Zack Harold

writer/editor

Silver Bridge tragedy still haunts river city residents

This story originally appeared in the December 11, 2012 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

Ben Cedar crossed the Silver Bridge three times on the day it fell.

He was working as a Kirby sweeper salesman back then, and crossing the bridge was the fastest way to get across the Ohio River from his home base in Ravenswood.

“I was worried about that bridge every time I crossed over,” he said. “If you got stuck in the middle of that bridge, it would wave back and forth, back and forth.”

He crossed the Silver Bridge for the final time just before 5 p.m. on Dec. 15, 1967, headed for Gallipolis, Ohio. Once there he stopped at a Kroger store and used a payphone to call his office, just to check in.

As he was in the store, he overheard other customers talking about a bridge collapse. “I didn’t have any idea what they were talking about,” said Cedar, now 75. He asked someone what had happened, and they told him the Silver Bridge had fallen. “I said, ‘I just crossed that bridge 15 or 20 minutes ago.'”

Cedar headed back toward the span. He remembers seeing a large truck stuck on the Ohio side of the bridge, its trailer hanging down into the water. One of his co-workers was supposed to meet him in Gallipolis but had not yet arrived. For all Cedar knew, the man was on the bridge when it fell.

About the same time, 31-year-old State Trooper Rudy Odell was standing on the West Virginia side of the river. He also was surveying the damage. Odell, now 76, might have been the first law enforcement officer to respond to the disaster.

He was in downtown Point Pleasant when the bridge collapsed. Earlier that day, a man from Hutchinson Insurance called the local State Police detachment office wanting to talk with Odell, but he wasn’t at his desk. The secretary radioed Odell and asked him to stop by the man’s office. He parked his car on Main Street, just two blocks from the bridge’s on-ramp. He got out of the cruiser and had started to walk inside the insurance agency when he heard a low rumble. “It sounded like someone upstairs moving furniture,” he said.

Odell stepped back onto the sidewalk. A man across the street hollered at him, saying someone had gone through the bridge. Odell ran toward the river and up the bridge’s ramp, where he found a “very pregnant” lady standing beside her car. Her name was Charlene Clark. She had been on the bridge as it began to fall. Seeing the road collapsing before her, she shifted into reverse and sped backward toward land. Odell said Clark was “shook up,” but otherwise fine. “I would have been shook up, too,” he said. “It sheered off right at the water line on the West Virginia side.”

He left Clark and continued toward the collapse. It was a dreary, murky day, so Odell couldn’t see much of the wreckage. Some trailers had broken loose from their trucks and were floating downstream.

The murkiness did nothing to quiet the cries coming from the river, however. “I could hear them hollering for help. I didn’t know how many there were at that time,” he said. “There was absolutely nothing I could do. It was a long way out into the water. Nobody could get to it.”

Odell headed back to his car and radioed the State Police headquarters in South Charleston. He doesn’t remember what he did for the rest of his shift, but for the next few weeks he was stationed on a river barge helping recover vehicles and bodies from the river.

Forty-six people died in the disaster, but Cedar’s coworker was not one of them. He was one car back when the bridge collapsed, right behind Charlene Clark.

* * *

Opened in 1928, the Silver Bridge connected Point Pleasant and Gallipolis and was the first bridge in the United State to forgo a wire cable suspension for an “eyebar link” suspension, according to the West Virginia Encyclopedia. The bridge was held above the water using a series of flat metal links joined by steel “eyebars.”

These eyebars were about 12 inches wide and 2 inches thick, resembling giant-sized automotive wrenches. A crack in eyebar number 330, on the Ohio side of the bridge, brought the entire structure down. Odell said as the bridge collapsed, the deck turned upside down, dumping cars and trucks into the water. The bridge fell moments later, crushing many of those vehicles.

Workers had to remove pieces of the bridge from atop the cars before they could bring the vehicles out of the water. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers leased 50-ton cranes to make the work easier, but the process was painfully slow.

Odell’s primary job was to tag victims found inside the cars with the location and approximate time of their deaths before sending them to the morgue. He said police weren’t attempting to identify the bodies at that point, but often could.

The State Police had received calls from people all over the United States concerned their relatives might have been on the bridge when it collapsed. When one of those loved ones arrived home safely, Odell said the families often called back so police could remove their names from the list of the missing. “We never brought up a vehicle or a person that we didn’t know was there before they came up,” he said.

Once, when the Army Corps of Engineer’s crane brought up a car, Odell found a father and the man’s young son. “He had one of those little winter suits on, with the fur around the collar,” he said. “And I knew the little boy. I knew his mother. You don’t get used to it.”

* * *

The Point Pleasant River Museum will have a special memorial service at 2 p.m. this Saturday to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Silver Bridge Disaster and remember the 46 people who died.”

This is a part of history. A lot of people have been affected by this,” said Ruth Fout, who works at the museum and helped organize the event. “If they didn’t have a loved one on the bridge. . . they knew someone, or maybe their best friend’s father was on the bridge.”

Three of Fout’s neighbors died in the collapse. She was working as a clerk at Mason County Insurance at the time, just a few blocks from the bridge. “We were getting our coats ready to go home, and we heard a large noise. I can’t exactly explain how it was; I can just remember it sounded like a swoosh. Then the lights went off in the office. We didn’t know what had happened,” she said.

Then Steve Darst, her supervisor’s husband, came into the office. He always picked up his wife, Virginia, from work. As he was driving to the office that evening, he got held up in traffic near the bridge. While he waited, he watched as the bridge began to shake.” He said the eyebars looked like clapping hands,” Fout said. “He saw it fall.”

Fout was parked near the base of the bridge, but a floodwall blocked her view of the river. She could have walked another block to look in the water but did not want to. She got in her car and went home.

When she returned to Point Pleasant for a hair appointment the next day, Fout said the town was very quiet yet busy with activity as recovery efforts began. She continued to avoid looking at the river. “I never went back there during the time of the recovery,” she said.

Fout no longer averts her eyes. Beginning last year, she and her sister Ruth helped Hartford College professor Stephan Bullard and student Bridget Gromek write a new book, The Silver Bridge Disaster of 1967.

The book, which contains 200 photos and a history of the bridge and its collapse, debuted Oct. 1 and has been an instant success.”We’re trying to keep it alive for the future generations because, as time goes on . . . the story gets fainter and fainter,” Fout said. “It is something we don’t want to forget.”

And even a half-century later, parts of the story are left to be told.

About three years ago, Bill Needham, a former truck driver from North Carolina, came into the river museum and told Fout he was on the bridge when it collapsed. Needham said his rig quickly sank to the bottom of the Ohio River. He held his breath until he was able to roll down a window and swim out.

Fout said Needham told her the water was pitch-black when he finally escaped his truck but as he got closer to the surface, “he could feel the water getting lighter.” He grabbed onto some floating debris, and after 15 minutes in the water was pulled onto a rescue boat.

Needham’s driving partner, Robert Towe, did not make it out of the truck. Towe, of Cana, Va., was a husband and father of three small children. He had just built a new home and purchased a farm.

It was to be his last day as a long-haul trucker.

In Search of the Stone Man

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of WV Living magazine.

Russ Jones navigates the woods with an ease that only comes through vast experience. His running shoes do not lose their footing on this steep, unmarked trail in Kanawha State Forest. As a certified Master Naturalist, he readily spots animal tracks and identifies birdsong, and he can name just about any plant he finds while also ticking off the bugs that like to munch on it. He’s seen just about everything there is to see in the woods. But this morning, Jones is in pursuit of something he’s never seen.

Russ Jones is looking for Bigfoot.

He doesn’t really expect to come nose-to-nose with Sasquatch in broad daylight in a popular state park. It’s more accurate to say he’s looking for evidence of Bigfoot. Jones is a local investigator for the Bigfoot Field Research Organization, a 20-year-old group made famous by Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot. The group has received several reports of encounters in Kanawha State Forest, so Jones is looking for places to stash his top-of-the-line field cameras to catch photos of the fabled beast.

The trail levels off, giving us a brief respite from the steep climb. Then Jones notices something a few yards in front of him. Something that shouldn’t be there.

For the Record

Russ Jones has never seen a Bigfoot, but he has on five occasions found what he believes are Bigfoot tracks. “I don’t mean a smudge in the ground. I mean a clear track, with toes,” he says. The first time, he was a boy in southern Ohio and knew nothing about Bigfoot. He was walking in the woods with his uncle shortly after a snowstorm. They came to a cave and found a print in the snow that looked like it had been made by a human’s bare foot. “We thought maybe some druggie found that cave to get out of a storm.” Years later, after Bigfoot research became his passion, Jones saw it differently.

He also thinks he has heard a Bigfoot a few times. Recently, Jones was hiking with his wife, Cheryl, near Thurmond in the New River Gorge. He heard four “wood knocks” from across the river. Bigfoot researchers believe the creatures bang pieces of wood together to communicate. There were no Bigfoot to be seen, however, when Jones reached the location of the noises an hour and a half later.

Most of his Bigfoot experiences have come vicariously. Following up on reports of encounters in West Virginia or Ohio on the BFRO website, Jones has talked to policemen, teachers, nurses, and prominent politicians. “If someone said, ‘What’s the most shocking thing about Bigfoot?’ I’d say it’s the witnesses. They’re so ordinary,” he says.

Scrolling through recent reports in his Dunbar chiropractic office during a lunch break, Jones finds one witness who reports working on a deer stand deep in the woods when he noticed something odd—banging noises rang through the air long after his hammer stopped. Later that day the man heard something large moving through the trees, although he was certain no other humans were anywhere near, and he smelled a musty, body odor-like stench.

Jones decides this account is credible, as much for what the witness wrote as how he wrote it. “This guy knows how to spell. His grammar’s really good. He knows where to use commas. I think it’s important to evaluate the context of a report.” Jones’ standards for credibility have risen over time. And for good reason. “When you make a remarkable claim, remarkable evidence is required,” he says.

