A Natural History of Cranberry Glades, West Virginia

Eric F. Pauley


Post-glacial History

For most of the last 2.6 million years, the northern hemisphere was much cooler than today. This period of time is known as the Pleistocene Epoch. During this time, a mass of ice called the Laurentide Ice Sheet covered most of eastern Canada, the Great Lakes area, and New England, as far south as Ohio and Pennsylvania. While West Virginia was never covered with ice, its climate was much colder, especially in mountainous areas. The mountain vegetation was sparse and probably consisted of alpine tundra and a few scattered conifer trees. However, over the last 12,000 years (the Holocene Epoch), the climate warmed considerably and the ice retreated northward. As the ice melted, new habitats were exposed, and plants and animals migrated northward and upward in elevation, resulting in tremendous changes in the vegetation and fauna of eastern North America. Most of the hardwood forest covering the area today only became established by around 6000-10,000 years ago. In some higher-elevation areas of West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, forests with a distinctly northern aspect persisted. To this day, there are many species of plants and animals in the higher Appalachian Mountains that have their main geographic distribution far to the north.

Early Human Usage

The best available evidence indicates that humans first arrived in North America by crossing from eastern Asia over, or along, the Bering Land Bridge some time before 12,000 years ago, when sea levels were much lower due to the amount of ocean water trapped in ice. (The timing and spatial pattern of this arrival have been the subject of considerable dispute, ranging from about 13,500 years ago to more than 20,000 years ago.) Extensive human settlement in eastern North America first occurred during the Archaic period, lasting from about 10,000 years ago until about 3000 years ago. While some of these ancient cultures flourished for a while and then disappeared (such as the Adena and Hopewell cultural complexes, often collectively known as the "Mound Builders"), others remained and were the ancestors of the peoples encountered by early European explorers. Indigenous (pre-European) peoples of North America appear to have used much of West Virginia primarily as hunting grounds, with permanent settlements mainly along larger rivers in the western part of the state. Little, if any, long-term settlement appears to have occurred in the mountainous areas, although a number of indigenous groups traveled through the region at various times, including the Cherokee, Piscataway, Delaware, Honniasont, Wyandot, Shawnee, Susquehanna, and Tuscarora peoples. The "Six Nations of the Iroquois" (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and later, Tuscarora) also asserted control over much of West Virginia, driving out previous peoples. In the words of one archeologist, the area was "claimed by many but occupied by none."

European Explorations

Beginning in the early- to mid-1700s, explorations by British colonists began to reach some of the mountains of western Virginia. Initially, these explorers seemed to have had only a romantic interest in the mountains themselves and were mostly interested in finding a way through the mountains to the Great Lakes area and/or navigable streams flowing westward to the great ocean lying just beyond (so they thought). In the late 1700s, numerous colonists attempted to establish homesites in the western mountains, although they faced resistance by indigenous peoples and lacked protection by the Virginia government far to the east. In addition, their status as landowners was often precarious due to extensive, often vague, and frequently overlapping claims by land speculators (some of whom never set foot on their claims). These tentative westward efforts were stymied by the presence of the French and their indigenous allies in the Ohio River valley, who had considerable control of the American interior. Global-scale friction between the British and French boiled over in the Seven Years' War, fought in America as the "French and Indian War." However, once the French presence collapsed in 1763, indigenous resistance gradually waned and the British colonists expanded their movements westward, although few tended to stay in the mountains.

Industrial-age Logging

After the Civil War and into the early 20th century, commercial interests in the extensive stands of timber in the mountains increased. Initially, commercial logging was limited by the lack of a suitable infrastructure to transport logs to lumber mills. Cut logs could only be moved via animals, water, or other limited means. Railroads were not yet practical because locomotives could not negotiate extremely steep slopes and sharp turns. However, the development of the nimble and powerful "Shay" locomotive, along with a large population increase in West Virginia (including some Austrian, Hungarian, Italian, and Sardinian immigrant labor), enabled the timber industry to expand quickly into even the most remote areas of the mountains. The result was a nearly complete deforestation of West Virginia between 1900 and 1930. Most of the forests of the Monongahela are therefore second-growth forests that regenerated after the major logging of the early 20th century. Numerous fires swept the cut-over areas, so severe in some places that nearly all remaining vegetation, and even the soil itself, was consumed. Only a few tiny areas of the original "old-growth" forests exist.

