s crazy.”

“I don’t see the point in defacing something that represents the state animal.”

She said the vandalism probably happened either Sunday or Monday, but no one noticed the damage until Tuesday evening. Morrisey’s office promptly filed a report with Capitol police.

The Daily Mail was unable to obtain a copy of the police report, as officers are still investigating the claim. The officer conducting the investigation was not in the office Friday and calls to Kevin Foreman, deputy director of the state Division of Protective Services, were not immediately returned.

Finding out who defaced the poor bear might be difficult, however. Ryan said there are no security cameras monitoring the hallway outside the Attorney General’s office, just the entryways.

But if the culprit is ever caught, they could face serious charges.

State law forbids anyone from having possession of a bear or parts of a bear unless the animal was killed in hunting season and properly registered with the Division of Natural Resources.

According to state law “bear parts” include, but are not limited to, the animal’s pelt, gallbladder, skull and claws.

“Basically, you’d have to have a checking tag or a special tag to possess it,” DNR training officer Lt. Tim Coleman said.

The laws are meant to discourage poachers. Bear gallbladders are considered aphrodisiacs in some countries, Coleman said.

The internal organs were quite expensive a few years ago and Coleman said DNR officers would sometimes find dead bears in the woods, with just their gallbladders cut out.

Coleman said the law would apply even to taxidermied bears.

“There’s no expiration date on possession of the parts,” he said.

Anyone caught with unauthorized bear parts faces a fine of $1,000 to $5,000 and up to 100 days in jail. The offender’s hunting and fishing licenses also would be suspended for two years.

The charges could be bumped up to a felony if the culprit has violated these laws before.

“It’s a pretty serious crime as far as wildlife is concerned,” Coleman said.

This is just the latest drama involving the Attorney General’s office and stuffed bears.

Former Attorney General Darrell McGraw had two stuffed bears in front of his office. Some worried Morrisey would remove them once assumed the office in January, but Morrisey vowed to keep the animals in place.

That all changed when former Secretary of State Ken Hechler decided to reclaim the bears. Hechler purchased the bears in the 1980s and 1990s to decorate his office, but loaned them to McGraw after he left office in 2001. The attorney general promised to keep them on public display.

When McGraw lost to Morrisey in November 2012, he called the former secretary of state and asked if he wanted his bears back. They now reside in Hechler’s Kanawha City apartment.

The West Virginia Bear Hunters Association then pledged to donate more bears to Morrisey’s office.

Those bears have not shown up yet, but Morrisey’s staff found another taxidermied bear while cleaning out storage space in the Capitol. It’s unclear where the bear came from.

 

“Morrisey’s office gets new stuffed black bear”

This story originally appeared in the August 27, 2013 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

After becoming nearly extinct earlier this year, the black bear population in the West Virginia Capitol is slowly rebounding.

The West Virginia Bear Hunters Association on Friday delivered a 200-pound stuffed black bear to Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s Office.

The animal now sits where former Attorney General Darrell McGraw kept his own taxidermied black bear collection, in an alcove near the Capitol’s east wing.

Mounted by Warner’s Taxidermy in Buckhannon, the female bear stands on a three-foot-tall barn wood pedestal, covered with moss, leaves, roots and greenery. The four-year-old sow stands semi-upright, with her front paws leaning on a rock.

She’s a friendly-looking bear, with a slight smirk and playful posture. Her coat is solid black, except for a buff-colored muzzle.

“It’s a really good, pretty mount. It’s a nice addition to that section of our office and that section of the Capitol,” Attorney General spokeswoman Beth Ryan said.

Miranda Ware, 18, of Upshur County, killed the bear on Dec. 14, 2012. Her family had it mounted, and then loaned it to the Attorney General’s Office through the West Virginia Bear Hunter’s Association.

Ware accompanied the bear to its temporary home last week, even posing for a few pictures with Morrisey.

The animal will remain at the Capitol for a year, after which the Bear Hunter’s Association will replace it with another stuffed bear.

“The goal is, they want to have a new bear put on display each year,” Ryan said.

