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After years of neglect, a river access point called Gilbert Beach at Veterans Park is getting new life. The motivation to restore Gilbert Beach is about one part nostalgia, one part tourist attraction and two parts community service.
This segment is the seventh in an audio series called West Virginia Water Trails. Hear stories from people coming together across southern West Virginia, to create new economies and communities- with waterways. It’s made possible in part by the National Coal Heritage Area Authority.
In the town museum surrounded by Gilbert High memorabilia, artifacts of famous boxers and RC Cola bottles, lifelong resident David Fox points to an older black-and-white photo of Gilbert Beach during its ‘heyday’.
“Right here on the bottom is one of the boarding houses that used to cater to the travelers that used to come in and spend time on the beach,” Fox said.
He grew up in Gilbert in the ’40s and ’50s and remembers trains coming from Huntington hauling visitors to spend the day on the GIlbert Beach.
“I swam there many times growing up,” Fox said. “We used to hang out there. We used to swim all the time anywhere in the river.”
Fox remembers when the water in the Guyandotte River was deeper along the river bank. Things changed after the R.D. Bailey Dam was completed in 1980.
“Because of the dam and the water and all of the holes that filled up with the silt,” Fox said, swimming holes “are not as deep as they used to be.”
While the holes filled up, the sand changed color and brush began to creep in.
“I remember it used to be pure white sand. Then in the ’50s, we didn’t have the environmental laws that we have now,” Fox said, “a lot of coal mines dumped their waste in the river and you’d have these black streaks.”
The once white Gilbert Beach in Mingo County was neglected for years. But in just two short years, Mayor Jennifer Miller says local businesses and many residents have worked to restore the riverbank.
“They got some of the trees and debris that had been there for years and years,” Miller said. “It hadn’t been taken care of for quite some time.”
The businesses and residents donated what they could: their time, equipment and manual labor to help restore Gilbert Beach. Miller expects the work will help provide more activities for visitors and locals.
“We need places for recreation, we need places for folks to be outdoors,” Miller said. “A lot of our elderly population loves to fish, and Veterans Park at the Gilbert Beach is one of the few areas that’s a gentle slope that’s easily accessible to most folks.”
The easier access is already helping residents who live just across the street from the riverbank at a women’s recovery center. Through the pandemic, residents were not allowed to have visitors.
“They were allowed to go over to the park. So it was wonderful for them during that time,” Miller said. “I would just hear story after story from them of how much it meant for them to be outside the connection with nature’s beautiful scenery. It just soothes the soul a little to be in that kind of atmosphere.”
The work that went into restoring this Guyandotte river access point started with a logging company clearing large debris. Then word got out and in the paper.
“One day I picked up a Mingo Messenger newspaper down there and I actually think I was just checking out at a gas station and it said, ‘plans to revive Gilbert Beach, 1920 weekend destination,” southern West Virginia business owner Will Daniels said. “The only beach in West Virginia’ and I was like, ‘that’s cool.’”
Daniels juggles phone calls and customer service from the breakroom of Dixon’s Automotive Service, a repair shop he owns in neighboring Wyoming County.
In addition to the repair shop, Daniels owns XP Services, a lawn and landscaping business, so sending help just seemed to make sense. It was actually Daniels’ idea to pitch in.
After reaching out to the town of Gilbert, Daniels brought about 12 XP Services employees who worked for about eight hours clearing brush and garbage from the river and riverbanks in Gilbert.
“Tires, there was a lot of metal. I’m even wanting to say there was a railroad track and different parts related to the river that had embedded in the sand and the river,” Daniels said. “A lot of things that just generally plague our streams in West Virginia and times it by 50 to 100 years. It was a task to say the least.”
XP has done paid work for the town of Gilbert, but this job was different. He paid his workers but didn’t take money from the town.
“The guys would have probably come over and done it for free,” Daniels said, “but you’re taking away a day that they could be with their families. This is hard work, and by Saturday they’re tired.”
Daniels says he gives back to the region with labor because that’s the way he was raised and it’s simply the culture of the area.
“Work is respected in West Virginia. Manual labor is respected,” Daniels said. “I want to make this place as good as it can be. I want to give people jobs. I want to give people raises. I want to clean it up. I want to give more opportunities to our kids.”
Gilbert Beach at Veterans Park in Mingo County was officially named a Guyandotte access point in April 2020. Miller, Gilbert’s mayor, says Fortner Logging, the small business that helped to get things rolling, is donating more resources to clear large debris this spring. Miller hopes to install a sign and informational kiosk this year as well.