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Remnants of 1838 mill tell story of Beckley’s birth

RICK STEELHAMMER | Gazette
Despite being battered by floods the stone walls that supported Alfred Beckley’s 1838 water-powered mill on Piney Creek still stand.
RICK STEELHAMMER | Gazette Fallen tree limbs and plastic debris collcted by volunteers near the Piney Creek mill await final disposal.
RICK STEELHAMMER | Gazette Piney Creek tumbles off a sandstone ledge at the site of a proposed Beckley city park surrounding the site of an early 19th Century mill.
RICK STEELHAMMER | Gazette Painstakingly stacked and chinked with small flat rocks, the stones making up the walls of the mill built by Beckley founder Alfred Beckley have remained in place for 175 years.

By Rick Steelhammer

Staff Writer

Beckley — The only thing standing between the destruction of a water-powered mill built by Beckley’s founder in 1838 and those interested in “re–purposing” its intricately cut stone walls in the centuries that followed is an unsightly, 20–acre dump.

Over the years, debris added to the now–closed city dump, perched on the rim of Piney Creek Canyon, gradually blocked and covered an old wagon road over which settlers once hauled grain and logs to the mill for processing.

Today, the mill site is not accessible to vehicles, since it occupies a stretch of Piney Creek that is roadless, except for a live CSX track that follows the bank of the creek opposite the mill.

“Its remoteness is probably the reason it's still so intact,” said Tom Sopher, a member of Beckley City Council and president of the Raleigh County Historical Society. “Most people here don't know the old mill exists. My 90–year–old dad had never heard of it. Some local historians had heard it mentioned, but didn't know where to go to find it until fairly recently.”

“For the most part, people don't know it's there,” said Scott Worley of the Beckley Historic Landmarks Commission, one of the local historians Sopher mentioned, having first set eyes on the mill nearly 30 years ago after he and a companion “heard that a mill existed down there, so we found it.”

“The dump saved it,” said David Fuerst, a National Park Service archeologist working at New River Gorge National River, who, along with Sopher, is part of an ad hoc group planning to save the mill and incorporate it into a new city park. “The mill has held up to numerous floods, some of them very severe. The first time I visited the site I was struck by its pristine character. It hasn't been affected by much of anything in the past almost 200 years. I knew it had a story to tell that's important, particularly for people in this area.”

“It's like finding a lost jewel,” Sopher said. “Now we want everyone to be able to enjoy it.”

Since ownership of the property was in question, the Raleigh County Historical Society sought help last year from West Virginia University College of Law's Land Use and Sustainable Development Legal Clinic. Students and faculty associated with the clinic performed an extensive title search, which concluded that the land was clearly owned by the City of Beckley.  

“Without the help from the people at WVU, the progress we've made so far probably wouldn't have happened,” Sopher said.

After the ownership issue was settled, the save–the–mill committee, chaired by Sopher, organized a clean-up day in conjunction with the state REAP program, and sought volunteers to help remove refuse and clear brush from the mill site.

“We were expecting maybe a dozen people to show up, but more than 50 came out to help,” Sopher said. “I think that says something about the level of interest for this project.” 

Also last year, Fuerst and a crew of volunteers conducted a preliminary archaeological survey at the mill site, digging a few shallow post-hole sized pits to determine, among other things, whether the soil had been disturbed since the mill stopped operating. But very early in the preliminary dig, artifacts began turning up in the soil layers, including square-cut nails and fragments of window glass and whiteware pottery dating back to the early to mid-1800s.

“I knew then we had something good to work with down there,” Fuerst said.

The Beckley Historic Landmark Commission applied for, and received, a $15,900 grant from the state Archives and History Commission for a preliminary excavation of the mill. The archeology project is expected to shed light on the layout and uses of the historic mill, as well as the way of life for the people who worked in and lived near Beckley's first industrial development.

The archaeological work to be done under the grant will likely include a geophysical look at the site, using ground penetrating radar or a magnometer. It's hoped that the work will help archaeologists determine the dimensions of the mill and the layout of a nearby house that was once occupied by the mill operator and his family.

