Hampshire County, West Virginia: Almost Heaven
By Kurt Jacobson
There are still some wild and unpopulated places in the Mid-Atlantic region. These rural places call to us ailing city dwellers looking to trade the urban scene of tall buildings and traffic for mountains, bears, and bobcats. Hampshire County West Virginia has the cure.
Rivers beg to be explored by canoe or kayak and still have plenty of wildlife left to enjoy. Visiting Hampshire County provides a glimpse into one of the wildest places in the Mid-Atlantic region.
I had only ever been in Harper’s Ferry, WV and couldn’t wait to see more of this mysterious mountain state. On a warm day in mid-September, I set out with a small group to take a closer look and find what there is to see and do.
Tourism Taking Off
Romney is the most prominent town (population 2,300) in Hampshire County, West Virginia’s oldest. Tourism is starting to take off and is an important source of income to residents of Romney.
The old South Branch Valley Railroad is part of this economic engine and is enjoying a new life as the Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad. This scenic railroad started operating in 1991 and continues to gather steam. Pulling the train is engine #722, a vintage diesel locomotive from 1952.
Passengers ride out of Romney on a voyage into the railroads storied past. Tales of the 1985 flood are told along the way when the river’s waters rose an unbelievable 60 feet above normal levels. The railroad was damaged extensively and thought to be lost forever.
It’s a good thing the state of West Virginia decided to rebuild the tracks and bridges lost in the flood and stage a comeback. Along with the railroad, bald eagles have rebounded and are the main attraction on the ride into the “Trough”, a deep cut made by the South Branch of the Potomac River.
On good days several of America’s national symbols can be seen soaring over mountain tops or resting in tall trees overlooking the river. While riding the Potomac Eagle I spied what I thought was a school of four fish until I heard a man say: Look at those river otters swimming upstream.” It was too late to shoot a photo but good to know these playful inhabitants of wild rivers still live here in WVA.
Over the course of our ride along the river, I saw kayakers and canoes leisurely floating downstream. Eagle’s Nest Outfitters in Petersburg provide canoe and kayak rentals that include shuttle service. Knowledgeable employees also help with campsite information and fishing tips.
Check out their sit-on kayaks for an easier way to learn kayaking. Rates vary depending on which watercraft and number of days you choose. You can haul your rental kayaks and canoes to and from the river yourself saving time and money.
Back in Romney, I visited the Hampshire County Co-Op/Heritage Marketplace where an old farmer’s feed and seed shop has a new life. Local arts and a few food products caught my eye here; I couldn’t resist buying some hardwood carved wooden spoons to take home. A selection of unique handmade crafts, such as string instruments made with a Sapporo beer can catch a shoppers eye.
Another lost monument
I was going to tour the Indian Mound Cemetery but found out just the night before some vandals defaced the Confederate Monument there.
This memorial is thought to be the first Confederate Memorial in the U.S. and I found it sad that the madness of defacing statues and monuments continues.
Not that I’m a fan of Confederate monuments, but I believe we should let local municipalities determine the monuments’ fate.
Civil War History
Civil War history abounds in Romney and was said to have changed hands 56 times during conflicts between North and South troops. The famous general Stonewall Jackson made Romney his headquarters for a brief time. Some of the best preserved Union army’s earthworks are just on the edge of town and can be visited for free.
After Romney came a trip to Flying Buck Distillery. Moonshine has a long history in these hills and some say the art of making it has gone on for well over 200 years uninterrupted. At Flying Buck, I tried their Raspberry Starshine, a lovely version of homemade booze.
Stepping up to the Apple Pie Moonshine and its more powerful kick, I found it tasted of apples and whiskey without the strong burn of full-strength moonshine.
The Peach Moonshine had very little peach flavor and just about all the burn of a traditional moonshine. It’s thought that you can drink a whole bottle of this without getting a hangover the next day.
The trick is not to stop drinking it until two days later.
Not that I’d attempt or recommend it, but I report the method for posterities sake. Barbecue chicken and ribs are occasionally offered at Flying Buck Distillery and are posted on their Facebook page when available.
