NEWLYN, W.Va. — High above the ghost town of Thurmond, West Virginia, the frowning stone profile of a man silently watches over the New River Gorge, as it has since 1901. Blasted by chance during the construction of a railroad, the visage terrified so many workers—who considered it an ill omen—that construction on the line was halted.
Later that day, a telegraph arrived at Thurmond: President William McKinley had been shot. He died eight days later. Few of the workers doubted that the profile's appearance had been foreshadowing.
How much of the tale is true? Probably a good bit of it, says Jodi French-Burr, a ranger with the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, who reminds visitors on her tours to the stone face that even the fabricated parts are vital to the heritage of the New River Gorge.
She regularly guides park visitors on hikes along the Rend Trail, which leads past the infamous stone face—"McKinley Rock"—and admits the little-remembered landmark is one of her favorite sites.
"All life stories contribute to a community’s heritage," she stressed, "so we need to make sure we tell all our tales. It will be forgotten if we don't preserve that history in some fashion."
French-Burr says 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.”
Though the tale of McKinley's Rock is not widely known, French-Burr said some park visitors ask about it on occasion, and the story joins well with tales of Thurmond, a ghost town many visitors expect to be haunted.
Park rangers cannot easily speak to matters of conjecture, but in the matter of the rock, it's a fact that the cliff 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.
"Then, when people ask about hauntings in Thurmond, this story is my go-to tale, because we 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 Rend Trail 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 impassable, 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.
FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va.—An enigmatic stone face long ago carved into mossy sandstone along the rim of the New River Gorge is attracting increased attention as tourism grows in the new New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. Its origin story is now attracting attention among artists. READ THE STORY HERE.
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