“From that survey, we'll know more about what's there, what should be excavated later, and what we should do with the site,” Fuerst said.

The mill site occupies a three–acre patch of relatively flat ground overlooking a bank–to–bank waterfall on Piney Creek. Part of the stone abutment for a bridge that once crossed Piney just upstream of the mill still stands. The mill operator's home once occupied a natural bench overlooking the waterfall and mill.

“Found it a most romantic spot,” Col. Rutherford B. Hayes wrote in his diary, after visiting the mill on Jan. 9, 1862. Hayes, then a Union army officer who later became the nation's 19th  president, had ridden down the Worley wagon road from his regiment's encampment at the site of present-day Beckley, with his assistant, Lt. Martin Avery.

The mill was then operated by Alfred Beckley's son, John, who lived with his “pretty wife and daughter,” as Hayes described them, “in a cabin by the roaring torrent in a glen separated from all the world.” For Hayes, who had seen combat during the Battle of Carnifex Ferry a few months earlier and in numerous skirmishes since, the scene along Piney Creek was especially attractive.

“I shall long remember that quiet little home,” he wrote.

Alfred Beckley began building a gristmill on Piney Creek in 1838 to help bring settlers to a 30-acre town site he had laid out on a plateau overlooking the mill. The mill and town site were located on part of a 56,679-acre tract of land he inherited from his father, John Beckley. The elder Beckley, who came to America as an indentured servant from England, eventually became a political ally of Thomas Jefferson and was named the nation’s first Librarian of Congress and the first clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Alfred Beckley was an 1823 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and served 12 years as an artillery officer before resigning his commission to begin developing the tract he inherited from his father. In 1835, Beckley had a pair of joined log cabins built on the flats above the canyon to serve as his family home. The home, named Wildwood, still stands and is now used as a museum.

By 1845, the mill was processing both grain and lumber. In a letter sent that year to his father–in–law, Neville Craig, editor of the Pittsburgh Gazette, Beckley, who was raising sheep at the time, wrote that he was considering attaching a carding machine to the mill to add to its versatility.

From 1849 to 1861, Beckley served as a brigadier general in the Virginia militia. Shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War, he served as commanding officer of the Confederate Army’s 12th Virginia Militia Brigade, and saw action at Cotton Hill in Fayette County before his brigade was disbanded in August 1861 due to a perceived lack of motivation. Beckley returned to the town he founded, which was then occupied by Union troops, and surrendered to Col. Rutherford Hayes. From April to June of 1862, Beckley was held at prisoner of war camps near Wheeling and Columbus, before being freed and allowed to return to civilian life in the town he built.

In 1872, Beckley’s eldest son, John, was elected Beckley’s first mayor. Five years later, Alfred Beckley was elected to represent Raleigh County in the West Virginia House of Delegates. In the two years preceding his death in 1888, Beckley was the nation’s oldest living West Point graduate.

The mill continued to operate under a series of different owners until about 1915. Sopher and others active in preserving the mill site for historic and recreational purposes, plan to provide public access to the planned park by reclaiming the old Worley Road wagon route to the mill and using it as a trail. The mill site can be reached by a 15-minute walk from an upper trailhead near Greenwood Memorial Park, located just off the New Jersey Avenue exit of the new Beckley Bypass.

“We’ve already removed five tons of trash from the trail, and cut grass and trimmed trees down at the mill site,” said Sopher. Eventually, the park encompassing the mill could also be connected to trails leading into Piney Creek Canyon from the Beckley YMCA campus, he said.

“I would like to see a viewpoint cleared at the rim of the canyon to let people unable to hike to the mill be able to see it,” Sopher said.

A new streamside park on Piney Creek would also provide public access to fishing a section of Piney Creek, which supports a significant population of trout.

“We would like to learn more about the layout of the mill and the people who built it,” Fuerst said. “We would like to take that information to the schools and the community, and we would like to make the park a place that everyone in the community can look upon as a part of their history.”

Reach Rick Steelhammer at

rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com

or call 304-348-5169.


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