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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Point Pleasant, West Virginia, Home of Mothman

I made my way back from Washington, D.C., where I'd just covered the September 15th Protest March via West Virginia. The mountains were rugged and beautiful; I exited the interstate in Western Maryland and encountered a string of former coal small towns nestled in a long valley.

By chance, I took West Virginia 35 to the west. I followed it well into the next day, heading directly west. The road, it should be noted, is known as Senator Byrd Highway, is four-laned from Elkins to I-79, the main north-south interstate cutting through West Virginia. Beyond, S.R. 35 follows a small stream through small hamlets and pleasant valleys, meandering towards Ohio.

Senator Byrd's highway might be an example of government waste, but it did make for easy driving, particularly at night. I guess in the all-about-me America of today, government largesse is only a bad thing if you aren't a beneficiary.

Plus, the mountains of West Virginia are now being physically dismantled (see the End Mountaintop Removal tag on this page), so it's only fair that the state receives something in return. While a road may not be adequate recompense for the loss of what is arguably West Virginia's greatest attraction--its natural scenery--, at least people will be able to get around more easily, as transiting through the mountainous terrain has long been an impediment to economic development.

Hopefully an enhanced road network will entice more environmentally friendly forms of economic development, in lieu of mountaintop removal. Mountaintop removal is an excellent example of unsustainable economics: coal-fired plants are the number one contributor to greenhouse gases. Also, as Google Earth's Monument to the Mountains attests, West Virginia will one day run out of mountains to remove. At least better roads will allow people to more easily transit through the scenery of denuded mountains to federal parks and nearby states that protect their natural heritage.

Drawn to Point Pleasant

As I made my way east, and closed in on the Ohio River, I found myself heading towards Point Pleasant. Was it just by chance I'd arrived? After all I had not been planning any particular route at the time, and 35 had peetered out, so had something else been pulling me there?

Point Pleasant is alongside the banks of the Ohio, and well protected from it by a thick and heavy flood gates. The Kanahwa River meets the Ohio there.

Point Pleasant has gone to great lengths to create a people-friendly river landing with wide walking paths. The riverside boardwalk had been a considerable effort and presented the town favorably from the river and Ohio beyond. I think riverboat cruises dock at the town, which puts the extensive landing to good use rather than having it just serve as some ornamental testimony to its past.

A giant mural covered the flood wall, on the river side. The mural took in all the details of a major battle fought there in 1774. (I have a video pan of the mural; hope to get it online.)

I later learned that the mural had been begun but gone unfinished by a German artist using a specially designed paint engineered to withstand 100-years of weathering. The painting was being completed by local painter, shown here.

A plaque labelled the Battle of Point Pleasant "the first battle of the Revolution" as it had occurred at the end of the French and Indian Wars, and was one of the last battles with native tribes fought under English leadership.

On the other side of the levy doors, next to the mural, stood two statues in stainless steel. One statue was Cornstalk's, the other that of General Andrew Lewis.

I would later talk to their sculptor, Robert Rauch, who lamented not being able to do Cornstalk at his full height--ostensibly 7 foot 6 inches!--but that would have overshadowed the accompanying General, who'd been victorious over the natives. Apparently political sensitivities had entered into the picture--or never left. These impulses had a historical context, considering one inscription beneath a 1909 monument describes the battle as "the most important battle ever waged between the forces of civilization and of barbarism in America."

Cornstalk died under suspicious circumstances--well, ok, he was murdered by settlers well after the wars had ended--and he had reputedly put a curse on the town with his dying lips.

This takes me to the phenomena of mothman for which the town of Mount Pleasant is most widely known. Mothman is a creature thought to have a wings and the torso of a man. Mothman's eyes are red and bloodshot, and were said to glow brilliantly in the dark. Hands and feet are clawed, insect-like. Mothman could fly, reports claim, without flapping his wings. A demon? Alien? Who's to say.

The first witness to mothman (as he would later be known) said he saw a pair of bright red orbs hovering in the dark fields by his house in 1966. His dog, a stalwart hunting breed, chased after the unknown source of the lights. Petrified, the witness stayed inside the remainder of the night, arming himself. In the morning, the dog couldn't be found nor would he ever be.

