Thursday, October 15, 2009


One of the side trips we took on our way back from Pocahontas County:

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.

Looking in the other direction, the view was the same, miles of green-topped mountains with a few trees beginning to change color.

As we traveled along (this is Route 51), we saw an overlook, so naturally, we looked. Far, far below we could see...what? a town? a factory?

We saw a road turning off to the side, so down we went.

The sign said "Bergoo Road." I looked at my map (those GPS things don't tell you interesting stuff like this) and saw that the road dead-ended in a community called Bergoo. Bergoo? What kind of a name was that? What kind of place was that?

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.)


warren said...

Oh wow Granny! This is a great story! I heard of Bergoo as a stew but had no idea we had a town here named that! This is a beautiful state and wonderful to explore...thanks so much for telling this story!

Granny Sue said...

I am glad you enjoyed it, Warren. I only touched the tip of the iceberg. There is so much to know about the logging history of our state and particularly in the area around Cass and Bergoo. It would be fun to go to the Burgoo cook-off wouldn't it?

Matthew Burns said...

My granddaddy Burns worked as a sawyer at Cass for years during it's heyday. It sure was a "colorful" place full of "colorful" people, to say the least.

Also, for the most in-depth and comprehensive look that I have found of the logging industry in the WV Highlands (and the communities impacted before, during and after) I highly recommend my favorite book of all time, "Transforming the Appalachian Countryside" by Ron Lewis. It is a riveting read. Another good read about these logging camps is "Bemis & Glady" by Steve Bodkins. I also like "Beyond Leatherbark" and the Blackhurst book. You're right, there is so much history floating in the forests of this region, there's something new everywhere you look.

Another good post.

Granny Sue said...

Good suggestions, Matthew. I'll see if I can find them. so many of these are out-of-print, but nowadays there are places that print them on demand so they're available once again--for a price.

Anita said...

It's been years since I've been to Bergoo. I can't wait to move back to WV so I can run the back roads again! I also miss Bemis. A couple of weeks before I got married (and moved to MD), a friend drove me to Bemis at night because I like standing on the bridge in the dark and listening to the roar of the river.

Granny Sue said...

I have never been to Bemis that I can recall but now that both you and Matthew have mentioned it, it's on my list of places to visit. It sounds beautiful.

Susan at Stony River said...

I feel as if I've just been on a long drive myself, I loved it. What an odd-sounding word 'Bergoo' is, but I enjoyed the history. Great name for a dog. ... but now I'm hungry.

Granny Sue said...

You would like this place, Susan. There is something about the feel of it--like history is here, just under the surface. I wanted to dig around those rails, and wander on the hills to see what might be left of what was once there.

Rebecca Clayton said...

Thanks for sharing your trip to Pocahontas County! I live on Droop Mountain (quite a ways south of where you were, on 219), and, although I've been to Bergoo, I had no idea they had a cookoff. It sounds more appetizing (and probably more fun) than Marlinton's Road-Kill Cookoff, which used to be an enjoyable local wild-meat cookoff, but which has turned into a tourist event, hyped by Snowshoe.

Granny Sue said...

Rebecca, Pocahontas county is a beautiful place, one of our state's treasures. There is so much history there and so much good music too. I am looking forward to another visit. What do you recommend as a place to visit, beyond the usual tourist places?

DGranna said...

Granny Sue !
I can't believe I missed this post and just found it in a Google search for Bergoo. My 3 gt grandmother is buried in a cemetery that is listed as "near Bergoo". Her daughter lived on Point Mtn. and Rachel Griffin spent her last days there in the late 1870s, having come from Pocahontas Co. We have "got" to get back up there to search out these places. Have ridden the Cass Railroad before I knew how close our family lived. Thank you SO much for this travelogue.

Gene Summers said...

Lived in Bergoo from 1946 to 1948,went to high school in Webster Springs,have never lived in as nice a place since,good people `and scenery to die for. Gene Summers

Granny Sue said...

Gene, I am glad you were able to revisit Bergoo through my post. I want to go back and spend a little time. Maybe even do some fishing. It's a beautiful spot.

Brad said...

Thanks for your wonderful article Granny. Bergoo is my favorite place in the world. Fishing and fourwheeling are awesome here. The last train ran in Bergoo in 1987, if I recall correctly. The last locomotive was dismantled in 1991. It sat beside of Carrol's Store. Coal mining was a mainstay in that area for a great number of years. Also, you should have kept on driving, you missed the best scenery! Whittaker falls, the checkerboard, not to mention the Elk Springs Resort. The next time you are traveling back from Pocahontas Co. on WV. 15, turn over the hill on Valley Fork Rd, on your left halfway up the mountain. It will take you all the way back through to Bergoo on the other end. Happy travels!

carol vasquez said...

Grabby Sue,

I want to thank you for this story. I currently live in Brownsville Texas and Bergoo is my hometown. It brought tears to my eyes reading your beautiful story. I am sure that had you stopped by some of the homes they would have opened their doors to you and even invited you in for coffee. One day I hope to retire back there in Bergoo (where my heart is). Thank you again for your story.

Anonymous said...

I loved this blog and pictures! I was born in Bergoo in 1946. My relatives have long since moved and died. I often think of visiting Bergoo but I would be terrified to drive on those little roads. The last time I was there was in the early 1980's with my Dad at the wheel. He grew up driving to the mines on those little roads so it didn't bother him. I often wonder what happened to my elementary school friends, particularly my best friend, Carol Crowe. Bergoo was a great place to be a kid. I got a great education at Bergoo Elementary. I have often told people that it isn't how much money you throw at education that makes good student's but the interest and passion the teachers have. I will be eternally grateful to the education Mrs. Anderson provided me in 3rd and 4th grade and all the life's lessons I learned in Bergoo.

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