For most towns in West Virginia, their formation can be traced to local farms and the need for a regional center for businesses, while their growth can be found in the coal industry’s vast success over the later years of the nineteenth century. Fayetteville fits this model perfectly, having been founded by Abraham Vandal, Revolutionary War hero and local farmer. The town grew and became the county seat of Fayette County, supplying the needs of regional farmers, most of whom had small but successful homestead farms in the nearby mountains. The New River, actually one of the world’s oldest rivers but found by surveyors far later than many of Virginia’s eastern rivers, runs just east of Fayetteville and supplied water and excellent fishing.
During the Civil War, most residents seemed to side with the Confederacy, but small battles were fought near Fayetteville, and the city changed hands between Union and CSA forces several times. However, it wasn’t until the end of the war that Fayetteville’s real importance and growth took off like a rocket. As coal became king and technology for coal extraction and transport became more sophisticated, Fayetteville found itself in the center of coal mining operations, with coal’s largest seat of industry for West Virginia, Beckley, less than an hour to the southwest. Boom times had found this rural county seat, but like many cities in West Virginia, coal became the primary—and nearly only—economic force, so when coal’s fortunes began to dry up in the later twentieth century, so did Fayetteville.
Money in boom times was immense and spurred the type of stately commercial and residential architecture that we identify with a town awash in wealth. Then, as coal towns fell on hard times, the empty storefronts and large, fine homes with peeling paint made the hardship all the more apparent. Fayetteville, with its grand Romanesque Revival courthouse and a number of stately Victorian homes, plus a central commercial cluster, certainly fell into this trap. The town was far too developed to simply revert to being the seat of court with a few lawyer’s offices and retail stores—it required a vibrant economic force, but what could fill the shoes of King Coal?
The answer, as it happened, had been just a few miles away all along. The New River Gorge offered a bounty of outdoors pursuits literally unequaled east of the Mississippi River. Always favored for its fishing and hunting, the New River and verdant lands by its banks offered hiking, camping, rock climbing, and mountain biking, and the New River Gorge Bridge, one of the longest steel single-span arch bridges in the world, became an attraction in its own right. This bridge, opened in 1977, placed a new emphasis on the gorge and the surrounding region. Today New River and the deep gorge it flows through are protected as a National Park Service reserve known as the New River Gorge National River, facilitating both tourism and conservation for the area.
Despite the national park status, too few people know of the wealth the New River Gorge National River offers tourists. Besides the obvious attraction of great views, extensive hiking trails, pristine camping sites, and ample chances to view wildlife, New River Gorge has some of the best whitewater rafting in the nation and some of the best rock climbing in eastern North America, with an equal balance of traditional and sport climbing routes. The mountain biking trails are also excellent, and any one of these three pursuits alone would be enough to garner great press and excitement if they were in the American West. Yet, oddly, despite the fact the South has fewer sites of opportunity for such recreation, the word simply has not got out about New River Gorge to the extent one would hope and expect.
I spoke with Maura Kistler, one of the owners of Water Stone Outdoors, an outfitter in Fayetteville that caters to those who come to the area for climbing and other outdoor activities. Maura explained that even in the tight-knit and very active (online and real-life) communities of rock climbers and mountain bikers, few people are aware of the opportunities at New River Gorge. I had to confess to her that as a rock climber myself, I’d had the same experience: when researching rock climbing in the Carolinas, Virginia, and West Virginia, places like Pilot Mountain, North Carolina, and Seneca Rocks, West Virginia, were the most noted. It was only after some digging online that I noticed New River Gorge offered very impressive rock climbing, and possibly the best whitewater rafting east of the Mississippi. Maura agreed that half the challenge for people in her line of work—outfitters and tour operators—was to get the word out about the bounty the region offers.
A single-day event has helped pick up the tourist trade, though. Bridge Day, held the third Saturday of October every year, the New River Gorge Bridge is closed to traffic and open to visitors who wish to partake in the amazing views it offers and to BASE jumpers who exit from the bridge and deploy their parachutes to glide down to the river below. Other activities such as zip lines, rappelling from the bridge, and tours of the catwalk beneath the main bridge level, as well as food and a general carnival atmosphere, make Bridge Day one of the state’s largest tourism draws for a single-day event. Since BASE jumping is generally illegal in the South, Bridge Day also has become a showcase for the sport in the region.
While Fayetteville has had for some time the immediate infrastructure needed for ecotourism—the outfitters, tour operators, and the National Park itself—the town lacked somewhat for restaurants, bars, and other attractions. Thankfully, this is changing and fast, with new and innovative cafés like Vandal’s Kitchen, which just opened in a beautiful historic house.
Haynes Mansfield, one of the owners of Vandal’s, sat down to talk with me about his views on Fayetteville, echoing Maura’s concerns as well as extolling the diverse natural offerings of the area. Fayetteville has some good restaurants already—Pies & Pints, a regional chain focused on pizza and beer is one that springs to mind—but they need more. They need the attributes that make the town feel welcoming to tourists, especially since the park stands on the opposite side of New River, along with motels and camping sites, meaning visitors might come to camp and climb and never venture into town.
Water Stone fills the need for gear and services, as do several other outfitters catering to the specific needs of climbers, whitewater rafting, and biking. Hard Rock Climbing Services for instance repurposed a small old commercial office building, bringing necessary services and also adaptive reuse to the community. Yet for food, the focus needs to be interesting, casual, and regional, and Vandal’s—named for the founder of Fayetteville himself—is all three things in one. Its owners are young and ardently into the outdoors themselves so they’re serving a customer base they’re part of, which is a huge advantage. Haynes noted how he wants people not to feel they’re in a stuffy restaurant but instead in the kitchen of a friend—hence “Vandal’s Kitchen.” From all I saw, Haynes and his co-owners are indeed accomplishing that goal despite their restaurant’s only having been open a few weeks as of mid-June 2015.
As for the outdoors they and their customers love, it is hard to find the words to convey how pristine and remarkably beautiful they are, and this beauty understandably stretches beyond the boundaries of the national park lands. A number of state-owned wilderness lands exist in the area and offer many opportunities for recreation. The rock climbing is even better than I expected and provides a variety of challenging routes. I do not think rock climbers at any level would be disappointed in what New River Gorge offers them, as the variety and scope here is pretty unmatched. Everyone I met from fellow climbers to guides to people like Maura supporting climbing through their businesses had the same type of wide-eyed devotion and adore for climbing as I’d encountered in the American West, considered climbing’s spiritual home.
For that matter, the overall character of Fayetteville, even if it could use a bit more development, was on par with a mountain town like Leadville, Colorado, also a mining town that saw its fortunes from the mines slowly decline. Like Leadville, Fayetteville has realized tourism as a key to its economic future. How did Leadville transition from natural resources below ground to those above? For one, it invested in museums—hosting the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum. It also hosts a number of festivals and races, creating site-specific events to draw in visitors. This is to say, Leadville didn’t sit back and assume people would sooner or later find it for its natural beauty alone, but put everything it had into specific events and attractions to spark its economy. Fayetteville is successfully taking this same approach, though doing so in a dignified and subtle manner and with care not to change the character of the city, the small town atmosphere which delights its citizens whether natives or newcomers in the first place. Bridge Day and other events may put Fayetteville on the map, but for those who desire nature and adventure any day is a fine day to visit.
See More Mike Walker Photos of Fayetteville, West Virginia, Here