I stayed at the South Branch Inn in Romney, a modern hotel with rooms named after local historical sites. While not a luxury hotel, it was clean, comfortable, and conveniently located.
South Branch Hotel is walking distance to the Main Street Grill where everything from pizza to steaks is on the menu.
The milkshakes are creative and at $3.19 are bargains. Try the berry shake or a special offering of the day. Beware: No alcohol is served here so you might want to pop into the Food Lion, in the same parking lot, for a pre-dinner bottle of beer or wine.
Small town experience
For a tiny town experience, Capon Bridge is worth a stop. The River House is close to the Cacapon River Bridge that was recently saved from replacement. The town banded together to save this classic bridge in an area that doesn’t welcome change very often.
Food, drink, and art, are for sale at the River House and is popular with locals and visitors alike. Several nights per week the River House offers live music, and much of the music is free. There is a vibrant music culture in Hampshire County; I’d love to come back and enjoy some more country food and music.
Our small group was treated to a lunch of local pork and potatoes by the Farmer’s Daughter butcher shop and market.
The owner of The Farmer’s Daughter Market is married to the daughter of the River House owners and occasionally cooks special meals in this 120-year-old building by the river. It’s best to call ahead to see what food and music events are scheduled.
On the outskirts of Capon Bridge visit Fort Edwards for a glimpse into the French and Indian War era. George Washington helped survey the land in this wilderness and build forts to defend the area early in his life.
Docent Bob Flannigan at Fort Edwards knows much of this history from a time most Americans know little about. Bob will tell you all you might want to know if you have some time to spare. Behind the museum is a replica of what part of the fort’s stockade would have looked like. Visitors are encouraged to get a close up look at the stockade.
A healthy resort
Not far from Capon bridge is the resort, Capon Springs, tucked deep into the mountains. Started as a resort to benefit guest’s health from the purported healing effects of their spring water, this resort has been around since the 1700s.
Capon Springs Resort went bankrupt before the Civil War but emerged afterward as part of the war-debt to the North. Capon Springs thrived for decades after the Civil War. Currently owned and operated by the Austin family since the 1920s, this all-inclusive resort is a blast from the past.
Surrounded by 4,700 acres of West Virginia mountain forests, I felt right at home. I was impressed that some of the pork and chicken served in their dining facilities are raised nearby in farm sites they own or contract out to. None of that factory food here, just good vittles your great-grandparents would recognize as real food.
Jonathan Bellingham is part of the extended family that owns and operates Capon Springs Resort. He told me, “Capon Springs water was so famous it was sold all over the East Coast up until the 1920s.” Though no longer available off-site, guests can drink all they want and even soak in this healing water in the Capon Springs spa.
Roman style baths and massage treatments are available in a clean and quiet environment away from the more energetic areas of the resort. Bellingham is a second generation reflexologist and was the impetus for building the spa complex.
After a full day of golf or hiking, a massage or bath is a great way to unwind before dinner. Alcohol is allowed only in the rooms or porches if you want a pre-dinner drink, making this a family-friendly environment.
A bracing dip
For my last day at Capon Springs, I followed Bellingham’s advice and did a Polar Bear Plunge into the resort’s chilly pool. The natural spring water was 65°, but Bellingham told me: “If you take a hot shower first in the pool’s bathing house, then jump in you’ll keep your body core temperature and don’t get too cold.”
It wasn’t a traditional Polar Bear plunge into icy water but still a shock to the system. When I got out I felt all tingly and refreshed, glad for the experience. The pool warms to around 75° in the summer keeping it busy with guests young and old.
Thanks to narrow mountain roads and not much press, the Hampshire County area is a step back in time. Landscapes remain much like they were when the first white settlers arrived almost 300 years ago.
I found Hampshire County a great place to enjoy nature, classic Americana food, and music. I will be back for more, probably humming a familiar John Denver song on the way. Almost heaven West Virginia...
The author was sponsored for this trip by Hampshire County tourism, but the opinions are all his own.
Kurt Jacobson lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and spent many years as a professional chef. Now he travels the world and shares his stories here and on other travel websites.