Tucker County, West Virginia, has seen a surge of new visitors in the years since U.S. 48 opened from Washington, D.C.
Drawn by nearly 130,000 of acres of rugged state and federal land, these new visitors have seen the previous drive four or five hours up winding mountain roads shrunken down to less than three hours along the road, also known as Corridor H — easy, breezy four-lane highway. The growing number of visitors has boosted business, but it’s also strained the resources of a county with one stoplight and just 7,000 year-round residents.
Maddy Carter of Washington, D.C., visited the Tucker County town of Thomas on a recent Saturday in May. She and a friend perused vintage clothes at Quattro Music Co. and Frock and Roll Vintage.
“We looked at getaways close enough that we could get to for a long weekend,” Carter said. “And we heard lots of good things about Thomas.”
Thomas sits up on a mountain; even in May, threatening clouds filled the skies and occasionally throw down snow flurries. But the weather didn’t deter the numerous pedestrians busy exploring Thomas’ art galleries and shops.
“When I ask people where they’re from, it’s now 80% ‘D.C. Beltway, D.C. Beltway, D.C. Beltway, Northern Virginia,” said Quattro, the record store owner.
Darrin and Nikki Queen drove up from nearby Upshur County — a tradition they started as teens and now as a married couple. They can see the change just on social media.
“Now, it’s like an Instagram spot,” said Nikki Queen. “Now, it’s like everyone has to come and have their Instagram photos there.”
It’s true that Tucker County makes for great photos. Elected officials have expanded public land around Davis and Thomas for decades, both through the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge and Dolly Sods Wilderness.
With the pandemic driving everyone outside, Tucker County is seeing more people than ever. That’s good for business. But it’s also created problems, especially for working people in the area, said Quattro.
With many owners of rental properties converting them from annual leases to Airbnb properties, “ our service staff can’t afford to live here,” Quattro said. “They’re being moved to Parsons, which is 15 miles down the mountain, which on a good day is 15-20 minutes drive. On a bad, foggy, trafficky behind-truck day, it’s a half-an-hour-plus drive.”
Many of the county’s current residents found the county through outdoor recreation. Matt Marcus first visited in 1984, and decided to stick around. He now works at Blackwater Bikes in the town of Davis. Over the years, he’s grown frustrated with public land expansions and the way they’ve fueled the rapid growth in visitors, which puts more stress on the people already here.
“Used to be April, November was totally dead around here,” Marcus said. “And then now, it’s just regular business going on [all year long]. And if we have a nice summer, it’s going to be crazy this year.”
That should position the bike shop for a big year. But it’s been hit by pandemic-related supply chain troubles. Marcus says that usually, the shop would have 30 or 40 new bikes available by May. This year, it had two.
“We’re looking at probably the worst year ever, when we should be having our best year ever,” Marcus said.
His co-worker, Sue Haywood, said the county can’t keep up with the new growth.
“A lot of wealthy people are coming in here and buying second homes, but then at the same time like this, the town of Davis doesn’t even have the capacity to change the trash bags in the town park,” Haywood said.
Down the road at Sirianni’s, an Italian restaurant that’s been a cornerstone in Davis since the 80s, co-owner Walt Ranalli felt more optimistic. He pointed to the artistic renaissance in Thomas, and growing opportunities for entrepreneurs.
“It’s so nice to see young people buying the buildings, doing galleries, being able to ship their work all over the world,” Ranalli said. “I don’t think anyone imagined what was going to happen after they opened up that highway. We’re within about a six-hour drive of a quarter of the United States population.”
Ranalli, previously one of the nation’s youngest mayors in Thomas, acknowledged that the towns aren’t keeping up. But he said those problems are solvable with planning and smart investments.
“We only have one stoplight in the county, which is Parsons, and we envision three up here eventually,” Ranalli said.
One story that came up repeatedly involved a policeman setting up to direct traffic at the turnout from Blackwater Falls State Park.
“It took over an hour to get out of the park on a Saturday because the traffic was so backed up,” said Ruth Bullwinkle, the park’s chaplain.
Like a lot of locals, Bullwinkle can see different angles to the growth in visitors.
The good thing is that there are people coming in, there’s money coming into the area that was so depressed, but the bad thing is that a lot of people coming in don’t appreciate the beauty,” Bullwinkle said. “They don’t take care of the creation that’s here.”
Matt Baker, the superintendent at Blackwater Falls State Park, acknowledged that the crush of tourists can create problems, especially at peak times like in fall leaf-looking season. But he added that the flood is also laying the groundwork for the next generation of visitors and adventure seekers.
“Last summer, we saw lots of families [with] young kids that went camping that may never have gone camping,” Baker said. “They fall in love with it. They’re taking their kids 30 years from now.”
Baker said those camping trips happening now will ultimately build the next generation of people who love — and protect — places like Canaan Valley and Dolly Sods.
“Yes, some of our special places are getting more discovered,” Baker said. But “without generating those future people, our protected areas aren’t going to be as special.”