By Austin Simms
May 10, 2023 - West Virginia’s newest trail which connects Babcock State Park with New River Gorge National Park & Preserve is full of history, and one artifact along the trail tells a story of the purpose this trail once had.
The story begins in the late 1700s when European explorer Stephen Sewell became the first white explorer to venture into the wild and rugged New River Gorge at what is now known as Sewell.
L: Ron Lane R: Lootpress photo
After Stephen Sewell explored the area and inscribed his name and the year of his visit on a nearby rock, a man by the name of Peter Bowyer built a cabin along this tract of land along the New River near the mouth of Mann’s Creek.
Bowyer took advantage of the soon-to-be-completed Old State Road which was proposed by President George Washington and approved by the Virginia Assembly in the late 1790s. The road connected Lewisburg to the area of Kanawha Falls.
Bowyer became the first white settler known to settle in the New River Gorge.
Bowyer set up a profitable ferry service that took people, horses and buggies, and goods from what was then known as Bowyer’s Ferry across the river to Cunard where travelers then made their way up the mountain through Vandalia, now known as Fayetteville.
Once the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Railway was completed in January of 1873, the Longdale Iron Company based in Longdale, Virginia bought much of the land where Bowyer’s Ferry was and opened up a coal mine up on the hill.
With the opening of the mine came people and as a result came the construction of homes, schools, churches, and stores. When people came in, Bowyer’s role in the area had become a faded memory and so did the name of the place.
Nearly 200 coke ovens were constructed and the coke (coal burned at extreme temperatures) was used as fuel for Longdale’s Lucy Selina iron furnace. It is believed that Sewell had the most coke ovens in operation in America at one point.
The area was then named Sewell Station after Stephen Sewell and the passenger depot the C&O opened up shortly after the mine opened, in later years it was then shortened to Sewell.
After all of the coal reserves had been exhausted in Sewell, the Longdale Iron Company sought land on the top of the mountain from Sewell. When officials were traversing up the mountain, they eventually reached its peak where one man exclaimed “This is surely the cliff top,” and the name of Longdale’s newest mining community was born, “Clifftop.”
But there was a big challenge in store for Longdale. The question was how were they going to get the coal from Clifftop, nine miles away, down the rugged Mann’s Creek Gorge to the coke ovens at Sewell.
Longdale officials had inquired with the C&O to determine the feasibility of constructing a railway from Sewell to Clifftop. The C&O did not see a feasible way to construct such a railway.
Officials then met with engineer William G. Reynolds of Charleston who stated that they could indeed construct the proposed rail line for $100,000 which would cost $3,111,711.34 in 2023.
In 1886, the job was complete and a nine-mile 3-foot narrow gauge railway, dubbed the “Mann’s Creek Railway” was ready for its first train.
Shay and Climax steam locomotives were the only types used on the railway due to their ability to climb the steep grades experienced on the Mann’s Creek line.
These machines put in a lot of work and required a lot of care. The trip up the mountain was a steep one, and it required the locomotives to give it all they had.
During their journey up the mountain, locomotives would have to stop at Flannagan’s Branch, now known as Babydog Falls, to take on water. Many who pass by today may think that this large water tank was a boiler for a steam engine, but that’s not quite the case.
The water tank itself was a boiler from the nearby Landisburg planing mill powerhouse, not a steam locomotive.
The rusted, jerry-rigged water tank was gravity fed as the overflow ran off to the left of the tank. A makeshift lever allowed the fireman of the train to fill the water tank after a removable water spout was put in place.
It was one of the most important stops along the Mann’s Creek Railway. Today, it sits along the new Sewell Trail at Babcock State Park. It can be found at around the three-mile point if starting from the Glade Creek Grist Mill.
The Mann’s Creek Railway was in operation from 1886-1955 with the last run being a rail fan excursion in May of that year. The rail line transported coal, lumber, and passengers during its time.
Sewell became a ghost town after its final resident, a railroad employee, passed away in the 1970s. Clifftop and Landisburg are still home to multiple residents, and the Babcock Company Store and community church still stand in Clifftop.
There are more stories to come regarding this one-of-a-kind narrow gauge railway and the towns it served…