Living In Point Pleasant
This city on the Ohio River is no ghost town—it’s alive with history and unique shopping and arts.
Photographed by Elizabeth Roth
You may think you know all about Point Pleasant—home of the mysterious Mothman, the town sitting quietly at the confluence of the Ohio and Kanawha rivers in Mason County, halfway between Parkersburg and Huntington. But what has been, in the past, an economically depressed city of less than 5,000 people is coming back to life.
A wealth of history exists in Point Pleasant—dating back to the American Revolution—and in recent years locals have been looking more toward the future. A 10-year economic development project wraps up in 2014, and signs of change are abundant. Enthusiasm pours from Charles Humphreys, the executive director of Main Street Point Pleasant. “What a great time to live in Point Pleasant,” he says. “Our town is in the middle of revitalization—using the past in an innovative way to build a foundation for the future.”
Perhaps one of the clearest indicators of the city’s rebirth is what Charles calls “The Amazing Riverfront Park,” more commonly known as Point Pleasant Riverfront Park, at the Fourth Street entrance of the floodwall. There you’ll find West Virginia’s largest outdoor arts and history presentation—a half-mile of murals and statues along the Ohio River. “Every time I take somebody there they say, ‘This is amazing.’ We’re putting a $150,000 sound system in the whole half-mile. It’s going to be quite an attraction.”
The state-of-the-art speakers are part of the $10 million project that began more than 10 years ago. From those speakers you’ll hear arrows whizzing through the air and the words of Chief Cornstalk or, in winter, holiday music. The large floodwall mural depicts the Battle of Point Pleasant, a bloody war between the Native Americans and early Americans that many believe to be the first of the American Revolution. The riverfront area has been popular since the park was built in the 2003. It has a 900-foot dock, 800-seat amphitheater, 100-seat pavilion, and a walking trail, to name a few of its perks. “We can do anything back here,” Charles says. “That’s why it’s amazing. And we’ve got a beautiful background. Not everyone has the Ohio River in the background.” An arch with the park’s new name is scheduled to go up at the park’s entrance, and tram rides are already offered.
Charles has lived in Point Pleasant for 14 years and says the city looks vastly different today. Many people remember the deadly collapse of the Silver Bridge in 1967. For those who weren’t around then, the 2002 film The Mothman Prophecies was based, at least in part, on events from Point Pleasant in the 1960s, when more than 100 Mothman sightings and supernatural events were reported and believed by many to be related to the bridge collapse.
Over the years a lot seemed to work against the small river town, Charles says. “Point Pleasant had been hit by the bridge falling. Four Walmarts went in within 30 minutes of each other, and all kinds of economic problems like most little towns have happened,” he says. “We were basically on the bottom.”
By the early 2000s, Main Street was nearly empty. Today very few storefronts are vacant. “We’re one of the popular little communities on the Ohio now, and I think in the near future we will be one of the top ones,” Charles says. Already Point Pleasant is a popular stop on the river for sternwheelers—big, colorful boats bringing families up and down the Ohio for entertainment.
Shop, Eat, Sleep
You’ll find unique shopping and dining downtown these days, too. A favorite stop, The Mason Jar offers 20,000 square feet and two floors of antiques, crafts, and even ice cream on Main Street. “The Mason Jar is a big draw,” Charles says. “It’s one of the best antique stores in the state.”
Across the street, The Gallery at 409 is a great way to spend an afternoon. The nonprofit art gallery and museum features local artists’ work as well as a large mural in the back room. Off of the gallery is an almost hidden space—the Red Parrot Café, a bar that connects the museum with The Historic Lowe Hotel next door. The Lowe is a four-story, family-run inn that has run continuously as a hotel since 1901; the Finley family has operated it since 1990. There, guests step back in time when they enter the large, Federal-style building—complete with rococo trim, marble staircase, and Tiffany stained glass windows—all while enjoying the modern conveniences of today. Owner Mary Ruth Finley shows off the ballroom and remarks on the mezzanine—originally known as the writing room. “People socialized and came here to write letters,” she says. All of the guest rooms are different and seem to have stories all their own, too.
Then there are old favorites like Harris Steakhouse, open since the late 1960s. The restaurant also became famous for its role in The Mothman Prophecies, as the diner in the film was modeled after the steakhouse.
