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Rivers and Recollections in West Virginia

The yellow rafts below, cascading through the rapids on West Virginia’s New River, looked like tiny specks. My wife, Marcheta, and I were standing on a two-foot-wide metal catwalk suspended 25 feet beneath the New River Gorge Bridge, 851 feet above the rafts and the river.

We were on the guided BridgeWalk, which gives you a literal bird’s-eye view of this engineering marvel — the longest single-arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere and the third highest in the United States — and a sweeping panorama of the gorge cut by the ancient New River on its 320-mile journey northwest through North Carolina and West Virginia.

“At the center, it [the bridge’s height] is like the Washington Monument with the Statue of Liberty on top,” said our guide, Joey.

Joey explained many of the bridge’s engineering features and told about the river — belying its name, it is the second-oldest river in the world — as we made our way 3,030 feet along the catwalk.

The height wasn’t as intimidating as I had imagined — there are handrails on both sides, and you are buckled into a harness that is connected to a steel safety line — and the view was exhilarating.

We took the BridgeWalk, the only place in the Northern Hemisphere where you can have such an experience, as part of the Movies, Minerals and Mining group itinerary jointly developed by the convention and visitors bureaus in Huntington, Charleston and Beckley.


We began our trip in Huntington with a look at West Virginia’s glassmaking heritage.

“West Virginia has a rich history of glassmaking,” said Cindy Dearborn, museum and schools coordinator at the Huntington Museum of Art. “This area was rich in natural resources needed in making glass.”

The museum has a large collection of West Virginia glass, with more than 1,000 pieces on display at any one time. Located on 50 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds on a hill above town, the museum is an unexpected delight, with its representative sampling of American and European paintings and sculpture; American folk art; Chinese, Japanese and Middle Eastern decorative items.

The museum is also home to the state’s only plant conservatory, with a collection of tropical and subtropical plants. Dearborn gave us a “tasting” tour, with samples of foods that are made from some of the plants, such as chocolate, banana, cashew, coffee and even Gummy Bears.

At the Blenko Glass Co. in nearby Milton, we got a firsthand look at West Virginia glassmaking in action.

“It is still made the same way as it was 120 years ago,” said Dean Six, Blenko’s vice president of marketing and sales, as he prepared to give us a tour of the factory floor.

We walked among the talented glassworkers as they pulled molten glass from ovens as hot as 2,400 degrees and, in a coordinated flow that Six termed “industrial ballet,” teams of three to six men twisted, blew and shaped the glowing blobs with wooden tools made on site into beautiful and intricate glass bowls, vases and bottles in brilliant shades of blue, green, yellow and red.

Other aspects of West Virginia heritage are showcased at the Smithsonian-affiliated Farm Heritage Museum and Village on 50 acres outside Huntington.


The next day we headed toward Charleston, the state capital, where, in the nearby town of Malden, attorney Larry Rowe gave us an informative look at the boyhood of 19th-century black educator and leader Booker T. Washington.

Washington moved to Malden with his mother at the end of the Civil War in 1865 when he was 9 to live with his stepfather. Washington lived there until he left for college.

“When he moved to Malden, he got a family,” said Rowe, who manages the Booker T. Washington Boyhood Home site for West Virginia University Tech.

A replica of the house he lived in sits across a fence from the original site and behind the original black Baptist church where he worshiped.

“This is Booker T. Washington’s church,” said Rowe. “He walked on these floors and looked out these windows.”

Down the road, a historic West Virginia industry is being revived by the seventh generation of a family that started making salt in 1813.

“Our source of brine is a 400 to 600-million-year-old ocean,” said Paige Payne, whose husband, Lewis, and sister-in-law, Nancy Bruns, restarted their family’s J.Q. Dickinson Salt Co. three years ago.

“They made salt until 1945, then walked away,” said Payne.

Payne said J.Q. Dickinson is one of only two salt companies in the world that gets brine from an aquifer, which gives its salt a “bold, clean taste.”

Payne showed us the natural process by which the brine is made. It is taken from a 350-foot well, pumped into two 2,500-gallon settling tanks and then pumped into two sun houses, where it slowly evaporates into salt.

“This is where the magic happens,” Payne said as she scooped up square-shaped salt crystals, which are sorted into three types, for cooking, grinding and finishing.