Burden of Proof

The woods are quiet as Jones approaches a faded blue object near a sapling, now just a few feet away. It’s a Dora the Explorer sippy cup. He picks it up, sniffs the contents, and throws the cup back on the ground. Farther up the hill Jones finds something else: a gleaming white golf ball sitting on a bed of dark, decomposing leaves. To me, the discovery feels significant—what are these things doing here, on a steep hillside in the middle of the woods with no marked trail anywhere close? When you’re looking for Bigfoot evidence, everything seems like it could be Bigfoot evidence. This is a common amateur mistake, Jones says. “I think having an experience is an exciting thing at first but after a while, when you’re sure something exists, you’ve run out of interest in experiences.”

Jones admits the cup and ball are odd finds, but the hard evidence he’s looking for eludes him. He attributes this to the animal’s primate intelligence and its high wariness of humans. Unbelievers say evidence just doesn’t exist, but Jones believes most of them simply have not reviewed the evidence. That’s why he took it upon himself to plead Bigfoot’s case.

Earlier this year Jones released his book, Tracking the Stone Man. The title is taken from the Cherokee name for the mysterious, hairy creature the tribespeople sometimes encountered in the woods. The book is part memoir. It’s also a field guide, detailing common beliefs about Bigfoot and its behaviors, with tips on running an expedition. He discusses DNA tests on alleged Bigfoot hair and scat samples and includes several witness reports, the best of the best. “I put the ones in the book I know are true.”

Jones poured two years of his life into the book, yet he knows it isn’t enough. Only one thing will ultimately prove Bigfoot exists: a dead Bigfoot. “Eventually I think that’s going to happen. A coal truck is going to go around a curve and hit it,” he says. “Then the university people are going to come out of the universities and act like they know stuff.”

If they are someday proven correct, Jones and his fellow believers will be in good company. Up until the late 1920s, many Westerners believed the giant panda was just a myth—until Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. and his brother Kermit went on an expedition to China and shot one.

But let’s admit, even if Jones will not, there is a very real chance he has spent a significant portion of his life and a large amount of money pursuing a falsehood. What will Jones have lost?

Less than you might think. Real or not, this obsession has colored Jones’ life with a rare sense of adventure. “People have this idea that we’ve explored and found all there is to find. I just don’t think that we have. Maybe it’s romantic at heart to believe there’s something left for man to discover. But I think there’s a chance.”

And when you look at it like that—who doesn’t want him to be right?

How Gillian Welch Created an Americana Touchstone in ‘Revival’

This is an excerpt of a story that first appeared online at Rolling Stone Country on November 10, 2016. Read the rest of the story here.

Early afternoons were pretty quiet at the Lyric Springs Country Inn. The previous night’s guests usually left in the morning, headed for home or into Nashville about 20 miles away. The next guests would not arrive until evening.

This gave the innkeeper – a tall, waifish 24-year-old redhead from Los Angeles – all day to make the beds, dust the oil lamps and horsehair chairs, and tend to Jubal, her boss’s 200-pound English Mastiff. That’s one reason she liked this job. With only Jubal to keep her company, the innkeeper could spend all day composing songs aloud as she mopped the floors and pruned the peony bushes.

One morning, on her 40-minute commute from Nashville, the innkeeper was listening to a cassette tape of the Stanley Brothers. She decided to write a song the Stanleys might enjoy singing in their high lonesome voices. She reached over, switched off the cassette deck, and began to sing.

“I am an orphan, on God’s highway / But I’ll share my troubles if you go my way.”

The innkeeper continued to work on the song throughout the day, her voice ringing off the wood-paneled walls of Lyric Springs’ barroom and the porcelain of its toilets.

“I have had friendships pure and golden / But the ties of kinship, I have not known them.”

The song was finished by the time she got back in her car and headed home. What started as an idea a few hours earlier now had four verses and two choruses.

“I have no mother, no father / No sister, no brother / I am an orphan girl.”

When she got home, the innkeeper grabbed a guitar and her duet partner, an equally skinny guitar picker she’d met while attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. She played him the new song, but he didn’t say anything. “I thought, ‘Oh well, he doesn’t like it.’ But he says he didn’t say anything because he thought it was perfect, so what was there to say?” she recalls.

It wouldn’t be long before many people shared the guitar picker’s opinion. This song, “Orphan Girl,” would open lots of doors. It would launch a career that would make the innkeeper one of the most beloved figures in a new music genre called “Americana.” And it would take her away from scrubbing other people’s’ toilets forever.

High Hopes for a New Cash Crop

This story originally appeared in the August/September ’16 issue of Morgantown Magazine.

Susanna Wheeler prefers not to divulge the location of her summer garden. She’ll admit it is planted on WVU property, but that is as much information as she’s comfortable giving out. “We don’t want people to try to come up here and see what’s going on,” says the agronomy graduate student.

That’s because her crop, planted in neat rows on a quarter-acre plot, is instantly recognizable from certain dorm room posters, reggae albums, and Willie Nelson T-shirts. If you’ve ever stumbled into a shop that sells “for tobacco use only” items, you’ll instantly recognize its green, serrated leaves. Susanna Wheeler is growing Cannabis sativa.

Wheeler’s secrecy has nothing to do with getting in trouble with the law. She’s not worried about that. She just doesn’t want to attract any snooping onlookers who might interrupt her very important work—a research project that could potentially change West Virginia’s agriculture industry forever.

While her cannabis plants look identical to marijuana, they contain only trace levels of THC, the psychoactive chemical responsible for the plant’s popularity as a recreational drug. That’s why Wheeler and others who work with the crop usually refer to it as “hemp.” It’s the hard-working, buttoned-down member of the cannabis family, with a long history of industrial use. The ships that brought European settlers to the New World were all outfitted with strong hemp ropes, and hemp was one of the first crops grown in the English colonies. But it fell out of use over the last century as it was outlawed alongside its psychedelic cousins.

There is hope for a comeback, however. Laws are slowly changing, and farmers around the country are beginning to take an interest in hemp again. West Virginia is beginning its own experiment with hemp this year. If the plant is able to thrive in West Virginia’s soil and growers can find willing markets, proponents believe hemp could be the next big industry our state so desperately needs—to the tune of millions of dollars and dozens of market applications.

ROOM TO GROW

It wasn’t too long ago that growing hemp, for any reason, was downright illegal. Despite hemp’s lack of THC, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) still considers any varietal of cannabis a Schedule 1 drug. It’s on the same list as heroin, LSD, mescaline, and MDMA, also popularly known as Ecstasy. But when Congress passed the 2014 Farm Bill, lawmakers included a provision allowing state agriculture departments and colleges and universities to grow hemp for research purposes, as long as state law allowed for hemp farming.

West Virginia’s neighboring state of Kentucky, which was the nation’s largest grower of hemp before it was outlawed, has made a large investment in hemp research. After beginning with just about 30 acres of hemp in 2014, this year the Kentucky Department of Agriculture approved more than 160 individual growers, not including university projects, to produce almost 4,500 acres of hemp.

Although Kentucky’s program is still focused entirely on research—that’s all federal law allows, after all—several processors have sprung up in the state to purchase growers’ crops. There are companies that process the fiber for textile production, clean the seeds for food use, and extract and refine oil from the seeds. There’s even a distillery in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, that makes hemp grain moonshine.

Hemp farming has technically been legal in West Virginia since the 1990s. The law as it was written allowed growers to raise hemp as long as they obtained permits from the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and the DEA. No hemp was ever legally grown since neither agency was issuing hemp permits back then, but the state wanted to be ready in case that day eventually arrived.

After Congress revised the Farm Bill, state lawmakers in 2015 removed the requirements for a DEA permit from West Virginia Code and created an application process for the hemp program. Eric Ewing, director of the agriculture department’s Plant Industries Division, says he got many phone calls when that application process began on June 1, 2015. But only a few growers actually decided to take the plunge.

Seven West Virginia growers, including Wheeler, now have full licenses to grow hemp. Morgan Leach, executive director of the West Virginia Hemp Farmers Cooperative, estimates those growers have a combined 10 acres of hemp in the ground. Each operation will receive regular visits by Ewing and his staff as they test THC levels in the plants, because state law requires levels to be below 0.3 percent. “Most of them are starting small, which makes sense,” Ewing says. “Anything new like this, you’ve got to start somewhere. We’re in our infancy.”

ROOTS OF AN INDUSTRY

Marty Biafora, director of operations for Morgantown-based iHemp, says his company is growing about 5 acres of hemp this year and soon will begin growing plants indoors at a 1,000-square-foot hydroponic facility. When it comes time this fall to harvest those plants, Biafora says there isn’t much use for them. Hemp can’t be transported across state lines—more about that below— and there’s nowhere to process hemp in West Virginia right now.

But Biafora isn’t concerned. He fully expects it will be years before the hemp industry turns a profit. “Our goal is to just get seed in the ground, get it up, go through the process of harvesting whatever amount we have, so we can know what to expect next year,” he says. “This is just an exploratory process to get the industry up and rolling.”

So what might the hemp industry look like once it’s all grown up? Leach imagines a day when the abandoned warehouses dotting the

Ohio River Valley are filled with hemp or hemp products waiting to be loaded onto river barges, trains, and trucks and shipped to the rest of the world.

“There is not another crop on the planet that has the utility of hemp,” Leach says. Its fiber can be used to make paper, textiles, rope, insulation, plastics, concrete substitutes, and fiberboard that’s stronger and lighter than wood. Leach is president of Agri Carb Electric, a company that he hopes will make hyper-efficient batteries from hemp fiber.

But the uses don’t end there. Hemp seeds are packed with proteins, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals that proponents claim boost immunity, prevent varicose veins, and lower cholesterol, among other purported health benefits. Hemp seeds also can be pressed to extract oils, which can be turned into biofuels, paint, detergent, and a legion of other products.

In 2015, the U.S. retail market sold more than $570 million in products made from hemp fiber, hemp seeds, and hemp oil, the Hemp Industries Association estimates. That includes $280 million in hemp food, food supplements, and body care products, up more than 10 percent over 2014 sales figures.

Leach believes sales will continue to grow as the industry develops—28 states now have laws allowing hemp research—and he’s confident hemp could be the big diversifier West Virginia’s fossil fuel-focused economy needs. He’s been in contact with a company that makes mats for mechanics, for which it imports 500 tons of hemp each year from Bangladesh. There’s also a food producer that uses 400 tons of hemp seed per year.

