Fall for Elkins
A thriving artist community, a vibrant liberal arts college, and an eclectic mix of businesses and tourist attractions make Elkins a picture perfect small town.
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There’s an excitement and energy in Elkins—not the frenetic buzz of big cities, but rather a communal sense that the town is finding its place. Walk past the Train Depot and you’ll see long lines of people waiting to board the Tygart Flyer or the Mountain Explorer. Across from the Town Square, you’ll notice several large tour busses with out-of-state license plates parked at The American Mountain Theater. On Davis Avenue, more than 50 motorcycles line up outside Beanders for lunch. And if you listen closely, you can hear banjos playing from the campus of Davis & Elkins. These are the sights and sounds of a town on the verge of great things.
Surrounded by the scenic undulating peaks and valleys of the Monongahela Forest, Elkins is breathtaking in the fall. And the cultural landscape is equally stunning.
An unparalleled creative community has transformed Elkins into a hub for performing and visual arts. It is the epitome of small town America that is easily accessible to surrounding major economic hubs, yet far enough away to escape suburban sprawl. Its 8,000 residents enjoy low cost of living and high quality healthcare. “Elkins is an example of the sustainable town that the entire nation is striving for. And we already have it,” says Ellen Spears, former director of the Elkins-Randolph Chamber of Commerce. “We have this wonderful walkable downtown district with several tourist attractions. Now we just have to capitalize on it.”
Historically, Elkins has always capitalized on its assets. Founded in 1890 by U.S. Senators Henry Gassaway Davis and Stephen Benton Elkins, it became a booming railroad, coal mining, and timber town. Davis, a keen businessman, was the first Democrat in West Virginia to be elected to the U.S. Senate, and he was a Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1904. Elkins, who was Davis’ son-in-law, also had an esteemed career. He served as Secretary of War from 1891 to 1893 before being elected to the U.S. Senate from West Virginia in 1895.
Davis and Elkins brought the West Virginia Central and Pittsburgh Railroad to Randolph County and subsequently created the Davis Coal and Coke Company, which became one of the largest coal companies in the world, transforming Elkins into a bustling industrial town. Reflective of the prosperity, several areas in Elkins have now been designated as historic districts containing National Historic Landmarks.
In the early 20th century, luxury passenger trains pulled into Elkins daily. Today, thanks to John Smith, trains once again frequent the town. “I just didn’t want to see them pull up the tracks,” says John, who retrieved washed-out tracks from the river after the 1985 flood. “But before we could bring a train into Elkins, we had to build a bridge. That wasn’t an easy undertaking, but we got the funding.”
John is the owner of Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad, an excursion rail company comprised of four trains that is keeping West Virginia’s locomotive heritage alive. “In our first year without any type of publicity, 5,000 people showed up to ride our train,” he recalls. “This year, nearly 30,000 people have enjoyed it. Even with the economy, we haven’t seen a slow down.”
The New Tygart Flyer leaves the newly restored train depot in Elkins for a four-hour round trip through breathtaking mountain scenery to a remote waterfall. A lunch buffet is provided (tickets begin at $40 per adult). The Flyer was such a success that John decided to add a new train to the mix. The beautifully appointed Mountain Explorer Dinner Train provides a more refined four-course dining experience for passengers ($68 per person) as they enjoy watching evening descend on the peaks and canyons of The Monongahela National Forest and Cheat River. “Before airplanes, dining service on trains was top shelf, and that’s what we are trying to recreate. All our recipes are original menu items from the 1930s to 60s,” he says. “On our trains, you can go 25 miles an hour and drink wine without spilling it.”
“Getting this train into Elkins was a collaborative effort,” John says. “People wanted this train here. And for good reason, it brings money and people to the town.”
BRANSON IN THE BACKYARD
Another big draw in Elkins is the one-of-a-kind American Mountain Theater—or “Branson in your Backyard,” as owner and producer Kenny Sexton aptly promotes it. Nearly 40,000 people this year are expected to attend one of the live shows that showcase country, bluegrass, pop, patriotic, and southern gospel music. “What we do in this one show is Branson-quality. The only difference is that Branson, Missouri is an established tourist town and there’s a 100 different competing shows. Here we have an inexpensive mountain getaway that is unique to West Virginia.”
Kenny and his wife, Beverly, owned a similar theater in Branson before moving to Elkins to help Beverly’s sister, Susie Heckel, do the same. What they created is a state-of-the-art music, comedy, and variety show that is second to none.
“We knew that if this was going to work, we needed to establish Elkins as a tourist town,” Kenny says. “ We are an evening attraction and we needed something for people to do during the day before the show. So I met with John Smith about bringing the train into town, and he jumped on board. We aren’t in competition. We complement each other. You’ve got to have more than one draw to attract tourists.”
Even during the recession, the American Mountain Theater is packing the house. “Watching this grow in the middle of this bad economy makes me feel humble and blessed,” Kenny says. Sixty percent of tickets are purchased from people who live out-of-state.
By all accounts, the enthusiastic toe-tapping and knee-slapping response is well deserved. The production value is top notch, a perfect combination of folksy charm, fabulous music, and comic relief. “The shows are incredible,” says Ellen Spears, who has attended several productions. “One minute you are laughing your head off, and then the next minute everyone is crying. You experience a wide range emotions and then you leave with a smile on your face.”
Realizing that package deals appeal to today’s time-crunched, budget-conscious travelers, Kenny began creating his own. A two-night package includes a ticket to the show, two nights lodging, two hotel breakfasts, two dinners, and a ticket to ride the New Tygart Flyer with lunch included—all that at only $229 per person. “People just love the package deal. We’ve done all the work and they just need to show up,” Kenny says. “But we also customize packages. Just give us a call and we’ll create what you need.”