Establishment of the National Forest

As far back as 1910, the destructive effects of widespread commercial logging were becoming clear. Indiscriminate cutting, soil erosion, fires, and downstream flooding and sedimentation were extremely damaging. Timber companies, often controlled by out-of-state interests, had little incentive to conduct their affairs in an environmentally or economically sustainable manner. Though long-established in Europe, the practice of forestry, with its goals of sustainable timber harvest and water and soil conservation, was only beginning to take hold in the United States. On March 1, 1911, The United States Congress passed legislation known as the Weeks Act, "An Act To enable any State to cooperate with any other State or States, or with the United States, for the protection of the watersheds of navigable streams, and to appoint a commission for the acquisition of lands for the purpose of conserving the navigability of navigable rivers" and allowing the Secretary of Agriculture to acquire "such lands as in his judgment may be necessary to the regulation of the flow of navigable streams." On November 26, 1915, the nascent U. S. Forest Service acquired a tract of 7200 acres from Thomas J. Arnold near Parsons, Tucker County, West Virginia and called it the "Monongahela Purchase" or the "Arnold Tract." On April 28, 1920, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that the Monongahela Purchase Area was now officially called the Monongahela National Forest. Since that time, the U. S. Forest Service has acquired nearly 1 million acres of mountain land in West Virginia, initially for the purpose of rehabilitating cut-over forests and managing them for a sustained flow of water and wood products. This purpose was broadened by the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act of 1960 to include management of range, recreation, and wildlife. Later emphases in National Forest management included conservation of rare, threatened, and endangered species, biological diversity, and maintenance of wilderness attributes.

Land Acquisition, the Botanical Area, and Facilities

The majority of the Cranberry Glades watershed was acquired by the Monongahela National Forest from the Thomas Land Company on September 17, 1935. In 1937, the Glades area was included in a 9000-acre "Forks of Cranberry Game Breeding Area." Cranberry Glades was designated as a "Natural Area" on October 21, 1949 in recognition of its distinctive and delicate ecological conditions. The Glades were re-classified as a "Botanical Area" on December 1, 1965 and additionally as a "Natural Landmark" in 1975. Meanwhile, in July 1964, U. S. Senator Robert Byrd appropriated funds for the "Cranberry Mountain Visitor Center," and the Center was dedicated on July 29, 1967. In 1995, it was renamed as the "Cranberry Mountain Nature Center" to reflect a greater emphasis on nature education. On July 10, 1965, construction began on a 22-mile section of the "Highland Scenic Highway" (WV Highway 150), a scenic parkway extending up Cranberry Mountain from the Cranberry Mountain Nature Center, across Black Mountain and the Williams River, and over Tea Creek and Red Lick Mountains to U. S. Highway 219. The road was completed in 1980 and dedicated on October 11, 1981.

Mill Point Federal Prison Camp

From 1938 to 1959, a prison camp was operated in the remote area near Cranberry Glades, in the valley of Charles Creek just upstream of the Glades themselves. Initially, the purpose of the prison was to house inmate labor used to construct a road between the area and Richwood (the current WV Route 39), as no such road existed until that time. The prison housed up to 300 inmates at a time, and over 6000 inmates over its operational span. At first, the inmates were temporary transfers from other prisons or men convicted of making moonshine, petty thievery, and other minor crimes. However, with the onset of World War II in 1941, the prison population increasingly shifted to include many with religious or philosophical objections to the war, such as Jehovah's Witnesses. The nonviolent nature of the prison population, along with the remoteness of the camp, allowed physical security to be minimal. Prisoners earned basic wages for working at the camp, received education, had access to medical care, and ate decent meals, all in relatively comfortable quarters. On average, less than one man per year escaped and was apprehended during the camp operation. In some cases, escapees, or individuals accidentally left in the woods after the end of a day's activity, actually requested to be returned to the camp. Logging and associated forestry activities were the main prison functions. While the majority of structures were removed after the camp was closed, remnants of these structures persist, such as concrete foundations, steps, and cisterns in the forest on top of the hills nearby. Today, the prison camp is a good place to see wildlife, including birds, deer, bear, and (occasionally) beaver.

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