Ominous stone profile attracts sightseers in search of lore

Ominous stone profile attracts sightseers in search of lore
An ominous profile of President William McKinley was blasted into a cliff above the New River in 1901. Photo: David Sibray

High above the ghost town of , the frowning stone profile of President William McKinley silently watches over the New River Gorge, as it has since 1901.


Blasted by chance during construction of a railroad, the visage terrified so many workers, who considered it an ill omen, that construction was halted. Later that day, a telegraph arrived at Thurmond: had been shot. He died eight days later.

Profile of President McKinley near Thurmond

How much of the tale is true? Probably a good deal of it, though Jodi French-Burr, a ranger with the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, says that even the fabricated bits are a vital part the heritage of the New River Gorge, namesake of a large area of national park in south-central West Virginia.

French-Burr regularly guides park visitors on hikes along the Rend Trail, which leads past the infamous stone face. She admits the little-remembered landmark is one of her favorite sites.

"All life stories contribute to a community’s heritage," French-Burr stressed, "so we need to make sure we tell all our tales. If we don't preserve that history in some fashion, it will be forgotten."

It's important to remember that superstition also played an important role in the lives of the many immigrants who came to work in the New River Gorge around the turn of the 20th century.


"Stories like the legend of McKinley Rock are especially good, because that superstition makes us all wonder what really went down that day, even though we’ll never know the full story.”

President William McKinley

Though the tale of McKinley's Rock is not widely know, French-Burr said some park visitors ask about it on occasion, and the story joins well with tales of Thurmond, a ghost town that many visitors expect to be haunted.

Park rangers cannot easily speak to matters of conjecture, but in the matter of the rock, it's clearly fact that the rock was blasted on the day of the assault on McKinley.

"People have heard of the legend of the rock and ask about it from time to time, especially when visiting Thurmond," she said.

McKinley's profile is only perceptible from the south.

"Then when people ask about hauntings in Thurmond, this story is my go-to tale, because we do know the facts of McKinley’s assassination, but the legend of McKinley's Rock also offers some satisfaction for those looking for a superstitious element that can never be proven."

The one-mile hike on the to McKinley's Rock is relatively easy as it follows the former, leveled grade of the old Rend rail line from Thurmond Road (WV-25).

A rock-fall farther along on the 3.2-mile trail nearer Minden has rendered the trail impassible, but the one-mile section to McKinley Rock is a pleasure to hike.

McKinley's Rock is best viewed in winter and spring when trees and vines in the gorge are leafless.

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