Lilly, W.Va.: The Town Swept Away by 'Progress'

Oct 16, 2017

For communities in the rugged Appalachian Mountains - when it rains hard, water doesn't have anywhere to go but straight down into the hollers. Floods - especially flash floods - are simply a way of life. In fact, our region has experienced some of the largest measured flash flood events in the world.

Over the years, the federal government has tried to build dams to help prevent some of these floods. Several communities have been impacted by the construction of these dams including the people who lived in the village of Lilly back in the 1940s.

Years ago, families lined the banks where the Bluestone and Little Bluestone meet. There was a schoolhouse, a church, among houses and other buildings; but not anymore. The federal government told the residents at the village of Lilly they had to make room for a new dam a few miles upstream so it could protect other communities from flooding.

Come to find out, the land wasn’t even flooded. Now, it’s the property of the National Park Service.

Inside Appalachia host, Jessica Lilly, interviewing Dave Bieri with the National Park Service.
Credit Roxy Todd

Dave Bieri with the National Park Service says, most of the families who lived here were subsistence farmers. They lived off the land and grew most of their food themselves. Apparently, this land along the river was pretty good farmland. Legend has it that the Lillys arrived here with just an ax, a gun, and a bible.

“I can’t imagine what it would have been like to come down here in the late 1700s,” Dave said while he guided the tour. “This area was the frontier. Back then it was really a wilderness. You had to be pretty resourceful to survive back then.”

Even before the Lillys came here, the path was used by Native Americans for possibly thousands of years.

“Thousands of years ago people were wandering through here, and this was the same route they took,” Dave said. “So you’re walking in the footsteps of a whole lot of people before us.”

Dave says there was likely some fighting between white settlers and the natives but by the time the Lillys got here, most of the Native Americans who used this land for hunting had already been pushed into other territories.

The residents of Lilly were compensated for the land they were forced to give up. In 1947, a newspaper in Beckley reported that one farmer was paid $1,750 for his property, which would be comparable to about thirty thousand dollars today.

Still, the residents at the village of Lilly were upset for several reasons. They were disturbed by how the federal government treated the remains from their ancient cemetery when it was relocated.

At the Lilly-Crews cemetery there are rows of unmarked graves with simple sticks and tiny metal rectangles that only identified the remains with a number. As for the village itself, there’s hardly a trace left at all.

Dave says when the Lilly’s were pushed off the land, they weren’t allowed back. Not even to pick the apples they planted.

“There were orchards down here, with apple trees, and they said when the government came in and told them they had to leave,” Dave said. “One of the things they were really upset about was these apple trees that still had apples on them that weren’t being harvested.”

There’s pretty much no trace of the people who lived here more than 70 years ago. But sometimes, in the springtime, Dave says he does see daffodils growing here in the middle of the forest.

Many of the Lillys and other families who lived in the village moved to Raleigh or Wyoming counties.

Basically, the only other remnant of the town... is a church. Of course, the building no longer stands along the river, but the church, well it still has an active congregation and faithful attendance.

The village of Lilly is no longer standing, and the homes were not preserved by the government, but the Lilly family has worked to preserve an impressive amount of family records and history. The family even organizes a family reunion that grew into the largest family reunion in the world, according to the Guiness Book of World Records.

So why was the land never actually flooded? According to historians, the engineers miscalculated.