Monday, March 12, 2012

Rediscovering Beckley's oldest historic landmark

After more than 170 years, the ruins of the Beckley Mill still stand along Piney Creek. (Click photos to view a larger images.) 
BEFORE ALFRED BECKLEY ARRIVED IN THE WILDERNESS of western Virginia to settle the lands left to him by his father, John James Beckley, he wrote to his maternal cousins, William and Clarkson Prince, who had already settled on nearby Beaver Creek, requesting that they establish a well-located gristmill, to be operational upon his arrival in 1835. The location they chose was just downstream of one of the few significant falls on Piney Creek, the only stream in the area that sustained an appreciable year-round flow. Their ambitious cousin's plan to develop a viable settlement in the wilderness would depend on a reliable mill.

Throughout his extant writings, Beckley refers repeatedly to his plan to establish what came to be known as Beckleyville, a meager plat of churches and taverns clustered around the junction of two wilderness trails -- the Logan and Bluestone roads. Beckley was instrumental in establishing the Giles, Fayette & Kanawha Turnpike Co., and improvement of the route of the Bluestone Road, in 1837. He successfully petitioned the Virginia Assembly to create the town in 1838. Despite meager land sales, the village became the seat of government for the newly established Raleigh County in 1850. Beckley's foresight was backed by knowledge. An Army engineer and the son of one of the nation's founding fathers, his ambitions were informed and calculated. He understood that the roads that joined at the site of his proposed town would host thousands of trans-Allegheny travelers. He understood that the commerce they afforded was certain to be sustained, routes through the mountains otherwise being few. He understood that any settler who chose to invest in the promise of Beckleyville would need access to a reliable mill.

Plat of Wildwood showing turnpike and Mill and Bluestone roads
Few descriptions of the Alfred Beckley Mill are known to exist, and none are known to describe the details of its operation. Its location has been mapped and described by Alfred's son John Beckley, who lived with his wife at the mill from 1859 to 1866. In his autobiography, reprinted in Beckley U.S.A., Vol. II, (Warren, 1963), Beckley wrote: "In the early part of 1856 I built a frame cottage at 'Piney Bluff,' and lived there until about September 1st, 1859, when we moved down from 'Piney Bluff' to the Mill on Piney, known as the old Beckley Mill (now known or called the Worley or Compton Mill), where we lived until the spring of 1866."

Significantly, the best known description of the mill was penned by Rutherford B. Hayes, commander of Union forces encamped at Raleigh Court House in 1862. Hayes wrote of a visit with John Beckley at the mill in his memoir of January 9: "Rode with Avery to the mill of young Mr. Beckley on Piney River. Found it a most romantic spot. Beckley's family, a pretty wife and daughter, there in a cabin by the roaring torrent in a glen separated from all the world. I shall long remember that quiet little home." Separated it is: the canyon of the Piney Creek plummets 400 feet below the Beckley tableland at the mill, but isolation in all likelihood led to the site's preservation.

1913 plate of the falls at Worley
After the period in which John Beckley lived at the mill, written reports grow even more slim. According to brief history of Beckley written by the Rev. Alfred Lewis Cole and published in the aforementioned volume of Warren's "Beckley, U.S.A.," the Beckleys sold the mill to Asa Spangler, a millwright who had operated a mill several miles upstream below the inflow of Crab Orchard Creek. Spangler later sold the mill to Tazewell Worley, according to Cole.
By 1913, the site appears on a U.S. Geological Survey map of Beckley as "Whorley." The mill road and, apparently, part of the former Bluestone Road had by this time taken the name "Worley Road." The mill's origin and association with the Beckley family appear to have been popularly forgotten. A 1913 photograph of the falls on Piney at Worley, published in the U.S. Geological Survey Report on Raleigh County, does not show the mill, which would stand to the left of the image. It does, however, show a railroad.
In 1900, the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad opened the Piney Creek Branch of its railway system, ascending the canyon of the Piney from its mainline on New River into the Beckley area. At about this time, a record flood on the creek destroyed or nearly destroyed much of the mill. The flood may have been the result of the sudden removal of the massive forest of White Pine for which the creek was named, and the removal, largely inspired by anticipation of the branch line's completion. In any case, the life of the mill was soon to end. The arrival of rail transportation meant that milled white flour could be cheaply imported from outside the area and stored on the shelves of local groceries. One by one, gristmills throughout the United States began to close shop.
1950 map showing Worley Road
A 1950 map published in Warren's first volume of "Beckley, U.S.A." shows Worley Road (at right) maneuvering across the grid of streets that had been developed since publication of the 1913 geologic survey map. Though the map does not show or designate the mill, it does represent the road as continuing across Piney and ascending the eastern flank of the canyon toward Scott Ridge, upon which Tazewell Worley had established his home. The two-story Worley cabin, which had been listed on the Raleigh County Landmarks Commission register of historic landmarks, was purchased and dismantled in the early 1900s.

The demise of the mill and its environs, however, was largely the result of the creation of the Beckley Dump, which was established on the "Beckley Bluff" above the mill. Through the 1970s, tons of solid waste were dumped along the edge of the gorge above the mill, wholly engulfing the Worley Road. Though the refuse never reached the mill, the site grew virtually inaccessible.

The Beckley Mill Today
Detail of bridge buttress's merge with foundation (at left)
Though its bridge and upper wooden structures have disappeared, the dry stone ruins of the mill and bridge pier alongside the mill still stand, as do several other rubble walls that may be the remnants of earlier structures. The foundations themselves were so well-laid, that they stand firmly today, even without the use of mortar. The deadly flood on Piney and Beaver creeks in March 2010 apparently had no effect on the ruins, though it washed away railway embankments elsewhere along the stream. 

As I mentioned earlier, the site is now practically inaccessible. The Worley Road's eastern extension in Beckley, which was later renamed New Jersey Avenue, was destroyed by the City of Beckley and its dump. The length of the Worley Road east of the creek, which ascends to the Erma Byrd Higher Education Center, fell out of use after the mill bridge over Piney washed away. Access to the ruin is afforded by walking the railroad tracks from Piney Creek Road off U.S. 19, but, of course, trespass on CSX property is something I won't encourage. Above all, the property on which the mill sits is private and posted as such. 

While at West Virginia University in 1990, my professors allowed me latitude to create an independent course in cultural-resource management through which I studied the mill. Its scope included a survey of the site, a study of its development potential, and the submission of historical inventory forms to state and county authorities. The site was added to the Raleigh County Register of Historic Places in 1991. -- David Sibray