Capturing even a fraction of the international hemp market could be an unprecedented boon for the state’s agriculture sector. Most of West Virginia’s farmers do their work on evenings and weekends while relying on day jobs to pay the bills. According to 2007 Census statistics, four out of five West Virginia farms make less than $10,000 a year.

Leach says he doesn’t know how large the Department of Agriculture will allow the pilot program to get, but the West Virginia Hemp Farmers Cooperative already has about 40 people interested in growing hemp on their properties next year. “It’s a wide-open space, if you can navigate the legal hurdles to get it done,” he says. “As long as the sun shines, we’re in business.”

But, as Ewing at the agriculture department pointed out, the modern hemp industry is still only a seedling. It’s unclear what the fully grown business would look like—how deep its roots would go, how wide its leaves would reach. We don’t even know for sure how well the plant will grow in the state.

This is where Susanna Wheeler comes in.

FARMING IN THE DARK

If a West Virginia farmer needs advice for growing tomatoes, watermelons, wheat, asparagus, alfalfa, or any other common agricultural product, experts at the WVU Extension Service can provide most of the information she needs. Extension agents have access to data on the best times to plant crops, the best times to fertilize them, proper soil acidities, the optimal spacing of plants in fields, and many other variables. But, for the most part, hemp growers in West Virginia are flying blind.

Wheeler came back to WVU last fall. The Charleston native earned her undergraduate degree in agriculture in 2012, then moved to Nicholas County, where she spent some time growing vegetables for farmers’ markets, growing sorghum for molasses, and tapping maple trees for syrup. When she returned to Morgantown to work on her master’s degree, she planned to spend her first summer researching cover crops, varieties of plants grown during agricultural downtimes to protect and enrich the soil.

But then her roommate mentioned the agriculture department’s hemp program. “I started reading about the legislation that was passed and decided I’d like to do a small experiment on the side,” she says.

The more she learned about hemp, however, the more she realized a small experiment wouldn’t be enough. “We know almost nothing about how it will grow in the state. We don’t know what varieties to recommend, we don’t know what fertilizer to recommend,” says Louis McDonald, WVU professor of plant and soil sciences and Wheeler’s adviser. Most of the U.S.-based hemp research Wheeler has uncovered dates back to the 1940s. “It’s not really relevant to our modern agricultural practices,” she says.

Wheeler discovered some basic information from a French textbook, along with a few journal articles and research papers. She got some advice from growers in Kentucky whose own hemp

experiments began a few years back. But there’s nowhere for West Virginia farmers to get state-specific information about hemp. “There’s so much research that needs to be done. I immediately became overwhelmed,” she says. She pitched the idea to McDonald, who agreed to give it a shot.

After completing the application process with the state agriculture department—which included state and federal background checks—Wheeler obtained an importer permit from the DEA before tracking down overseas companies to provide her hemp seeds. “They’re not plentiful. It’s not like, let’s go to Southern States and get some varieties or do a quick Google search.” She eventually found a broker based in Kentucky who had relationships with Italian and Polish hemp seed vendors. The seeds mostly arrived without incident, although U.S. Customs in New York held up one order for three weeks.

Wheeler finally planted the first of her seeds in late May, in that undisclosed half-acre plot on WVU property. She planted five varieties of hemp to see how well they would grow in West Virginia’s soil and climate conditions under different fertility levels, which she controls by adding compost to the plants.

She also began a second, smaller research project in late June to test hemp’s abilities as a “hyperaccumulator.” Other researchers’ findings suggest the plant might be able to extract harmful elements like cadmium, lead, and zinc from the ground. Wheeler has a few dozen plants growing in pots of contaminated soil at a WVU greenhouse. If the results prove promising, hemp eventually could be used to remediate former industrial sites.

GROWING PAINS

For all the excitement surrounding hemp, there are still a lot of hurdles to clear before the plant can become a full-fledged cash crop. Lawmakers earlier this year passed an amendment to the agriculture department’s rules to exclude private growers from the hemp program.

“That’s what our attorneys advised us,” says State Senator Bob Williams, a Democrat from Taylor County, who made the amendment. He says West Virginia Code only allows the Department of Agriculture and state colleges and universities to grow hemp, so issuing permits to private growers is beyond the department’s authority. “We were trying to make the rule conform with the code.”

The changes disquieted hemp growers, many of whom had already invested money into the project, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed the bill but Williams still believes the Department of Agriculture is operating the project outside the bounds of state law. “I’m not a lawyer, that’s just my opinion. But I think the law is clear as to what is allowed,” he says.

The agriculture department reads the law a little differently.

Chris Ferro, the department’s chief of staff, says the Farm Bill clearly allows for cultivation and marketing of hemp. “While there’s no definition of marketing (in the law), a dictionary definition of marketing means to sell,” he says. “Our interpretation was, if Congress wanted us to research and market, that’s what we intended to do.”

Federal laws and regulations provide their own challenges to hemp growers and officials. When Eric Ewing had to take hemp seeds from his office in Charleston to a grower in the Eastern Panhandle, he couldn’t drive his normal route through Virginia and Maryland. “I had to go all back roads, staying in-state, because if I’d crossed state lines I would have been transporting controlled substances across state lines.” That’s a felony.

Ewing also made sure to bring lots of identification and paperwork on the off chance he’d be stopped by a curious police officer along the way. “We were very careful not to speed. Not that we aren’t always, but we were extra careful,” he says.

And even once the hemp is fully grown, growers cannot transport their crop across state lines—it must first be processed into textiles, paper, seed oil, or other products. But as of right now, there aren’t any producers in West Virginia ready to turn raw hemp into end-use products. One grower does have plans to buy a seed oil press, but his operation is not up and running yet. “It’s going to lose its novelty unless you can sell it,” Louis McDonald says.

Morgan Leach at the hemp farmers’ co-op says these issues likely will not go away until Congress completely legalizes hemp. And until that happens, the hemp industry likely will not get the one thing it needs most to thrive: money.

For the time being, Wheeler is doing all her research alone, for no pay. McDonald says the agronomic study of hemp is so new it’s difficult to get funding for research. “Because it’s such a rigmarole to get seed, nobody’s willing to give you money until you can show you’re able to get seed. My hope is we can do this little project now, get the seed, collect data, secure our plots, do the research … (and) next year it will give us leverage,” he says. “Lots of university people are interested, but they don’t have money to do additional research. It’s always the problem: Where’s the money going to come from?”

McDonald says if the industry ever takes off in West Virginia, we’ll have Wheeler to thank. “She has done an enormous amount of work,” he says. “She’s the one who’s worked with these seed companies, worked with the Department of Agriculture, tried to get these additional growers to participate. It would not be here without her.”

Despite worries about money and legality, Wheeler is plowing ahead. Her projects will likely run through October, when she will harvest seed from the hemp plants. If she’s able to get enough funding, she’d like to test soil samples to see how hemp changes soil’s chemical makeup.

She knows these experiments will only answer a handful of the questions that remain about hemp. But it’s a start. “There’s a lot of speculation,” Wheeler says. “There are prolific pro- and anti-hemp beliefs. But right now, they’re just that. Beliefs.”

A Creek Runs Through It

This story originally appeared 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. Denny suggested they try their luck in a nearby stream he’d heard about, so he and Rick threw their gear into the Mustang II they’d driven on the trip while Danny stayed behind.

The brothers drove the winding roads about 15 minutes away to a property separated from the road by a gate. They parked the Mustang, hopped the gate, and began walking a path they hoped would lead them 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. It has become a regular stop for cavers of all experience levels. 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 hteir 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.

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.”

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 Ken Ashton, a geologist with the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey.

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.

A LASTING IMPRESSION

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.

“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 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 at the time—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 has been back several times since his 2013 excursion. 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.”

EXPLORING ON YOUR OWN

Spelunkers have been exploring the Sinks of Gandy for generations. But even a relatively easy cave like the Sinks is full of potential hazards for inexperienced explorers. Geologist Ken Ashton recommends cavers always have at least three sources of light. “Once you get in there, there is no light. Be prepared,” he says. “I’ve seen people go through there with nothing but a Coleman lantern, and that scares the crap out of me.”

He recommends wearing good, sturdy shoes—it’s all too easy to twist an ankle while walking across the slick rocks in Gandy Creek—and a helmet. “It’s dark and you can’t see the rocks in the ceiling.” Ashton also says it’s a good idea to take along some friends on your adventure. “It’s safer, and you’ll have a better time,” he says.

And because Gandy Creek is prone to flooding, cavers of all ability levels should keep the weather forecast in mind. In the event of heavy rain, water levels inside the Sinks can rise really high, really quickly. “Never go into that cave if there’s a chance of major rain,” Ashton says. “There are parts, you can look up into the ceiling and see sticks and branches that got stuck from previous flooding events.”

A 1941 Saturday Evening Post article tells the story of a band of Ohioans who became trapped in the Sinks of Gandy on Memorial Day 1940 when a cloudburst raised Gandy Creek by three inches, flooding the cave and cutting the party off from the outside world. Lucky for these spelunkers, they discovered the Sinks’ alternate exit and made their way out—wet, shaken, but otherwise unharmed.

With the proper precautions in mind, Ashton says the Sinks can provide a great introduction to the exciting sport of spelunking. “It’s a neat way to experience wild caving without getting the crap beat out of you,” he says. “As long as you can follow the flow of the water, you’ve got Gandy Creek to guide you.”

 

At River’s Bottom

This story originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Wonderful West Virginia magazine.

At first, no one knew exactly what was happening, or why. But one fact was clear—lots of things were dying in Dunkard Creek.

Division of Natural Resources fisheries biologists Frank Jernejcic and Dave Wellman were at the Monongalia County stream almost every day during the September 2009 fish kill, surveying the damage. Lifeless fish lay dead on the shores and sandbars. The fish that remained alive thronged into pools of unspoiled water created by the confluence of Dunkard’s tributaries with the main waterway. “They couldn’t move into the main flow of the stream. They were stuck in these little areas,” says Jernejcic, who retired in late 2014.