The hills around Point Pleasant were heavily excavated and TNT was made and stored there during World War II. The area, now a nature preserve, is apparently contaminated with numerous toxins left over from the production of explosives. In 1966, a pair of necking couples near the now-dismantled factory had seen mothman, who chased their car as it fled the scene, easily matching speeds of over 100 miles per hour!

Chance Encounters

My timing was good, pulled as I may have been by some mysterious source beyond my capacity to understand. While I'd been in DC there'd been a weekend of festivites in Point Pleasant dedicated to mothman. Then in one of Point Pleasant's downtown squares I encountered sculptor Bob Rauch as he was being filmed and interviewed by some people from peterhaasfilms.

{Editor's Note: Peter Haas is a movie publicist and documentary producer. I was unable to raise their website at peterhaasfilms.com. Their documentary on Mothman is scheduled for 2009. I want to thank them for letting me watch their interview.}

Rauch (picture) is pure West Virginia, colorful and creative but well versed on mothman memorabilia. He had seen mothman in 1966 and used the experience to model the impressive statue he'd later cast in stainless steel the same color as his cute truck.

The monument (picture) is impressive, a full-size replica. (See Mothman Museum below for more pictures.) Rauch was proud of mothman's eyes, made of rare red glass that had been shattered to re-create a bloodshot look the creature had.

Rauch and his daughter, who was also there, had invested considerable funds in the statue and other mothman paraphenalia as part of a multi-generational effort. A talented sculptor, Rauch dismissed the time commitment he'd made, content to craft statues in his garage as a simple man happy to practice his craft. Rauch claimed he had received no direct financial benefit for the statue, and I believed him to the point that I recommended that he sell miniature models of his statue as a means to recoup his investment.

Rauch had been concerned for inadequate security of his mothman statue, and grimaced as he explained how youths and uncaring tourists had manhandled and nearly bent his work of art by hanging on the wings. Rauch asserted that he'd been promised additional protection from the town but been denied. Sympathetic to the dangers, I suggested a good location for a surveillance camera.

Mothman had appeared just months before the collapse of the Silver Bridge which occurred in December of the following year.

The Silver Bridge had collapsed with tragic results, killing 46 people in an abrupt 100 foot fall to the Ohio. It had connected the town to the state of Ohio across the bridge and fallen during what a grey-haired local called "rush hour." The Silver Bridge had stood just to the left of the railroad bridge in my picture here. Nothing remains of the bridge today.

Reminded of the recent Minnesota bridge collapse, back by the landing I'd asked a gray-haried local if there'd been a maintenance problem contributing to the collapse. I was told that the collapse had been related to a structural flaw and stress on its bearings or some very rational reason.

The bridge collapse brought national media attention to Point Pleasant. Retroactively people connected previous appearances of mothman to signify a bad omen. Other unusual and unfortunate events had occured subsequent to other mothman sightings as well. (See Other Sources below for more links to more detailed resources.) It's not clear whether reports of mothman sightings rise after the occurance of the event. It may be that mothman sighting are infinitely more likely after an tragedy, and thus rationalize the theory that mothman appeared to warn townsfolk of an upcoming calamity.

I'm not one to judge what other people see. Rather I see it as my responsibility to report on the facts, at least when I'm writing articles of this nature. I can't tell you that mothman was real, not because he might not exist or have existed, but because I haven't seen him myself. Thus I can only take what I discovered about mothman on faith, and direct you to others who tell his story far better than I could.

Mothman Resources

The movie The Mothman Prophecies starring Richard Gere is the most famous recent work on the mothman phenomena. It is based on John Keel's 1975 book. Keel is often cited as the journalist who did the most to make mothman's legend grow.

Explanations and reports of sightings of mothman abound. One is here.

Point Pleasant has a museum dedicated to mothman. Nestled among other webpages is this accumulation of firsthand reports.

Loren Coleman assembled "The Mothman Death List," an ominously-titled assemblage of deaths of people connected in some way to the sightings of mothman. It should be noted that the bulk of what might seem like suspicious deaths are connected to the bridge collapse. There does seem to be a broader trend towards mortality among mothman witnesses, though...

The minutae explaining the apparently interconnected web of deaths makes for interesting reading. Coleman has a section of a book devoted to mothman.


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