I hardly remember a time when the U.S. 19 expressway didn’t climb Powell Mountain on its journey between Sutton and Beckley in southern West Virginia. Raised in Beckley by parents who hailed from the Monongahela Valley, I spent countless hours on the route visiting grandparents, and later, while attending West Virginia University, spent many more.
One of the strangest landmarks along the route, to my way of thinking, was a sign for “Young’s Monument Road.” I regret that it was not until later in life that I turned off onto the gravel road that led to this strange landmark high atop the mountain.
Powell Mountain, like so many other locales along expressways in the rural U.S., is remote, yet not entirely so. The whir of interstate traffic is nearly constant much of the day, but just beyond the berm extends a forest unbroken for miles in many directions. It was in this forest, then primeval, that Henry Young lost his life in 1861, during the first year of the Civil War. Some of the facts surrounding the incident are obscure.
According to local tradition, Young was travelling across the mountain when he was shot and killed by Union soldiers who believed him to be a Confederate sympathizer or a member of a rebel militia. (His headstone indicates he was a private in the Confederate Army, Company D of the 36 Virginia Infantry.) Wary of being discovered and killed as well, his family buried him quickly near where he was found in a gap near the mountain’s summit.
There’s plenty of information online that recalls the tale and the legends that surround the monument. According to some sources, Young’s ghost returned in headless form and haunted the road along which he drew his last breath. Late at night, far from city lights, the forest here can be uncanny.
What may be said with some certainty is that the story of Young’s demise carries weight. Though not common, solitary graves occur throughout the mountain counties with some regularity. Elsewhere in Nicholas County near Mount Lookout stands another that I hope to visit again soon. These lonesome graves are in large part a result of guerrilla warfare carried out in what’s now West Virginia during the Civil War. Organized battle was impractical in the mountains. No large conflicts were fought here where the South and North converged, though raids, skirmishes, and ambushes were somewhat usual. As far as the significance of this monument goes, its testament to small-scale warfare in the West Virginia hills may be paramount.
In 1970, during construction of the expressway, Young’s Monument was moved out of the route of the road and to the edge of a small graveyard near the very summit of the mountain. Though I’ve not found a record, I assume that the grave of his wife Lucinda adjoined his and was moved at the same time to the new site. Though Lucinda’s grave may well have already been in the graveyard at the present site. Perhaps a reader will be able to answer the question and provide a source to back it up.
In any case, though Young’s Monument was already a landmark of statewide renown, appearing on a U.S. Geologic Survey Map at least as early as 1914, its locale undeniably entered the psyche of travelers after the construction of the expressway and the erection of the Young’s Monument Road sign. More than 10,000 motor pass it daily.
In addition, a historical marker recognizing the monument was also erected at the scenic overlook on the north face of the mountain overlooking the vale of Powell Creek, though I’d speculate that only a few turn off onto the road to visit the site.
That said, while filming the video “Visiting Young’s Monument on Powell Mountain,” a couple in their mid-20s travelling through en route to Canada had stopped by. They were looking not for the monument but for a view of the hills to the west. Sharp-eyed travelers have surely noticed the sea of hills that ranges into the interminable distance here. Powell Mountain ascends to 2,431 feet above sea level here. A peak near the northernmost terminous of the Cumberland Mountains of southern West Virginia, it looms far higher than the hills to the west, the summits of which are as much as a thousand feet lower.
Accounting for the curvature of the Earth, a westward view on a clear day could provide a vista of peaks as distant as those that rise above the valley of the Pocatalico River in Roane County, some forty miles distant. It’s long bothered me that the state has not opened an overlook here to accommodate travelers, and I’m hoping some day progressive county leaders will see the profit in this. I’ve dropped the idea as a hint on occasion, but so far no one’s picked up on it.
If you’re traveling over Powell Mountain and can find the time, I recommend turning off the highway and following Young’s Monument Road .2-miles westward to the gate (on your left), and strolling up the hillside. You’ll see the low weathered wall around the monument from the gate, and there’s plenty of parking on along the side of the road.
If you’re not comfortable driving on gravel roads in winter, bear in mind that Powell Mountain takes the brunt of winter storms that approach from the West, and that drifts grow to several feet in height near the summit. One of my fondest Powell Mountain memories is of riding across with my father in the winter of 1985 while returning for a spring semester at West Virginia University. A tunnel of driving snow whorled hypnotically around us. Here near the summit, the snows are likely to grow as severe as they are anywhere along the expressways between Beckley and Morgantown. And on snowy nights crossing the mountain I’m likely to consider Young’s lonesome ghost looking westward through the flurries, pondering the passage of time.
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