The West Virginia State Park system’s newest hiking and biking trail provides a link to the New River Gorge’s industrial past, while giving those who travel it a chance to explore miles of Babcock State Park’s rugged canyon terrain.
The new trail follows the path of an 8.5-mile narrow gauge railroad, completed in 1886, that connected the now-abandoned coke-producing town of Sewell on western shore of the New River with coal mines along Manns Creek and at Clifftop, near the rim of the Gorge.
After the rail line was abandoned, its right-of-way was converted into a road, which later became a pathway for four-wheel-drive vehicles until it was closed several years ago when it became impassible due to washouts and neglect.
In February 2022, Gov. Jim Justice directed the state Department of Transportation to rehabilitate the dilapidated road for re-use as a public hiking and biking trail connecting Babcock to its boundary with New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. The new trail has a not-so-new name — the Old Sewell Road — in recognition of its former role.
Work involved in converting the former railbed and road into an all-season, crushed rock-topped trail was completed within a year by a state Division of Highways crew, using proceeds from a $350,000 federal grant to pay for structural materials, including timber and steel for a new bridge.
The trail begins at the parking area for the oft-photographed Glade Creek gristmill. For the first half-mile or so, the trail follows the paved access road behind the mill leading to Babcock’s guest cabins 1-13. The official trailhead is found soon after the pavement ends at a gate crossing the road a short distance downhill from Cabin 13.
Spring wildflowers, towering cliffs, giant trees and the remnants of stone support piers from the old railroad are among trailside attractions along the route.
About 1.5 miles down the trail from the gristmill, Babcock’s Narrow Gauge Trail intersects with Old Sewell Road, providing access to a swinging bridge crossing of Glade Creek. About 2.5 miles beyond that intersection, a century-old boiler rests at the edge of the trail, where a new steel-supported wooden bridge crosses Flanagan’s Branch at a small waterfall. The new bridge makes use of the stone buttresses that once supported a railroad trestle at the crossing.
According to a sign posted at the site, the boiler was once used to power a locomotive that traveled the narrow gauge line. According to a 2010 article in Trains magazine, the boiler was first used to power a sawmill and later repurposed as a water tank serving the steam-powered Shay locomotives traveling the line.
A few hundred yards down the grade from the boiler and bridge, deposits of fresh bear scat began to appear in the trail tread. Soon, a young adult black bear could be seen resting on a boulder on a steep slope about 100 feet uphill. Once aware of the presence of humans, the bear abruptly scrambled up the slope and out of sight.
Not long after the bear sighting, a break in the forest canopy allowed a section of the New River to come into view, and a trestle carrying the C&O Railroad across the stream could be seen.
The Old Sewell trail ends just short of a National Park Service boundary marker posted at the edge of the former road/railbed. The grade continues on National Park Service property toward the townsite of Sewell, but an abundance of downed trees and thick brush make walking or biking on the right-of-way challenging.
About a half-mile downslope from the state park boundary, an open white gate and a sign warning visitors not to disturb cultural resources can be seen off the right side of the roadway. By following that boulder-strewn, barely discernable roadway downhill and then looking carefully, remnants Sewell come into view.
Sewell was built on a bench just above the western shore of the New River near the mouth of Manns Creek, into which Glade Creek flows about one mile upstream. The townsite lies just across the New River from the National Park Service’s Cunard River Access facility.
Sewell took shape on land once owned by Peter Bowyer, who built a cabin and began operating a small farm and ferry service here in 1798. Bowyer may have been the first person to establish a home and business in the New River Gorge.
The small settlement that sprang up at Bowyers Ferry was later named Sewell, in honor of Stephen Sewell, one of the first White settlers in the upper Greenbrier Valley.
As construction of the C&O Railroad through the New River Gorge neared completion, the Longdale Iron Co. began buying coal land in the vicinity of Sewell. In 1873, months after the rail line through the Gorge was ready for use, Longdale opened its first mine at Sewell.
The company planned to process coal mined at Sewell into coke to fuel its steel furnaces 128 miles to the east, at Longdale, Virginia.
Coke is produced by partially baking coal to burn off its impurities, creating a fuel that burns hotter and is better suited for use in the iron-making process.
One year after Longdale opened its first mine at Sewell, the company’s first coke ovens began production here. Longdale was the first of what would become more than a dozen companies to produce coke in the New River Gorge, and pioneered the use of “beehive” style coke ovens.
Within 10 years, the company was operating 196 coke ovens, making Sewell the top coke production site in the Gorge. Coke continued to be produced at Sewell until 1956, long after other New River Gorge coke ovens ceased operations.
By the mid 1880s, the mines fueling Longdale’s coke operation at Sewell began running out of coal. Company officials asked civil engineers from the C&O to see if it was financially feasible to run a new, narrow gauge branch line up Manns Creek and on to Clifftop at the top of the Gorge, to reach company coal reserves. After C&O’s experts concluded that the proposed branch line was not feasible, the company consulted Charleston engineer William G. Reynolds, who told them the job could be done, but it would cost $100,000.
Reynolds designed and oversaw construction of a 3-foot wide rail line, the Manns Creek Railroad, which was completed in 1886.
In its heyday in the early 1900s, Sewell had a population of more than 300 and supported a store, hotel and sawmill.
Today, a still-flowing springhouse, the walls and chimney of an office building and vault, and many of the town’s coke ovens are among remnants of Sewell that can still be seen.
The National Park Service urges visitors to take care to avoid injury while visiting cultural resource sites like Sewell, and to leave all artifacts in place. Visitors to Sewell are also cautioned not to trespass on the active CSX railroad right-of-way which lies between the townsite and the New River.
Round-trip hiking distance between the townsite of Sewell and Babcock’s Glade Creek gristmill is about 12 miles. The Old Sewell Trail is equipped with 12 strategically placed benches to provide comfort to weary hikers.
A recent round-trip hike to Sewell, which included a lunch break and an hour of exploration time at the townsite, took about seven hours. Those traveling the trail are urged to bring water and wear sturdy shoes or boots.
This article originally appeared in the Charleston-Gazette Mail.