The fish couldn’t swim upstream into those tributaries because the water level was too low. “They were frantic, like if someone sets off a bomb in the middle of a fairground and people try to make it to the exit,” Wellman says. Jernejcic remembers the last two he saw alive, a carp and a muskie. By the next time he visited the pool, those fish were died, too.

And then there were the white soft clumps of matter Wellman noticed floating downstream. “The first couple times I saw them, I thought it was clumps of toilet paper,” he says. But he realized it was much more worrisome than litter. After checking with fellow DNR biologist Janet Clayton, Wellman confirmed his hypothesis: those white clumps were actually mussels, floating free of their shells after they were killed by whatever unseen force wiped out the rest of Dunkard Creek’s aquatic life.

More than a week later, biologists finally figured out what caused the Dunkard Creek kill. A mine drainage pipe was dumping high levels of chlorides into the stream, creating brackish conditions that, when combined with low water levels and hot weather, created a perfect environment for Prymnesium parvum—more commonly known as “golden algae”—to grow. When the algae bloomed, it released deadly toxins that damaged the gills of fish and mussels, causing them to choke to death.

In the end, around 21,000 fish and 25,000 mussels died in the kill—every single living thing that called Dunkard Creek home. “Normally you have some fish alive. In this case, there were no fish left,” says Jernejcic, who saw hundreds of events like this in his career, and even served on the national committee that wrote the handbook on investigating fish kills.

Then, over the following weeks and months, something amazing began to happen. The algae dissipated as weather and water conditions shifted. Fish moved up from the Monongahela River and lower sections of Dunkard Creek. Within a year, biologists found 90 percent of fish species had returned to the stream. Within two years, 100 percent of species had returned, although the populations took a few more years to reach pre-kill levels. “It recovered very quickly,” Jernejcic says. “Two or three years later, I fished it and had one of the best smallmouth trips of my life.”

But not everything bounced back so easily. Years passed and the mussel population in Dunkard Creek remained nonexistent. Clayton, DNR’s foremost expert on mussels, says it can take centuries for mussel populations to recover after a catastrophic event because of the slow and cumbersome way these mollusks reproduce. “In a case like Dunkard Creek, it probably never would,” she says.

Luckily, Mother Nature has people like Clayton to help her along.

* * *

DNR began its mussel restoration project in Dunkard Creek in 2011. Crews began collecting fully mature mussels during stream surveys and pulling others from streams where construction projects threatened the native mussel populations. They came from the Ohio River, Elk River, Tygart River, and several smaller streams including the unaffected north West Virginia fork of Dunkard Creek, and were planted directly in the substrate of Dunkard Creek.

Clayton and company also began growing their own mussels. In 2011, Clayton and her team moved their first brood stock into DNR’s facility in Belleville, Wood County. Mussels reproduce sexually—meaning both a male and female are required for the process—but since they can’t move to find a mate, male mussels release their sperm into the water, hoping a female somewhere downstream will catch it and use it to fertilize her eggs. This fertilization can take some time. For mussel species known as “long-term brooders,” this stage can last the entire winter.

Once the eggs have matured into larvae called “glochidia,” it’s time for another trip downstream. The mother mussel releases her glochidia into the water where, if they’re lucky, they will latch onto the gills of a passing fish. Or at least that’s how it works in the wild. At Belleville, Clayton’s crew placed the glochidia in a holding tank with small fish and then used a pump to aerate the water to keep the glochidia moving around, increasing their exposure to a potential host.

Mussels are picky about their hosts. While some species of mussels will work with entire groups of fish, other mussels require an exact subspecies before they’ll grab hold. Some, for example, only use skipjack herring. “There’s others that use catfish, there’s others that use darters,” Clayton says. “There are mussels that we still don’t know what their host is.”

For mussel species that require larger fish as hosts, Clayton had to take a more hands-on approach to inoculation. She collected the glochidia in a syringe, and then squirted it onto the gills of an appropriate host fish. She only used one side of the fish, however, to ensure the fish were not over-inoculated and had difficulty breathing.

Larvae develop into juvenile mussels during their time as parasites. When the mollusks have developed enough to survive on their own, juvenile mussels simply drop off their fish hosts and find a home on the bottom of the stream. In 2012, Clayton and her team released inoculated bluegill and drum fish at four different sites on Dunkard Creek, hoping the juveniles would settle into the streambed and begin to replenish the population. They also released fish in 2013 and 2014.

Things have not gone as Clayton hoped. “So far we’ve not seen any response,” she says. This difficulty did not come as a surprise, however—she knew from the beginning the odds were stacked against her project. The mussel reproductive process is long and finicky, and in the wild is largely a product of luck. Despite biologists’ efforts to circumvent luck, sometimes the natural order still prevails.

But that doesn’t mean Clayton has stopped trying. Mussels are far too important for that.

* * *

Clayton first became interested in mussels back in 1989. She worked for DNR’s Office of Water Resources at the time, and was in her office one day when she overhead a new employee complaining just outside her door. Their boss was going to make him attend a class on mussels, and he did not want to go. Clayton jumped at the chance and volunteered to take his place. “Once I took the class, I was fascinated. They’re just amazing,” she says.

It wasn’t long before she moved to DNR’s office in Elkins where she got involved with a research tracking acid rain’s effects on fish. She still was working on mussel projects on the side, and over time her work became less about acid rain and more about mussels. When the research program wrapped up, her bosses asked Clayton developing a new mussel program for the agency.

Mussels are found all over the state—West Virginia is home to about 63 species, nine of which are on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species list. And despite their humble appearance, mussels are extremely important to their ecosystems. Because they bury themselves into the streambed, they help prevent erosion like trees on a hillside.

They are also nature’s sewage treatment plants. Mussels feed themselves by drawing water through their siphons and filtering out particulate matter and small organisms—a single mussel can filter five gallons of water a day. It’s not just food they are pulling from the water, however. “They also filter out the contaminants,” Clayton says. “They’re filtering everything out of the water. What they don’t use in their bodies, they’re binding into pseudofeces. Other critters can eat that. That’s less for that our water treatment plants have to deal with.”

But as helpful as they are to their ecosystems, mussels are also extremely vulnerable creatures. Most of the events that lead to mussel deaths are not big, dramatic happenings like Dunkard Creek. Clayton says mussel deaths are usually caused by a slow accumulation of sediments over time. “We have a lot of sediment impacts from road construction, from the oil and gas industry,” she says. Chlorides, like those found in fracking fluid or road salt, are especially dangerous. “That’s highly toxic to mussels, and even more toxic to juvenile mussels.”

They are also threatened by invasive species. Zebra mussels—a nickel-sized freshwater mollusk originally native to Russia—killed 25 percent of the native mussels in the Ohio River in 2000. The native mussels sucked the microscopic zebra mussel larvae through the water column while trying to feed. As the larvae develop, “they become this ball of zebra mussels on top of the native mussel,” Clayton says. The intruders use up all the food and oxygen in the water and starve out the native mussel.

By and large, there’s little anyone can do about these threats. The golden algae could come back, if the conditions are right. Clayton says industrial disasters seem to be getting more and more frequent. There’s nothing to prevent zebra mussels from entering the state’s waterways.

But she can try to repair what’s been broken. Although the Dunkard Creek restoration isn’t going very well at the moment, there have been other, more successful projects. When chemical spills on the Ohio River killed thousands of mussels, Clayton and her team went into the river to stock adult muscles. “Our main purpose was to get some mussels in there to help hold the substrate,” she says. But those mussels made way for more to follow. “The last time we surveyed it four years ago, we picked up an endangered species that has naturally recruited back into that site.”

It’s these kinds of victories that keep Clayton fighting her fight. Although it has been nearly 30 years since she attended that first class on mussels, her passion for the creatures remains as strong as ever. It might seem odd to some to devote so much energy—not to mention a career—to these often overlooked, not very attractive, bottom-feeding creatures. But for Clayton, it’s no mystery. “They’re quite important,” she says.

Casts of Character

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of WV Living magazine.

 

The Native American hunter, all bulging muscle and sinew, lies close to his horse’s neck as the beast reaches full gallop. He clutches a flint-tipped spear in his right hand. With his left he holds a buffalo hide, draping the skin over himself and his pony.

We are witnessing a “buffalo jump,” where a disguised horseman drives a herd of bison into the path of a hunting party. In milliseconds the hide will fall away and the stunned herd will be doomed. But the climax never occurs. The whole scene is frozen in time.

This is the work of sculptor Burl Jones. He takes characters and scenes from the adventure magazines he read as a kid growing up near Charleston and—with clay, bronze, and an eye for detail—hits the pause button.

Like so many young West Virginia boys and girls, Jones spent his childhood was outdoors. He remembers thrilling over the rabbits and squirrels his father brought home after hunting trips and began accompanying his father on those trips as soon as he was old enough to hold a gun. He fantasized about the American West—the Rocky Mountains and the badlands of Montana that he read about in Jack O’Connor’s stories for Outdoor Life magazine.

Jones finally got a chance to see those landscapes himself when, after finishing dental school at West Virginia University in 1966, he went to Montana for two years to work on an Indian reservation. It was during this time in Big Sky Country that he first encountered the bronze work of renowned artist Robert Scriver, who had a gallery on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. He began seeking out other bronze artists after that, but only as an admirer. Jones had an artistic bent—he’d carved a few gunstocks, and he’d tried painting for a while until his colorblindness made the exercise too frustrating—but did not consider himself an artist. “I was intrigued by it (but) it never registered in my mind that it was something I’d do,” he says.

He returned to West Virginia in 1968 and set up a dental practice in Sissonville. His artistic impulses continued to goad him, but it wasn’t until 1980 that Jones finally tried his hand at sculpture, making little figurines from dental wax. He learned by observing other artists and asking questions, but it was largely an effort of trial and error. “Mostly error,” he says.

He tried to cast his miniature sculptures in copper and bronze, the way he was taught to make dental prostheses in dentistry school, but was not satisfied with the results. “I didn’t know enough about the casting process. I discovered if I’m going to do this, I’m going to have to enlist the aid of a professional foundry,” he says.

After a lot of shopping around, Jones finally found a foundry he liked and began having his sculptures turned into bronzes. He had no intentions to sell the pieces—sculpture was nothing more than a creative outlet at the time—but his work started attracting attention from friends and, eventually, from art galleries in Montana.

