Across Point Mountain and traveling toward Webster Springs, the view is astounding. The mountains go on and on for miles. Although these are not the Blue Ridge Mountains (those are mostly in Virginia) they certainly looked the part when we were there.
The road wound down the mountain, passing a little church perched on the side of the hill,
draft horses in a field (no pic, sorry, it didn't come out very well), a large well-kept farm and a few other houses. Traveling beside us was an abandoned railroad track, overgrown with weeds, and when we hit flatter ground at the bottom of the hill, a river. The Elk River, as I learned from my map (Ms. GPS, did you know that? Ha! I thought not!) which travels hundreds of miles before emptying into the Great Kanawha River only a mile from where I work in Charleston. Here, we were very near its headwaters in Pocahontas County (called Birthplace of Rivers for a very good reason, because most of our state's big rivers originate here).
We soon found ourselves in a small community, welcomed by a friendly smiling rock. Most of the houses seemed to be fishing camps, and no wonder--the Elk flows right through the community, and the left and right forks of Leatherwood Creek enter the Elk here. Trout fishing, I expect, would be awesome at this place.
The road lost a lane and became narrower as we crossed one branch of the creek--I think the left fork, but I am not sure now. We drove another mile or so, the road getting skinnier and skinnier, and finally decided to turn around.
Bergoo in its day was a hive of logging activity as the big red spruce, chestnut, oaks, poplar, linden and other virgin trees were felled and sent over the mountain to the mill at Cass, or on to the pulp mills at Covington, Virginia.
The origin of the name "Bergoo" is thought to be a rich, spicy stew of Irish origin that was made to feed the loggers. Another possibility offered is that the name is a corruption of the name of a logging official who once lived here. I like the idea of the stew being the origin of the name myself. If you'd like to try making it, here's one recipe. Webster County hosts the International Burgoo Cook-off annually. From the Webster Artists website:
International Burgoo Cook-off - includes a "Burgoo" stew cook-off, apple pie contest, live music, arts and crafts, kids contests and a kids´ pot of "Burgoo." The Cook-off is held the Saturday of Columbus Day weekend each year at the Baker´s Island Recreation Area in Webster Springs. For more information contact Merle Moore at 304-847-7291.
The abandoned railroad tracks fascinated me. I had to get out and just stand on them, listening and trying to sense what it must have been like in this place when the rails were laid. Since coming home, I've done a little reading about the area and discovered that these tracks traveled into Bergoo and over the mountain, through the Big Cut and 87 winding miles to the old lumber town of Cass.
I stood quietly, wondering who had put this steel on the ground, who had driven the spikes and tightened the bolts like this one. Were the workers Chinese? Black? Probably not, as I later learned. The workers here were Italian, Sardinians, Austrians and other Europeans. Many left in 1914 to go back to their home countries to fight in the first World War.
The story of Bergoo is linked to the story of the lumber town of Cass. When the last sawmill shut down in Cass around 1960, the state bought much of the town and converted it to a tourist destination. I've been there, and stayed in the old company houses, several times. The town oozes history, and at night I believe one might still hear the past in the echoes of footsteps on the wooden boardwalks.
I do not know when the trains stopped running to Bergoo, although I did learn that the mighty Shay #5 steam engine still used at Cass for tourist trips up the mountain used to travel the rails to Bergoo, pulling flatbeds of logs over the steep grades.
Today the community is about as remote as any place in West Virginia could be. It is a long way to Webster Springs, the nearest town and the county seat. Wal-Mart? I would guess that would be about a two-hour drive. Cell phones? Dream on. Fishermen obviously know this place as the numerous camps attest. Beautiful? Absolutely. Webster Springs still hosts a woodchopping festival that attracts lumberjacks from a wide area.
The view that pulled us down the road to Bergoo proved to be a red herring. This road did not take us to the place we had seen from the mountain, which was really puzzling. When we returned to the main road, however, we soon passed a sign for the Parden-Curtin Lumber Company, and another road led off the side. Logging continues near Bergoo, and some rail lines are still in operation. I found that thought comforting, a sense of history continuing to live deep in these hills. While I'm no fan of logging, I know lumber must be harvested somewhere, and today the hills of Webster County have mostly recovered from the ravages of the early logging boom. (The lumber company is actually located at Curtin--read here for the history of that community).
I found most of my information about Bergoo and logging in general in these books:
On Beyond Leatherbark: The Cass Saga by Roy Clarkson. McClain Publishing, 1990. The same author also wrote a book called Tumult on the Mountains: Lumbering in West Virginia 1770-1920, which was published by McClain in 1964.
Of Men and a Mighty Mountain by W.E. Blackhurst. McClain, 1965. Blackhurst first wrote Riders of the Flood, also published by McClain. Both are written as first-hand narratives of men who lived the logging life. Fast, fascinating reading. I believe these are out-of-print, but may be available online. Riders of the Flood is now an outdoor drama, presented at Ronceverte, WV by Theatre West Virginia.
(Sometime recently, I seem to remember that Goldenseal magazine ran an article about Bergoo and its famous stew, but I have not been able to locate it. If anyone can tell me what issue the article is in, I would appreciate it.)