Bolton’s Book Review: A local history of a local icon

When one reviews the iconic architecture of North Central West Virginia, there are a number of historic buildings that have become ingrained in the consciousness of their host community. Monongalia County has the Old Stone House, Barbour County has the Philippi Bridge, and Harrison County has the Robinson Grand. In Taylor County, perhaps the two most important structures are the Mother’s Day Shrine and the Tygart Dam. The Mother’s Day Shrine already has at least one history book dedicated to it, and now local first-time author Brenda Tokarz has gifted the Tygart Dam with a matching volume, with Unknown Stories and History of Tygart Lake.

At nineteen hundred feet long and two hundred and thirty feet tall, the Tygart Dam is an imposing sight even today. In the 1930s when the dam was first erected, it dwarfed every surrounding structure. It was built in the middle of the Great Depression and offered manifold wages compared to the mines or any other local employment. Its erection served a number of practical purposes. As a Public Works Administration project, it utilized the otherwise restless hands of men who had few opportunities to feed their families. The majority of the work crews were locally pooled, with almost all unskilled labor coming from either Taylor or Barbour County. The Roosevelt administration also saw a practical incentive to its construction with an election approaching. The dam witnessed personal visits by both F.D.R. and Eleanor Roosevelt, who were greeted by adoring crowds and a few snarky reporters. Most importantly, the Tygart Dam provided a permanent solution to riparian turmoil. As Ms. Tokarz recounts, communities living near the valley were subject to annual flooding that often put life and property at risk. When the winter snows melted, the Tygart River could rise multiple feet and sweep away any shack standing in its path. Since its completion, there has been no occasion, with the single exception of 1985, when the dam faced a serious risk of spillover.

Ms. Tokarz also does an admirable job focusing her attention on the men who actually built the dam. Eleven laborers died during its construction, although a number of others were killed in related, off-site projects. The rumor I remember from my childhood is that one of the men was killed falling into a patch of wet concrete. It was too impractical to remove him, so they left him there to this day. In fact, there was a man named Charles Goff killed in such a manner, but his bones rest in Bluemont Cemetery. Ms. Tokarz includes in her book a copy of his death certificate and those of the other ten killed.

Despite the regrettable number of deaths, it was the number of injuries that would make a modern OSHA inspector’s head explode. Be prepared to read about multiple mangled hands, crushed feet, burnt skin, and bloodied heads. Perhaps the most amazing survival was Ralph Mayle. As he stepped onto a plank, it overturned and Mr. Mayle fell one hundred and fifty feet down the side of the dam. Amazingly, he walked away with only a sprained ankle.

Aside from the human cost, there was also a heritage forfeiture in building the dam. The area hosted Native Americans for centuries and many valuable archaeological relics are probably now underwater. In more recent decades, the communities of Cecil, Stonehouse, Cove Run, Yates, and Sandy all had to be evacuated as the dam neared completion. I am told that scuba divers can still see remains of homes that weren’t worth the hassle of relocating. One structure that did survive did so in a notably biblical manner. As the area began to flood, the “Little White Church” of Lick Run floated and eventually landed intact downstream. It is said the Bible was still open on the pulpit. The church boards were disassembled and then reassembled in Knottsville, where the church still stands to this day.

Ms. Tokarz also captures the life of the surrounding community at the time of the dam’s construction. Using excerpts from the Grafton Sentinel, there is discussion of moonshiners, drownings, the occasional murder, and bathers watching the dam’s construction. Towards the end of the book, Ms. Tokarz even provides a poem from Waitman W. McDaniel. Mr. McDaniel was known as the Sage of Cecil and he is an ancestor to Grafton’s current mayor, Peggy Barney. Ms. Tokarz includes many photographs of small-town life with people at work and play, along with a few advertisements from the decade.

I enjoyed this book. I always wished there was a history of the Tygart Dam, and I hope this volume encourages a sense of civic pride in the community. For years, Brenda Tokarz has delivered lectures on the dam’s history during cruises of the lake. I attended one about four years ago and learned a great deal. I learned even more from this book, and Ms. Tokarz should be commended for memorializing in writing many stories of Taylor County that might otherwise have been lost. If you want to learn about the history of the Tygart Valley, this book is worth your money.

Robert Bolton can be reached with comments or suggestions at [email protected]


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