In 1982, Jones sold his dentistry practice in West Virginia and moved with his wife to Livingstone, Montana where he spent half his time tackling cavities and root canals and the other half sculpting birds, bears, horses, fish, Native American warriors, and coonskin-capped mountaineers. He eventually opened his own art gallery and, in 1992, decided to quit dentistry and give his full attention to art.

No matter what he’s making, each of Jones’s sculptures begins with in-depth research. Jones is a stickler for detail. “I’ve got shelves full of books that show profiles and dimensions on hawks and eagles. They have a certain number of feathers. They have a proportion of wing to tail to body.” For living human subjects, he’s been known to make exhaustive photographic records and even measure the person’s facial features.

Small pieces can take up to a month to sculpt, plus two or three months at the foundry. For portraiture projects, he prefers to have at least a year. To date, Jones has created more than 225 limited edition sculptures. His work is a mainstay at Tamarack, West Virginia’s art and craft showcase in Beckley, and prized by collectors who share the artist’s affinity for the outdoors. His reputation for intensely detailed work has led to larger projects including a monument outside WVU’s Alumni Center, a statue of a coal miner on the state Capitol grounds, and the bust outside Marshall University’s Joan C. Edwards Stadium commemorating players killed in the 1970 plane crash.

Jones plans to do three or four sculptures this year. Now 74, he says he doesn’t get as much time to sculpt as he’d like. He splits his time between a home in Huntley, Montana, a “medium-sized” ranch in the northeastern part of the state, and a residence back home in Kanawha County. Between his grandkids’ ballgames, marketing his work, tending to his ranch, hunting, and fishing, there’s not as much time to spend in his art studio. But sculpture remains Jones’ favorite pastime. “I could work at it every day and be happy doing it,” he says.

He’s currently finishing work on a small eagle, its wings canted and tail feathers spread as the bird turns in midair. In life, this moment would be over in a split second. But soon the sculpture will go to the foundry and the eagle—along with a small piece of its creator—will be frozen in time, forever.

A Job You Wear

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of WV Living magazine.

On June 15, 2015, elected officials, members of the public, and journalists crammed into the dark wood-paneled council chambers at Charleston City Hall to watch Kanawha Circuit Judge Todd Kaufman administer the oath of office to Mayor Danny Jones. He had been reelected just a few weeks earlier, carrying 62 percent of the vote over Democrat candidate Paul Monroe and independent challenger William Carpenter.

Although the swearing-in ceremony carried much less pomp and circumstance than a presidential or gubernatorial inauguration, it was a historic occasion for Charleston. Once Jones said “so help me God,” he officially began his fourth term as mayor, the longest tenure in city history. It was a milestone for Jones, too. With 13 years under his belt—and three more to go—he has spent more time as mayor of Charleston than at any other job in his life.  

Since he returned to his hometown after a two-year stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, which included some time driving a truck in Vietnam, and a yearlong stay at Marshall University, where he studied political science, Danny Jones has worked as a bartender, bouncer, cook, waiter, gravedigger, bottled water salesman, restaurant owner, public relations man, county sheriff, state delegate, and radio talk show host, among other gigs. By his count, Jones has held 35 jobs in his 65 years.

Political opponents criticized him for this when he first ran for mayor in 2003. They said Jones, the Republican nominee, wouldn’t have the attention span necessary to run a city government. After he won that race with more than 57 percent of the vote, his Democratic opponent Chris Smith came to congratulate him and offer a word of advice. He told Jones, “I want you to stick with this.”

Little did Smith—or anyone else—realize how well the mayor’s office would fit Jones. “Some people are suited for a job, and some people aren’t. This is a job that he is more than suited for,” says Charleston Councilwoman Mary Jean Davis. “It’s one he can get out and move around, or sit behind a desk and face a challenge. He loves challenges.”

There have been lots of challenges since Jones took over. His administration has faced budget problems, legal battles, and deadly tragedies. Jones was mayor during one of the worst environmental disasters of the century—when Freedom Industries dumped thousands of gallons of industrial cleaner into the Elk River, contaminating Charleston’s water supply and leaving its residents without potable tap water for days. While some government officials shrank from the ensuing media attention, Jones rose to the occasion, giving voice to the frustrations of his residents and demanding action against the perpetrators.

There have been personal struggles, too, which were often lived out in the local media. During his time in office Jones has been married, had two young sons, got divorced, battled prostate cancer, and dealt with the multiple drug-related arrests of his eldest son Zac, who was 13 when his father took office. While he might not have handled all these challenges perfectly, he has earned a reputation for addressing any situation with unwavering candor. “The one thing I like about Mayor Jones is, I know where I stand. He is honest and direct with his thoughts,” Davis says. “It’s politically incorrect, but it works.”

This is Jones’ modus operandi. “What else is there but the truth? The truth is to be used. The reason we don’t get to the bottom of issues is because people won’t tell the truth,” he says. It’s difficult to believe such a figure exists in our cynical age: a politician who speaks the truth for truth’s sake. You might even be inclined to believe he’s lying, but Jones is not blowing smoke. He’s not that kind of politician. He’s a mayor.

Occupying the space

Most mornings you can find Jones at the only Starbucks in city limits, located in the center court of the Charleston Town Center mall. He reads the newspaper over a small breakfast: a cup of coffee, a PowerBar, and maybe a pastry from the counter. Jones says he comes here to look at women. True to his politically incorrect nature, the mayor is a notorious flirt. But that’s just a bit of his barroom days showing through. Sit and talk with him, and you begin to see what is really on his mind.

Sitting on a stiff couch at a shopping mall coffee shop, Jones is surrounded by his city. He often stops mid-sentence to shout a greeting to a federal judge, lawyer, police officer, journalist, or taxi driver. Sometimes he greets people he doesn’t know. The strangers inevitably return the greeting. Jones calls this “occupying the space,” a concept he picked up from a political science professor at West Virginia State University, where he took a few classes while serving as Kanawha County Sheriff. “You’re mayor every moment you’re awake,” he says. “It’s not a job you work. It’s a job you wear.”

Danny Jones is a performer. During his time as county sheriff, he acted in local productions of Li’l Abner, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, The Music Man, and Annie Get Your Gun, which also featured a young Jennifer Garner. He considers playing the titular character in Abner the highlight of his life—besides, of course, his children. What was the attraction? “The power. You’re onstage. There’s 750 people in the audience and you can raise your eyebrows and they start laughing.”

But having your name perpetually on a marquee isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Jones’ insistence on wearing his job and occupying his space often causes his critics to attack the man as much as his decisions. Not long after taking office, Jones pushed for a $1-per-week user fee on anyone who worked within city limits. The fee generated $2.5 million in its first year, money the city used to pave roads, hire maintenance workers, and put more than 20 new officers on its police force. Yet many people—particularly those who worked in Charleston but lived elsewhere—balked at the fee. Some still have not forgiven Jones for dipping into their paychecks. Back then, commenters on local news websites gave him the disparaging nickname “Dollar Danny.” The name stuck and still gets regular use in some circles today.

But perhaps nothing has drawn more anger than Jones’ efforts to stop a 2014 state law that repealed all municipal weapons bans on city-owned properties. The mayor lobbied hard against the legislation, publicly calling on lawmakers to kill the bill. His efforts drew vicious criticism from gun rights supporters, and he eventually gave up the fight. “I don’t really fault them at all. I was basically a strawman. It was a tactic,” he says. “But nobody was there to help me. I was fighting that battle alone. I didn’t want to spend my last few years fighting something I cannot win.”

Either of these episodes, spun in the right way by opponents, could have ended his political career. Fighting to raise taxes and ban guns certainly would not work well for most candidates running on a Republican ticket. And yet he remains unrepentant about the battles he has picked even when, as with the gun ban controversy, he lost. He says being mayor brings you “nose to nose” with issues that affect your community—leaving little time for blind partisanship. Nanya Friend, former editor and publisher of the conservative Charleston Daily Mail newspaper who has followed Jones throughout his political career, knows what he means. “When you’re running a city it’s hard to be a pure ideologue, because of the issues that come up,” she says. “When you’re dealing with gun crime on the West Side, or need to make sure kids are safe in community centers, you get a different point of view.”

Amazingly, Jones’ habit of following his gut instead of the party line does not seem to have hurt him politically. If anything, it might have helped. Councilwoman Davis says this is because city politics are decidedly nonpartisan. “If you asked me to tell you who is a Democrat or Republican, I’d have to stop and think. When you come to the city level, you’re working for your neighborhoods. You’re working to make your city stronger. You don’t have time to think about who is what,” she says. “You don’t stay in office unless people feel you have the passion and they’re seeing change.”

Davis, for the record, is a Democrat. She was elected in 1999 and served for four years with Mayor Jay Goldman before Jones took office. “When I first went into City Hall, there was an area where there were hundreds of plans. Each administration makes its own plans of what it would like to see in Charleston,” she says. The plans in that room had never come to fruition. There’s only so much a mayor can accomplish in one term—and Charleston voters only allowed one of the five mayors before Jones to serve a second term. “Inevitably, what you have is a lot of plans gathering dust,” Davis says.

There aren’t many plans gathering dust now. Jones says he originally planned to end his mayoral career in 2011. But as he approached the end of his second term, he started to rethink his decision. “I thought eight (years) would be enough. But … there’s so many things that couldn’t have been done.”

Making a mark

Driving into Charleston at night, heading east on Interstate 64, the first thing that will catch your eye is the gilded dome of the West Virginia State Capitol. If it’s a summer night, another very impressive structure will come into view just seconds later. Appalachian Power Park is home of the Charleston Power, a Pittsburgh Pirates farm team. Their games are a favorite social occasion for Charlestonians of all stripes, even those who don’t really like baseball.

But Appalachian Power Park almost didn’t happen. Early on, the project was incredibly unpopular. According to a Charleston Gazette article at the time, a poll found 75 percent of voters opposed the new park. Democrat mayoral candidate Chris Smith promised in his 2003 campaign to divert the $12 million state lawmakers set aside for the project to other needs like sewer system upgrades or a new library. Jones also expressed doubts about the project, but promised to see it completed. Over the following two years his administration oversaw the demolition of an old factory and grocery store on the site, and dealt with lawsuits that temporarily tied up the state funding. In the end, a modern, $23 million complex rose on the city’s East End and Power Park opened just in time for the 2005 baseball season. “It’s one of those amenities that make Charleston a better place to live,” Jones says. “It makes everything look better.” Now businesses and apartments are moving into a side of town that once contained little more than abandoned warehouses.