The Iron Gate Grille on Main Street takes up nearly half a city block with not one but two three-story buildings and a patio and yard that can be rented for special events. At the grill you can enjoy a pub-style atmosphere with nice big booths and options like burgers or an open face prime rib sandwich. Across the patio in the adjacent Main House, you can enjoy more fine options like spaghetti and meatballs in a casual setting that takes you back in time with old photos on the walls, grand chandeliers, creaky wooden staircases, and fireplaces in each room.
But there are also new businesses coming to town all the time, like Decor Corner on Main Street, offering up everything from wallpaper and lamps to floral arrangements. In late summer, Mexican restaurant Rio Bravo was also on its way to downtown.
You might be surprised by the many museums in Point Pleasant. Perhaps the most popular is the Mothman Museum, moving across the street in summer to be closer to the ominous Mothman statue itself. The Mothman fascinates people from all over the world, and the museum is open from noon to 5 p.m. every day for curious travelers. The museum also provides bus tours, both during the annual Mothman Festival and year-round. This year the festival will take place September 20 to 21 and is expected to draw thousands for tours to the TNT area—the site of a former World War II munitions plant in Point Pleasant where Mothman sightings are said to have occurred. “I was one of the kids out there chasing him,” says Jeff Wamsley, lifelong resident and owner of the museum, looking back on growing up near the site. “Everybody would go to the TNT area. It was a good way to get a date—like lovers’ lane.” The festival also includes a 5K, guest speakers, and eyewitness accounts, plus food, art, and music.
Also downtown, the Point Pleasant River Museum is a success story. The redbrick building on First and Main streets housed a mercantile business in 1854, but many decades later it fell into disrepair and sat vacant. In 1990 the building was donated to the city for the purpose of creating a river museum. After more than a decade of hard work by volunteers and efforts to secure funding, the museum opened in 2003. “We started out $45 in the hole. We had no money and an empty building,” Charles recalls. “This used to be the ugliest building on Main Street.” Now when visitors walk through the door they are struck by the sheer beauty and scope of the museum. There’s an aquarium with fish from local waters, a beautiful steamboat mural, a massive steam whistle, and a model of the Silver Bridge, among other tributes to the river. Upstairs is even more history as well as a state-of-the-art pilot house simulator that trains people to navigate boats. “There’s no place else in West Virginia that has this,” says Museum Director Jack Fowler as he takes the wheel to demonstrate what it looks like to drive a speedboat through San Francisco or a towboat in Paducah, Kentucky. The simulator room has giant TV screens and many computers—it’s a big hit with school groups.
The area is also home to the state’s largest farm museum. Just off the beaten path, the West Virginia State Farm Museum has everything from early farmhouses and log cabins to a church and an operational 19th century blacksmith shop. It’s a beautiful stop in Mason County whether you want to quickly stretch your legs or spend the whole day exploring the grounds.
No visit would be complete without walking the grounds of Tu-Endie-Wei State Park. You’ll know you’ve arrived by the 85-foot granite obelisk. The park marks the site of the 1774 Battle of Point Pleasant at the junction of the Ohio and Kanawha rivers, and the name Tu-Endie-Wei means “point between two waters.” Also at the park is the remarkable Mansion House, a restored 1796 tavern and inn that now serves as a museum. Every October visitors can also enjoy the Battle Days Festival at the state park, complete with parade, reenactment, food, and live entertainment.
Reenactments often take place at Krodel Park, just off of State Route 2, where you can fish, camp, picnic, or simply relax by the 22-acre lake. The park is also home to Fort Randolph, a 1700s replica fort.
Back downtown, a more recent era of history is preserved at the State Theater, an Art Moderne-style theater opened on Main Street in 1942. The 700-seat theater is open now only for special events.
Main Street Point Pleasant also has high hopes for the A.F. Kisar House and Memorial Gardens. The three-story house on Third Street was built in the late 1890s and is in the process of being restored as a museum showcasing early architecture.
The future is bright for this river town. Main Street Point Pleasant continues to work on multiple projects—from basic beautification to bringing in more bus tours. “There’s a lot of color on Main Street now,” Charles says. “When we get everything done here, Point Pleasant is going to the be the hottest town on the Ohio River.”