McGraw’s three bears were returned to their rightful owners – former Secretary of State Ken Hechler and former senior assistant attorney general Rex Burford – just before Morrisey took office in January.

Morrisey is now slowly building his own collection. Staff members found a stuffed bear in one of the Attorney General’s storage spaces. That animal now protects the office’s main entrance.

A few weeks ago, someone – no one is sure who – tore off part of that bear’s left-front paw. The Attorney General’s Office filed a complaint with Capitol police over the vandalism, but Ryan said they have not received any updates.

There are no security cameras in the hallway outside Morrisey’s offices, so the culprit might never be caught.

Ryan said the office is looking at ways to fix the bear’s wounded paw, however. She had members of the Bear Hunters Association take a look at the other bear, to see if there is a way to repair it.

“It should be something that’s repairable,” she said. “We’re working on it.”

The Attorney General’s Office will soon launch a naming contest for both stuffed bears through its Facebook and Twitter pages.

While the names will be left to voters, Ryan has a suggestion for the office’s maimed mascot: “Lefty.”

MY TURN: GETTING IT TOGETHER, EVENTUALLY

This column originally appeared in the May 16, 2014 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

We all know those people who seem to have it all together.

They’re never late for work. They always have time to go to the gym. They make shopping lists before they go to the grocery store. They never forget to do laundry and end up using a beach towel after their shower.

I have never been – and suspect I never will be – one of those got-it-all-together people.

In fact, as I’m writing this, I just remembered I forgot to pay this month’s credit card bill. Hold on.

OK, I’m back.

As much as I hate to be this way I can’t seem to do much to change it. I’ve tried.

But there’s something I’ve learned from years of interviewing important people: everybody struggles with something.

Maybe they don’t struggle with the same kind of stuff as me, with the beach towels and credit card bills, but everybody has some thorn in their flesh that makes them feel small and silly.

Successful people just don’t let those insecurities and flaws get in the way of their work. Sometimes you just have to fake it til you make it.

Last month, I had the chance to interview Melissa Etheridge ahead of her performance at the Clay Center.

She was embarking on her first solo tour in a decade. For two weeks she would take the stage without a backing band, supported only by a dozen guitars, some cool effects pedals and a piano.

Etheridge said she liked touring solo because it’s a throwback to her days as a bar musician, but also because working alone is a challenge.

She said for a long time she was not confident in her abilities on the guitar and piano.

“I used to hide behind my band sometimes,” she said.

A legendary rock star, lacking in confidence? What about all those Grammy awards? What about those platinum-selling records?

“It’s funny how you can get onstage and project a certain image, yet inside those voices are telling you something different,” Etheridge said.

She overcame that self doubt by . . . well . . . faking it.

She reorganized her band, making herself the lead guitar player, and found the confidence she needed just by sticking her neck out.

Rodney Crowell, who performs on this Sunday’s “Mountain Stage,” had a similar story to tell.

Crowell said he became confident in his abilities as a songwriter years ago. But he’s just now getting gaining confidence as a recording artist and a singer.

This is the guy who had five No. 1 singles on one album, his 1988 release “Diamonds and Dirt.” He has also written spades of songs that became hits for other artists, including “‘Til I Gain Control Again” for Crystal Gale, “Making Memories of Us” for Keith Urban and “Please Remember Me” for Tim McGraw.

Yet, it has taken Crowell a long time to get comfortable behind a microphone.

“I’m harder on myself than you would ever be,” he told me. “The maturation of my vocal chords has been a long, slow process for me.”

He says his new album, “Tarpaper Sky,” is his best project yet, although he’s not completely satisfied.

But instead of letting that dissatisfaction cripple his creative efforts, Crowell uses it as fuel. It’s what forces him to keep writing and recording, because he hopes someday he’ll reach his full potential.

“I think it would be the kiss of death if I were ever truly satisfied,” he said.

That seems a little bleak, but I think it’s a pretty good way to look at things.

I’m not satisfied with myself right now. But if I keep striving to get better, I might someday be the responsible grown-up I want to be.

Until then I’ll just fake it ’til I make it.