As you leave the ballpark, make your way toward the Kanawha River and turn right on Kanawha Boulevard. After a few blocks, you’ll spot another spectacular bit of architecture: Haddad Riverfront Park. What began as a simple concrete amphitheater along the Kanawha River is now covered with a sweeping white canopy, a little reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House. Down front, the stage has its own arching canopy, designed to look like the paddlewheel of the sternwheeler boats that once frequented the adjacent waterway.

This park is also a monument to Jones’ tenacity. In 2008 he secured $2.4 million in federal earmarks from then-Senator Robert C. Byrd to build the roof at Haddad, which paved the way for additional donations from local philanthropists. The park, where spectators once blistered in the sun, is now the centerpiece of almost every summertime celebration in Charleston’s downtown.

By the beginning of 2018, Jones hopes to have completed another ambitious improvement project for the city. Workers have begun construction on a nearly $100 million revamp of the city’s Civic Center, largely funded by a half-cent sales tax passed by City Council in October 2013. It’s a project he has wanted to tackle since he first took office. “When I was in a show (in the Little Theater) in 1986, I was performing and the lights went out. It was a worn facility and needed work,” he says. “We don’t know how many events we lost, but we lost some.”

Now the aging, utilitarian Civic Center will be updated with a towering glass façade and an overhanging roof, a stylishly updated interior, and an outdoor plaza along the Elk River. Jones believes the project will attract bigger conventions and other events to the city, which will boost the local economy as a whole. “I’ve been in some world-class venues and I think this is definitely going to be one,” he says.

There have been other big changes since Jones took office. Businesses are growing on the city’s East End and West Side. Capitol Street in the heart of downtown was once a derelict row of boarded-up storefronts with a bad reputation; now it’s the city’s main cultural thoroughfare. But the accomplishment Jones is most proud of—the thing he hopes will define his legacy as mayor—is something you can’t see. It’s something visitors, as well as most residents, will never consider. “Barney Frank once told me you never get credit for what you prevent,” he says.

In 2009, the Pew Charitable Trusts named Charleston as one of worst cities in America for unfunded pension liabilities. At the time, the city had  saved only a quarter of the $270 million it owed in firefighter and police pensions. Jones knew that kind of debt could bankrupt a city—pension debts are what drove Detroit, Michigan into economic disaster—so he began looking for ways to pay down the debt. The city instituted hiring freezes on its fire and police departments, then made deep cuts to the city budget in 2010, removing across-the-board raises for city employees for the first time since Jones took office. In 2015, the city instituted a half-percent sales tax, expected to generate $13 million a year by 2029. Although the city still has hundreds of millions in pension debts on the books, Charleston is now on track to have its accounts settled within 25 years.

Jones did not tackle any of these challenges alone, and he admits that. He’s proud to have built a team of smart people who know how to get things done. But he can be credited for creating an environment where good things can thrive. “Like him or not, you have to respect that he wants to push Charleston and make it move forward,” Davis says. Ric Cavender, executive director of Charleston Main Streets, says this will be the legacy of Jones’ administration. “He’s somebody that’s up for new ideas. His vision will have a residual effect. These aren’t changes that will go away.” Friend, of the Daily Mail, agrees. “I’m not sure I’d want to be his successor.”

Vacating the space

Danny Jones’ great-great-grandfather, Henry Clay Dickinson, was the sixth mayor of Charleston. His administration has only one notable accomplishment: Dickinson was the city’s shortest-serving mayor, lasting only a month in office before he unexpectedly died.

Dickinson’s great-great-grandson is now the city’s longest-serving mayor. But he has no intention of dying in office. When Jones announced he would seek a fourth term as mayor, he made it clear it would also be his final term. Will he change his mind? “That ain’t gonna happen. We need to have younger people in these positions,” he says.

He believes leaving office in 2019 is best for the city. But you also get the feeling the job is wearing thin for Jones. He finds being mayor an inherently lonely job. “It is, by nature, selfish. You have to base everything around yourself because that’s whose name is on the line.”

In the meantime, Jones is content. In January, he made his return to local airwaves as the host of “580 Live with Danny Jones,” an hour-long news talk show on AM station WCHS. On a snowy morning in February, he arrives at the station a few minutes before the start of the show. He exits his black Toyota and heads into the building without feeding the parking meter. The blue and yellow “Danny Jones, Charleston Mayor” sticker on his rear bumper ensures he won’t be ticketed.

Inside, Jones makes small talk with the receptionist and says hello to news director Jeff Jenkins before stepping into the subterranean broadcast studio. He carries no notes or other preparatory material other than the newspaper he had at Starbucks earlier in the morning. “When I go on the air, I never know what I’m going to talk about,” he says.

He has no difficulty filling the silence. In the radio studio, Jones is animated behind the microphone. He shakes his head, swivels in his chair, and talks with his hands. He muses about the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the U.S. Senate’s promise to block any appointee from the Obama administration. He talks about the sentencing of executives from Freedom Industries. Owner Dennis Farrell and CEO Gary Southern each received 30 days in jail, while other officials got probation. “They should’ve gotten a lot more time,” Jones tells radio listeners. “The damage those people did to this community is incalculable when you think about it. Three hundred thousand people were affected by what they did … and it lasted for days and days and days.”

He also talks about the political battles being fought at the State Capitol a few miles away. Jones, who served two years in the House of Delegates before leaving to run a barbecue restaurant full-time, says the state is in the worst financial shape he’s seen. He criticizes lawmakers—of both parties—for not doing more to fix it. “This is conviction-driven government. They have no new taxes. That is what they believe,” he says. “Where’s the money going to come from?”

Jones holds up Charleston as a model of effective government, touting his town as “a sea of certainty.” “A place where we give great service. A place that has good finances, unlike the rest of the state. I’m so glad we planned for 13 years. We put things in order. We did things the way they needed to be done,” he says. But he doesn’t spend too much time congratulating himself—he wants to hear from listeners.

Throughout the hour Jones asks again and again for calls. Two people phone in wanting to talk about medical marijuana. Jones isn’t against the idea, but is skeptical state lawmakers would legalize pot. Someone else calls in to ask why the city hasn’t sued over the Freedom Industries spill. “Can I answer that? We have,” he says.

He continues pushing listeners to call in. He wants something to sink his teeth into. Danny Jones wants a challenge. “We’ll take your calls and talk about any issue you want to talk about,” he hums into the microphone as the show draws to a close. “We have about four minutes left if you’d like to call the show. We’d like to hear from you if you’d like to ask me anything. You know, I am the mayor.”

Late Edition

This story was originally published in the September/October 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

GZAround 3 p.m. on Sunday, July 19, the newsroom staffs of the Charleston Daily Mail and Charleston Gazette were called to the front lobby of their shared headquarters at 1001 Virginia Street East in downtown Charleston. Employees immediately knew something strange was happening. Although situated on opposite sides of the same hallway, the newsrooms seldom had contact with one another—and certainly did not hold mid-Sunday afternoon meetings by the front door.

Workers walked down the stairs from their second-floor offices and stood around the perimeter of the high-ceilinged lobby. Only about 30 people were in attendance. The newsrooms ran bare-bones staffs on Sundays, mostly just the sports departments along with copydesk staff, who edit stories and design the next day’s paper.

When everyone was assembled, recently named Gazette publisher Susan Chilton Shumate spoke up with an announcement: Effective immediately, everyone worked for the same publication, the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The brand-new publication would go to press in just a few hours. After more than 100 years as fierce competitors, the Gazette and Daily Mail were no more.

A flurry of confused activity consumed the newsrooms, according to several employees who spoke with West Virginia Focus. They asked not to be named, for fear of losing their jobs. Both papers had been planning their respective Monday editions since the week before—now Daily Mail editors had to send each story and photo to the Gazette. Daily Mail copy editors went to the Gazette newsroom to help lay out the paper but had trouble accessing the computers since they did not have log-ins for the Gazette’s system. Someone cobbled together a new Gazette-Mail flag for the top of the front page. Charley West, the cartoon punster who had appeared in every issue of the Daily Mail since 1958, was nowhere to be found.

Copies of the reborn newspaper arrived on newsstands and doorsteps Monday morning. The front page featured a story about a domestic violence pilot program from crime reporter Tyler Bell, of the former Daily Mail, and a story about the Public Service Commission of West Virginia by business reporter Andrew Brown of the late Gazette. Both were listed as “staff writers.” A photo spread of public murals took up the middle of the page—although copy editors, in their haste, had forgotten to include an accompanying story by Gazette city reporter Rachel Molenda.

But the big news on that Monday’s front page—the “play” story, as it is called in newspaper lingo—does not feature a byline. The headline simply reads: “Announcing the Charleston Gazette-Mail.”

The text of the article was the same as an email sent to staffers around 5 p.m. Sunday. The statement also was published online around 8 p.m. Sunday night. “Beginning today, the two newspapers are combining newsroom functions with the exception of editorial page content,” it read. “Welcome to the Charleston Gazette- Mail.”

The story assured readers the new Gazette-Mail would retain two independent editorial pages—a conservative Daily Mail page and liberal Gazette page—and the new, larger staff would be able to cover more news than ever before. “This is not one paper gobbling up the other. It is a combination of the two newsroom staffs working in cooperation to produce the most comprehensive news product in West Virginia.” What the story did not mention was the interesting timing of this change.

Paper Route

The Gazette and Daily Mail had shared the same printing press, advertising, circulation, and business operations under a joint operating agreement established in 1958, but the newsrooms had remained independent. The Daily Gazette Company owned the Gazette, while MediaNews owned the Daily Mail. Each company held a 50-percent stake in Charleston Newspapers—the legal name for their joint operations—until 2004 when MediaNews sold the Daily Mail to the Daily Gazette Company for a reported $55 million.

