From Boom To Bust -- And Back Again

December 06, 1992|By Katherine Drew DeBoalt

DAVIS, W.VA. — Ask residents of Davis, W.Va., about their town's past and they use words like lawless, boisterous and booming.

Davis hit its peak around the turn of the century when the combined fortunes of lumbering and coal mining brought more than 3,000 residents and 80 businesses -- including hotels, banks and an opera house -- to the edge of the Canaan Valley. Nearly 200 miles of railroad track ran deep into the forests for hauling lumber into the Davis mills, according to town lore. Prosperity brought electricity to the main street as early as 1893.

But after a 40-year boom, the mines went dry. The timber was cut bare. Fires often were started when locomotive sparks or lightning ignited layers of humus that had been dried out by clear-cutting. An exodus began.

"By the 1960s this place was a ghost town. It almost disappeared," said Matt Marcus, 33, who moved from Washington, D.C., to Davis in 1988.

Today, Davis is in the midst of its second boom. Perched on a plateau in the mountains south of Garrett County, Md., the town has become a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts from the Washington-Baltimore-Pittsburgh region. The development of ski resorts and state parks bred opportunities for new residents like Mr. Marcus, who co-owns a mountain bike sales and rental shop.

"If you're really into the night life, this might not be the place to come," he says. He misses that aspect of life in the nation's capital. "But if you are into doing stuff in the outdoors," he says, "this is the place to be because there's so much to do."

Within an 18-mile radius of the town a visitor can bike, climb, hike, golf, canoe, telemark, downhill ski, kayak, horseback ride, raft and in-line skate, said Annie Snyder, who works for the non-profit Alpine Festival, a sponsor of area events.

"This town worked very hard to promote tourism," said Ms. Snyder, who enthusiastically rips a map from the wall to show a visitor where the best Class 2 white water can be found.

Like many of Davis' 882 residents, Ms. Snyder -- a French native who came to the area 15 years ago -- works seasonally, teaching skiing in the winter and dreaming up new events to draw visitors to Davis in the summer. Alpine Festival's most recent experiment was an in-line skating race, held in September on the tarmac of a small airport outside the town. The race was a success -- but organizers had to herd the skaters off the course as soon as they crossed the finish line to allow a plane to land.

During the six years that the boom has been reinvigorating the town, once-empty storefronts have been reclaimed and transplants like Ms. Snyder and Mr. Marcus have begun to form a substantial portion of the town population. A person can live pretty well in Davis on an annual salary of $10,000, Mr. Marcus said. It is not unusual to find a three- or four-bedroom apartment for $150 a month. Of course, there are some drawbacks: There's a 45-minute drive to the nearest movie theater, he said.

And major cities are distant. The drive to Davis from Baltimore takes almost four hours, with the last leg carrying visitors along winding mountain roads dotted with cows and junked with cars, and rural routes that leave the main road and snake into the surrounding hills.

Unlike the twisting roads which lead to the town, Davis is laid out on a grid, it main streets named after the town designer's three brothers: Henry, Thomas and William. Davis' main street is cluttered with a hodgepodge of square-topped buildings, including two outdoor stores, a handful of bars, five motels, a couple of gas stations, an artists co-op (housed in the huge remnants of the company store that thrived during the lumber boom) and several antique shops.

Three miles down the road stands a sign reading "Welcome to Davis." On the back of the sign it says "Welcome to Thomas," the neighboring town. It seems to be the demarcation line for the benefits that tourism has brought to the region. Thomas has been slow to cash in on the influx of visitors, and its empty storefronts and crumbling buildings stand as a reminder of what Davis might have become.

Davis residents believe their good fortune will eventually spread down the road to Thomas, ushering in a resurrection of the type that has helped Davis reclaim its place on the map.

THE DIRT ON DAVIS:

THE FIRST BOOM: The Dobbin brothers of Baltimore were among the first settlers of the area that became Davis. In 1859, they built a log hunting lodge that became a gathering place for prominent actors, writers and politicians.

BUST: In 1902, Davis had more than 3,000 residents. By 1962 the population had fallen to 898, about the size the town is now.

OFF-SEASON: Many Davis residents who work in the tourist trade close their businesses and take vacations in April and November, the transitional months between summer and winter sports seasons.

LUMBER'S LEGACY: Some of the ornate wooden bars and furniture in Washington, D.C.'s tony pubs came from buildings in Davis that closed up after the lumber and mining money abandoned the area.

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