Flashback 2014: My Independence Day Weekend Trip to Smokehole West Virginia

This past Independence Day weekend, I decided to go on a camping trip in Smoke Hole, West Virginia.  I had never been to this part of West Virginia before, and I was enthralled to come across various historical and natural sights during the course of the trip.
Smoke Hole Cave Marker
Smoke Hole Cave Marker in Smoke Hole, West Virginia. (Hamilton Photo)

On the way to the Jess Judy campground, on Route 2, there are various historical markers. One marker states:

Smoke Hole, a rugged canyon formed by the South Branch of the Potomac River, extends eighteen miles south of U.S. 220. Early explorers reported that heavy mists rising from the canyon looked like smoke coming from a deep hole.  The canyon contains many caves and spectacular rock formations. Among the many caves is Smoke Hole Cave. It’s name originates from the presence of smoke stains on the roof, which may have been caused by Indian campfires.

Another marker, for an area called Eagle Rocks, indicates an area on Route 2 named after a Revolutionary War veteran. The Eagle Rocks area was:
Named for William Eagle, a Revolutionary War soldier who lived nearby. Enlisting at age fifteen, [on December 24, 1776] he served in the 3rd, 4th, 8th, and 12th Virginia Regiments, Continental Line, at Valley Forge and Yorktown. Died, 1848, and is buried here.
I ended up taking another stop at Smoke Hole Cave. The marker at that location states:
The Smoke Hole Knob (300 yards west), overlooking this site, is Smoke Hole Cave with its circular chamber, forty feet high and fifteen feet in diameter, resembling an inverted hornet’s nest, tapering to a natural chimney or “smoke hole.” Its use by Indian tribes and early settlers as a place to “smoke cure” meats gave the name of Smoke Hole to the cave and to this twenty-mile picturesque canyon.
There is a mountain that you need to climb in order to get to Smoke Hole Cave. At the start of the trip up the mountain I encountered two Pennsylvania residents, one of whom was a young lady who had cowboy boots full of water in them from walking through puddles on the way down, who stated that the mountain was so steep that you needed to dig your hands into the mud in order to climb up. Per their suggestion, I knew it was going to be a great physical challenge to climb, and I went forward with it.
Once I reached the upper side of the mountain, I was blessed with a phenomenal view of the landscape. I could see clouds of mist hanging of the nearby mountains, and I could see the creek running between those mountains. At the time the sun was setting, so I could also see fireflies flying, as scattered spots of yellow light over a distance, as I looked down towards the creek. The physical challenge was indeed worthwhile.

Once I reached the Jess Judy campgrounds, the camping area was near the creek. My friends were able to fish, and we were able to cook the various fish that were baited. The creek takes a course that conveniently flows back towards the area of the campsite, so many of the campers I was with ended up going water tubing.

Fort Mulligan Marker West Virginia
Fort Mulligan Historical Marker. (Hamilton Photo)

During the course of the trip I discovered other sites, such as Seneca Caverns, which is a cavern in which visitors go into one side of the mountain and out another side; Fort Mulligan—a fort that the union established during the Civil War in Petersburg, the former Confederate Headquarters at the McMechen House; and the the Top Kick Military Museum—a museum that is owned by Gerald W. Bland, a Vietnam War veteran local to Petersburg, West Virginia.

The marker of the Mcmechen House reads as follows:

This house was constructed about 1853 for Samuel A. McMechen, a merchant, father of five daughters, and deacon in Moorefield Presbyterian Church. The attached McMechen Store predates the house. A confederate sympathizer, McMechen entertained Confederate officers at this house when they controlled Moorefield. When Union forces occupied the town, McMechen left for his cabin at Howard’s Lick Spring (present-day Lost River State Park) or for friends’ homes in the Shenandoah Valley. Presumably he was away when Union General John  C. Frémont made his headquarters in the house in May 1862.

Confederate General John McCausland, retreating after the unsuccessful attack on Washington D.C., and the burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania in 1864, was asleep upstairs when Union General William W. Averell attacked his troops bivouacked four miles north of here about dawn on August 7. McCausland lost hundreds of horses, later hampering Confederate cavalry operations in the Shenandoah Valley.

Moorefield changed hands several times during the war as each side sought control of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, or advanced to or retreated from the Shenandoah Valley. Each army foraged for horses, cattle, sheep, hogs, wheat corn, and dry goods in the countryside and in Moorefield. Confederate General Fitzhugh Lee reported at the end of 1863 that few supplies could be found here.

At war’s end, McMechen repaired his house, restocked his store, and helped the community recover. Resentment lingered, however. His wife, Mary Elizabeth McMechen, remarked in 1866, “We have been torn from Virginia by wicked force, but we are Virginians still.”

All of the various markers revealed a lot of the history of the state that used to be part of Virginia before the Civil War.

Philip Hamilton With Vietnam War Veteran
Philip Hamilton and Vietnam War Veteran Gereald W. Bland, in front of a Humvee donated to the Top Kick museum by the town of Petersburg. (Hamilton Photo)

The Top Kick Military Museum is a unique museum due to the personal touch that retired 1st Sergeant Gerald W. Bland gives to the facility. Gereald has a jeep in the museum, that he drove in the movie Major Payne, on display in addition to various vehicles that were in use by the United States and Germany during World War II, vehicles used during the Vietnam War and other vehicles during the Iraq conflict. Most of the vehicles are still operational and Gerald still drives them from time to time.

There are various flags within the building, including a Nazi flag, next to a “Remember Pearl Harbor” flag, which has the blood of a soldier from the war still embedded in it’s cloth. Interestingly enough, I saw a small picture of Hitler speaking, on a podium, to Deutsche Freemasons in the front of the museum.  At the time of Hitler’s reign, almost all  organizations, with the exception of the Hitler Youth, were banned from organizing because their meetings were thought to potentially interfere with German allegiance to the Nazi party and war efforts.

In fact, the Holocaust Encyclopedia highlights Freemasonry Under The Nazi Regime. The Nazi government,  “In early 1934, the chief of the Nazi Party Court System ruled that Masons who did not leave their lodges prior to January 30, 1933, could not join the Nazi party”.  However, conservative lodges were able to continue to operate after that deadline and I assume the picture of Hitler that I saw had been taken at a more conservative lodge.

In addition, there are various Life Magazine articles highlighting parts of the various American conflicts in the front of the museum. I was also fascinated by some relics from the Iraq war, such as a bust of a Saddam Hussein which served as a lighter, decks of cards with pictures of Saddam’s regime members whom U.S. forces were seeking to capture, and more.

Overall, for those of you who are “history buffs” and who enjoy being surrounded by aesthetic views of nature with family and friends, I recommend a trip out to Petersburg and Smoke Hole, West Virginia.

Author’s Note: This article was originally published in the Fairfax Free Citizen in July 2014.

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