The deal drew scrutiny from the federal government, and in 2007 the U.S. Justice Department filed an antitrust suit alleging the Daily Gazette Company “planned to deliberately transform a financially healthy and stable Daily Mail into a failing newspaper and close it.” Three years later U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver issued a final judgment in the case, requiring that the Daily Mail remain a daily newspaper and returning control of the paper to MediaNews Group. No changes could be made to this arrangement without federal approval for as long as the judgment was in effect. Copenhaver set the ruling to expire five years from the date it was issued: July 19, 2010. It seems no one outside the newspapers’ upper management noticed as the fifth anniversary approached.

In the meantime, the world became an increasingly inhospitable place for newspapers. Especially after the Great Recession, publications all over the country folded as a result of diminishing advertising revenues and faltering subscription numbers. Charleston’s newspapers were not immune.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I spent five and a half years working at the Daily Mail, leaving in January 2015 to become managing editor of West Virginia Focus. During my final months at the Daily Mail I watched as the company made efforts to cut costs, raise revenues, and shore up its finances. Some of these changes were relatively small, like replacing expensive comic strips with less expensive ones. Others were more pronounced.

In January 2014, the Daily Mail sold its longtime domain name, www.dailymail.com, to the Daily Mail of London. The much larger London newspaper had coveted the web address for years, and the sale netted Charleston Newspapers around $1.6 million, according to news reports from the time. In October 2014, the Daily Mail and Gazette increased their newsstand prices from 50 cents to 75 cents Monday through Saturday, and from $1.50 to $2 for the Sunday paper. The newspapers also began producing joint editions for holidays. Subscribers received combined papers on Thanksgiving and Christmas 2014 as well as on New Year’s Day and Memorial Day 2015.

The company got rid of its in-house custodial staff, allowing some of those workers to move to other departments, and began contracting with an outside company for janitorial services. In January 2015, employees were required to begin using a new time clock and automated payroll system, which the company installed to replace its retired payroll clerk. Charleston Newspapers also switched to a thinner-weight newsprint in early 2015. This initially caused some headaches, as the paper had a tendency to break while passing through the printing press, leading to multiple delivery delays.

But the biggest indicator of Charleston Newspapers’ financial distress would not be made public until 10 days after the merger was announced, when the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC) filed a federal lien against the company. It turns out Charleston Newspapers had fallen behind in payments to the PBGC to the tune of $1.34 million. So as the clock counted down on Copenhaver’s final judgment, executives had begun eyeing the company’s biggest cost-saving measure of all: combining the two papers.

Press Release

At 3 p.m. Monday, July 20, staff members of the newly combined paper gathered in a conference room to hear from top executives and editors about the future of the company. A staffer who attended the meeting provided West Virginia Focus with an audio recording. Shumate began with a brief statement, echoing the story in that morning’s paper. “We’re not losing one newspaper … we’re combining them together to make the best possible news product we can for this area, for this size paper.” She said the new, combined newsroom would be “considerably larger,” allowing reporters to write “deeper stories” and “take a different or more creative look.”

But Shumate made clear there would not be enough room for all existing employees. At the time of the merger the Daily Mail had around 33 full-time positions while the Gazette had 44 employees. The newly combined newsroom would only have room for 67 people. Every member of the newsroom staff—with the exception of former Gazette executive editor Rob Byers and former Daily Mail editor and publisher Brad McElhinny—would have to reapply for his or her job. The newspaper would offer severance packages for those who chose not to reapply and those who were not rehired.

McElhinny encouraged employees to view this as a positive step. “If you feel stuck in a beat or stuck in a role, there are going to be new opportunities,” he said. “This is not newsroom versus newsroom. This is, I swear, an attempt to find the best possible personnel moving forward.”

About halfway through the meeting, staffers began to ask questions about the merger. One asked why the change was so abrupt. “There’s no real easy way to do something like this,” said Trip Shumate, president and chief financial officer of Charleston Newspapers and Susan Shumate’s husband.

Another staffer asked how long the merger had been in the works. No one answered. Susan Shumate only said, “It’s a necessity. I know that’s not the answer. But unfortunately now, it’s an economic reality.” She said the company planned to send out a press release to “make a positive spin” on the situation. The statement drew a few rueful laughs—the papers were usually in the business of deciphering “spin,” not publishing it.

The meeting did little to allay some staff members’ concerns about the future of their jobs. For some, it seemed to add insult to injury. “They didn’t have answers to legitimate questions,” said one former Daily Mail reporter following the meeting. “There’s just so many I-don’t-knows.”

But others were optimistic, excited about what a larger newsroom might be able to accomplish. In their minds a larger staff would give reporters freedom to cover stories they couldn’t before, give copy editors more time to work on pages, and make photographers’ schedules a little less hectic. “I think the Gazette-Mail is in a position to do great things,” one editor said.

In the intervening weeks, the two staffs grew steadily more comfortable working together. The copy desk staffs divvied up pages, while editors worked together to assign stories. Erstwhile Daily Mail reporters went on assignment with former Gazette photographers, while former Daily Mail photographers shot photos for ex-Gazette reporters.

The competition between the two papers did not completely cease, however. Although they were no longer jockeying for stories, staffers were now competing for jobs. Some employees cranked into overdrive, determined to prove themselves before the rehiring process was over. “It’s easy to spot somebody that’s going to an interview,” one staffer said. “They’re dressed better than they have been all summer.” Others became listless. Suddenly unsure of their roles in the newsroom, their bylines began appearing less and less frequently.

Employee interviews began on Monday, August 10, conducted in the same conference room where employees first learned about the rehiring process. Tables were arranged to resemble a capital letter I. Shumate, Byers, and McElhinny sat at one end with large binders full of resumes. Employees sat at the opposite end. One employee said the three-judge panel reminded her ofAmerican Idol.

Each interview took around 15 minutes. McElhinny or Byers led the conversation, depending on which newsroom the employee came from. They asked why the employee wanted the job and quizzed them about their work experience. Shumate mostly remained silent, staffers said, only occasionally chiming in with a question. Almost every employee West Virginia Focus interviewed described his or her interview using the same word: “awkward.”

Some opted to avoid the process altogether. Like several employees, Gazette reporter Rusty Marks opted to take severance. He spent more than a few sleepless nights mulling his options. “I’ve been at the Gazette more than half my life,” he says. “I had intended to retire from the Charleston Gazette. I’d say it’s one of the four toughest decisions I’ve had to make in my life.”

But Marks, 50, says he expects the newspaper will see more layoffs in the near future. “I just wasn’t willing to take the chance the paper would still be around in some kind of form I could live with in 15 more years,” he says. “I don’t want to be 55 or 60, laid off, and much more unemployable.”

Although he knew there was a chance he would be laid off, Daily Mail photographer Bob Wojcieszak wasn’t too worried. He’d first arrived at the newspaper in the early 1990s and had proved himself as a more than capable photographer. His photo essay about a local homeless shelter won Best Photo Feature at the 2015 West Virginia Press Association awards ceremony, held August 15.

But when Wojcieszak arrived at work on Tuesday, August 18 he quickly noticed something was amiss. He tried to log onto the paper’s computer system to check his assignments for the day but couldn’t. He rebooted the computer and tried to log on again. This time there was an error message. “It said my account had been deleted,” he says.

A few minutes later he received a call on his cell phone. It was Crystal McIntyre, Charleston Newspapers’ human resources director. She instructed him to report immediately to her office. “There’s Crystal, and Susan, and Rob, and Brad. Basically, they told me I didn’t ‘fit their vision.’ Whatever that means.”

Wojcieszak was asked to forfeit his parking garage keycard and key to the photo lab. McIntyre offered to escort him from the building and box up his possessions later. He balked. “They weren’t even going to let me say goodbye to anyone.” Wojcieszak walked back to the newsroom, shook a few hands, and collected his things. He already had everything packed up, assuming he would have to move to the Gazette newsroom sometime soon. His recent West Virginia Press Association award was still lying on the desk.

Reporter Tyler Bell learned of the layoffs over the phone. He got a call that morning from the newspaper but ignored it. Then his girlfriend, a copy editor in the former Daily Mail newsroom, called and said she was let go. Bell realized what the missed call was probably about. He called back and reached McIntyre, who put McElhinny on the phone. “I just start laughing because I know what’s coming,” Bell says. His time at the Daily Mail had ended after only seven months.

In all, seven people were laid off, including four employees from the former Gazette newsroom and three from the Daily Mail. An additional eight opted to take severance or left for other jobs, while three—the Daily Mail’s Charlotte Smith and Craig Cunningham, as well as Paul Nyden from the Gazette—decided to retire. All told, the rehiring process cost the Gazette-Mail 18 staffers.

West Virginia Focus asked Shumate for comment after the rehiring process was completed. She declined our request for an interview but sent a press release that also appeared in the Friday, August 21 newspaper. “Unfortunately, we said goodbye to a number of employees who were talented, dedicated members of our newspaper family,” she wrote. “The Gazette- Mail will miss them.” Shumate also repeated her assurances the combined papers would “provide deeper, stronger local coverage.”

Hard News

Rob Rabe has heard all this before. “The hair on the back of my neck always stands up when I hear publishers talk about streamlining and efficiency,” says Rabe, a journalism professor at Marshall University who specializes in the history of American newspapers. “That’s what they always say when one of these happens. Then a year, two, three years out, that doesn’t always happen.”

When papers merge, Rabe says, it’s common for publishers to tout a bigger, better paper. But as advertising and circulation continue to decline, it usually isn’t long before another round of layoffs. “I’ll be surprised if in three or four or five years the combined newsroom isn’t substantially smaller. That’s the way it seems to go,” he says.

Democratic political consultant Tom Susman says he feels the Gazette-Mail is living up to Shumate’s promises, so far. “It appears the paper’s thicker, there’s more content in it. It seems like they’re maintaining a writing staff and covering more stories.” But Susman, also a former newspaperman, predicts it will be more difficult to pitch stories. In the past, if one paper didn’t bite on a story, there was a good chance the competition would. Now, you get one shot. Conrad Lucas, chairman of the state Republican Party, wonders how the newspaper will handle political endorsements in the coming election year, with the newspaper’s dueling opinion pages. “Is every candidate going to be endorsed by the Gazette-Mail?”

