In its more than 125 years, the outdoorsmen retreating to the Cheat Mountain Club have changed, but it has stayed the same.
The Cheat Mountain is especially long and high, even compared to the rest of West Virginia’s rough terrain. The ridge is some 70 miles long—it stretches from Snowshoe in the southwest all the way past Elkins in the northeast—and includes 9 of the 10 highest peaks in the state. “In the early days, the wilderness of Cheat was vast, the weather forlorn, and lack of human settlement obvious,” Carl Frischkorn writes in a book he wrote and published about the region. To humans, it wasn’t exactly welcoming, but the hills were filled with virgin timber and animals thrived in the remote landscape. The 19th century magazine writer David Strother wrote that you could take two horses and a carriage and drive anywhere on the forest floor, Carl says. “Because the overstory of the forest was so thick that there was no vegetation there.”
In the 1880s, a group of men from up north began travelling to this part of rural West Virginia to hunt, fish, and trap. These weren’t mountaineers. They were gentlemen from Pittsburgh, Washington, and Northern West Virginia, men who spent their days in offices and parlors and carriages. But every once in a while these men had a hankering for the wilderness. They wanted to leave home and spend a few days roughing it in a rustic bunkhouse, fishing for trout in the river, and hunting bear, elk, and deer. So in 1886 a group of industrialists bought 50,000 acres of land in what is now Pocahontas County to create a private wilderness preserve. They called their new club The Sportsman’s
Association of Cheat Mountain.
A spruce log clubhouse along the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River was completed in 1887 and used as a hunting and fishing lodge for the next 50 years. Club members would make the trek from Pittsburgh or Clarksburg or Washington, D.C., to stay there, first by horse and carriage, later by automobile, and eventually by train. The location is remote, so the trip wasn’t easy. As one early visitor wrote in the guest register: “This is God’s country. But, the devil sure made the roads!” It was frequented by powerful, successful men, and in August of 1918 Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and John Burroughs even visited during a two week Appalachian camping excursion. “The funny thing is that they didn’t even stay here—they couldn’t, they weren’t members,” laughs Jason Means, the club’s current caretaker. “They came in and signed the book, but they had to camp outside.”
In 1947 the Western Maryland Railroad bought the club to use it as a corporate retreat and hired a prominent architect from Baltimore to improve the interior. Fixtures were updated to be more modern and less rustic and an additional fireplace was added. Where the floorplan had been largely open, they put in walls to separate the living room from the dining room. The sportsmen had required no restrooms but the railroad executives surely would, so toilets were installed. Rock maple chairs, chests, and couches were purchased to furnish the place—the very same furniture that is there today.
Over the next several decades ownership of the club changed hands several times, but the clubhouse remained largely the same. These days, it’s called simply the Cheat Mountain Club. From the exterior it looks just as it did in the 1880s, and inside almost nothing has changed since the railroad company remodeled in the 1940s. Carl still distinctly remembers the first time he set eyes on the building. It was 1977 and he was on a helicopter tour of some coal mines for his business. “I saw the thing and said, ‘We have to go check this out,’” he says. “I just thought it was one of the coolest things ever in West Virginia. To preserve something so well for so long is extraordinary.”
By 1987 the club appeared to be in danger—its owner was having financial trouble and couldn’t afford upkeep on the place. That’s when a group of four families, spearheaded by Carl, purchased the lodge and opened it to the general public as a bed and breakfast. In 2002 it was sold again to a group of seven families, who use it more as a timeshare today, taking time for themselves each year also opening it up for rentals. The general public can still stay at the Cheat Mountain Club but has to plan well in advance. Jason recommends renting out the whole club at once by calling around the end of the year, before the owners divvy up their time in January. The idea is less to make money on the venture than to preserve the Cheat Mountain Club for posterity. “It’s so unique and special, so a lot of people have given a lot of time, energy, and money to make sure it’s preserved,” Carl says. “Of all the things I’ve done in my life—and I’m 62 years old—the best thing I’ve done is save the Cheat Mountain Club.”
Today the club remains in good, working condition—it’s no museum, and never has been—and is still used as a rustic retreat for city people looking to escape to the mountains. On the outside, the club is a simple box of a building with a small porch, but stepping inside is like stepping back in time. It’s all warm wood and cozy textiles, and you can see the evidence of the building’s spruce log construction right there in the walls. The lodge can sleep 23 people comfortably between eight bedrooms, one suite, and a dormitory-style room on the third floor. And while considerable work has been done in the last few decades to keep it up and running, all of the improvements have been structural things like wiring and plumbing that guests can’t see. “So it still, amazingly, has the same kind of feel that it’s had for years,” Jason says.
In the 1900s, the timber and coal industries decimated the region around the Cheat Mountain and left the sportsmen who visited the Cheat Mountain Club with less forest to romp in and fewer animals to hunt. But since 1987 much of that land has been purchased and preserved by the federal government, and in recent years the wilderness on the Cheat Mountain has begun to come back. “Nature will heal itself, and the forest will come back. It will never be virgin again, but it will come back and have the scale that it once did,” Carl says. “The hunting and fishing and the ecosystem up there on Cheat Mountain is extraordinary. You have this massive forest with red spruce and a preponderance of maple, and good fishing, great mountain biking, and cross country skiing. And the elevation is such that in the summertime you don’t need air conditioning. It’s a really special place.”
WRITTEN BY SHAY MAUNZ