There is some effort to postpone the inevitable. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is now pursuing a possible suit against Charleston Newspapers, alleging executives violated Copenhaver’s judgment by planning the merger while the judgment was still in effect. “This conduct, if proved, is a violation of the Antitrust Act,” Morrisey wrote in a petition filed in Putnam County Circuit Court on Aug. 13. The attorney general asked the court to cease “further merging” of the newspapers until the company complies with his subpoena. At press time, judges have not taken any action on Morrisey’s request.

It’s difficult to imagine what “further merging” might be left. All around Charleston, at gas stations and fast food restaurants, it is common to see two newspaper vending boxes sitting side by side. There’s a blue one for the Gazette and a green one for the Daily Mail. For years, the newspapers in these boxes often looked extremely different. There were different stories on each front page, different photos, different bylines. Now the boxes are sometimes filled with the same newspaper, but most often one box— usually the green one—is left empty.

This is the unfortunate history of American newspapers. It’s a story that has played out again and again throughout the country, in Cleveland, Denver, Seattle, Tuscon, and innumerable smaller cities and towns. As with most things, the news just took a little longer to reach West Virginia.

A Boy and His Bird

This story originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Wonderful West Virginia magazine.

For more than a millennium, people in Japan and China have used aquatic birds called cormorants to help them catch fish. Fishermen tie hemp snares around a trained bird’s throat so that, when the animal dives into the water after its prey, big fish remain stuck in its gullet. The fisherman then brings the bird back onto his boat and makes it spit up the trapped fish.

In West Africa, the Boran people of Ethiopia have for centuries worked alongside a bird known as the greater honeyguide. The bird leads tribespeople to honeybee nests using its calls and flight patterns. After the humans smoke the bees away and rob the honey, the bird gets to eat the leftover wax and insect larvae.

In Randolph County, West Virginia, Collin Waybright and his red tailed hawk Ace have been hunting together for about a year. Ace flies from tree to tree as Collin walks below. “He knows I’m going to flush something out,” Collin says. When a critter eventually does emerge from the underbrush, Ace dives from his perch and—usually before Collin knows what is going on—overtakes the prey and quickly dispatches it with the crushing grip and razor-sharp tips of his talons.

This bird isn’t much interested in fish or honeybee larvae. He prefers to hunt chipmunks, although he and Collin caught their first grey squirrel together last November. Ace once caught a king blacksnake, too, which gave Collin quite a scare. “They’ll take anything they can catch. You never know what you’re going to get if you go hunting with a hawk,” he says. “It’s never a boring time.”

Never boring and almost always successful. Collin says Ace catches something almost every time he goes into the woods—which is more than any other hunter can say for his prized shotgun or rifle. This is probably why ancient humans got the idea of hunting with birds in the first place. “I think at some point early man realized these birds were catching the quarry he himself was pursuing,” says Matthew Frey, co-founder of the West Virginia Falconry Club.

The origins of falconry are hazy. The practice likely goes back before the written word, but historians know the Mongols practiced falconry between five and six thousand years ago. It spread throughout Asia and the Middle East—there is even a mention of the sport in the Quran—but did not take hold in Europe until the Crusades, becoming extremely popular during the Renaissance period.

It was more than an entertainment, however. “Way back when, it was a viable way of bringing meat,” says master falconer Paul Fowler. Reliable firearms were not available until the 1700s and even then the weapons were not very efficient or accurate. “Even then, falconry was one of the only reliable ways to take winged prey,” Paul says.

The sport declined in popularity as weapons improved. It is relatively obscure today, with only a few thousand licensed falconers in the United States and fewer than 20 falconers in West Virginia. Matthew says he has seen increased interest in falconry over the last few years, but he also knows the sport likely will not and maybe should not become totally mainstream. “It’s really not for everybody. And, in fact, the people that are successful are a small, esoteric few,” he says. “You really have to be an expert in it, and to be an expert you have to be passionate about it.”

At 15 years old Collin is, as far as he knows, the youngest falconer in the state. He got his apprentice falconer’s license when he was 14, after being introduced to the sport at West Virginia’s Celebration of National Hunting and Fishing Days at Stonewall Resort State Park. At an age when most boys his age are thinking about learner’s permits, Collin began the long process of becoming a licensed falconer.

West Virginia law requires beginning falconers to pass a huge multiple-choice test and have all their equipment inspected by the Division of Natural Resources. Applicants must then spend two years under the tutelage of a more experienced falconer. Collin didn’t know any falconers when he started but contacted the DNR and found, as luck would have it, there was a guy about 10 minutes away who could help him get started—Paul Fowler.

Once he passed his test and had all the necessary equipment, Paul helped his apprentice catch his first bird. State regulations only allow apprentices to hunt with red tailed hawks or American kestrels, and each student must catch their own hunting birds.

Paul loaned Collin a Swedish goshawk trap. The device features a hinged A-frame design so when it is set, the sides stand straight up to expose a bait animal in a special compartment at the bottom of the trap. When a bird swoops down after the bait, the sides of the A-frame snap together and enclose the raptor.

In early January 2015, Collin and Paul dropped the trap along a back road and drove away, hoping a bird of prey would come along and be hungry enough to take the bait. When they returned a short time later, the trap was closed. Collin’s pulse quickened but he tried not to get his hopes up. “I thought the trap had been blown shut or something. We drove closer, and there he was.”

Inside the box was a red tailed hawk—the bird soon to be known as Ace.

He was a little on the small side and missing one of his toes, likely from a bad encounter with some would-be prey. Paul helped Collin put a hood on the hawk to calm the bird down, then taped Ace’s legs together and wrapped a towel over his wings to keep him from hurting himself or someone else. Back at Collin’s house they placed the hawk in the eight-foot-square “mew” Collin and his dad built to house the bird, and hooked anklets and a leash to his feet.

Collin and Ace began training the next day. The first step was to get Ace to eat from Collin’s glove, a way to establish trust. Food is the only thing that motivates a bird of prey. Raptors used for falconry do not desire the approval of their human partners, and do not consider hunting as a means of play. This means falconers must keep an extremely close eye on their birds’ weight and food intake, keeping them hungry enough to cooperate but not so hungry they become malnourished.

Once Collin earned Ace’s trust—and established himself as a reliable source of food—it was on to the next step: getting Ace to jump from his perch onto Collin’s leather glove. The more they practiced the farther Collin moved from the perch, giving Ace the confidence to jump longer distances. Soon they moved this exercise outside the mew. With Ace attached to a creance—a cord falconers attach to their birds’ feet to keep them from flying away during training—Collin started jumping the little hawk from 50 feet away, then slowly progressed to 150 feet. Once he was comfortably flying 150 feet to Collin’s fist, it was time to give Ace his first free flight.

Collin walked to a field near his home with Ace firmly planted on his gauntlet. It had been only two weeks since Collin first trapped Ace, and he was nervous about what would happen once he allowed the bird to take off on his own, with no tethers on its feet. “It was nerve-wracking. Some people’s birds just up and go.”

Standing with his arms and legs apart, Collin turned at his waist and stretched his arm toward Ace’s target—a large trailer filled with hay bales. The bird took off, fast. The tracking bells on his feet jingled as his wings flapped, and in a few seconds Ace was perched atop one of the bales. Collin blew two sharp chirps on his whistle and Ace came off the perch, soared across the snowy ground, and lighted back on Collin’s forearm.

His nerves dissolved into a heady rush. He repeated the exercise a few more times, and each time Ace found his perch before returning gracefully to Collin’s arm. It wasn’t long before they took these newfound skills into the woods. There is a video on Collin’s Facebook page, showing him flushing an animal from a big brush pile with a large stick. Ace sits atop the heap with his eyes peeled for movement. In an instant, he drops off his branch and onto the ground—his talons wrapped around a chipmunk.

The power dynamic is fascinating. We humans are so used to being at the top of the food chain and yet, when Collin goes hunting with ace, he is mostly relegated to the sidelines. He is the bird’s assistant—and it’s exhilarating. “I have this relationship with this wild animal that not very many people get to have. He actually comes to me when I call him,” he says. “And you’re hunting with it. You’re working with it cooperatively.”

Falconry creates a unique, rewarding relationship between birds and mankind, but it’s nothing like most relationships humans forge with animals. Although they work closely together, Ace does not seek Collin’s approval and does not express love. Some days Ace will allow Collin to pet him but on other days he’s skittish and does not want to be touched. Some days he’s ready to hunt. Other days he’s not interested. “They’re always going to be wild, no matter how long you’re with them.”

But the boy and his bird do share a special bond. The longer Collin hunts with Ace, the more he understands his hunting partner. “You figure out how it thinks.” Collin believes Ace is learning about him, too. He has seen the way the hawk reacts to his body language and emotions. Ace is learning how Collin thinks, too. “He trusts me.”

* * *

As we were readying this story for publication, I got a call from Collin’s mother Marsha. “I have some bad news,” she told me. Just a few days after our interview, Collin found Ace on the floor of his mew, dead. “It looked like he had just dropped. My heart just sank to my stomach,” Collin says.

There were few signs the hawk was sick. He was a little sluggish a few days before but seemed fine otherwise. “He had performed awesome. He was coming to the fist even before I whistled,” Collin says. Then all at once Ace stopped eating and wouldn’t hop on Collin’s glove.

The family called the West Virginia Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Fairmont for help, and made arrangements for Ace to see one of the center’s veterinarians if his health did not improve. The hawk took a turn for the worse before that could happen, however. Collin is still working with the center to figure out what killed Ace but they believe it could have been a congenital condition. His time with Collin might have even lengthened his life—captivity has been known to double or even triple the average lifespan of red tailed hawks.

Ace’s death hasn’t affected Collin’s interest in falconry. He plans to get another bird, he just doesn’t know when. “It’s just part of the sport. You get a bird and you like it and you keep it, it’s going to happen eventually.”

But that doesn’t make losing Ace, his first bird, any easier. This was the animal whose willing cooperation inducted Colin into a fellowship that predates recorded history. But more than that, Ace was a huge part of Collin’s everyday routine. “It’s a way of life. You’ve got to plan everything around the bird,” he says. “I’m having a hard time just believing he’s gone.”