Blackwater Falls State Park is one of the most iconic and frequently photographed parks in West Virginia, attracting over 850,000 visitors a year.
The first written record we have of the Blackwater River watershed dates from 1746, when a survey party attempted to plot a straight route from the headwaters of the Rappahannock to the headwaters of the Potomac. The first accounts of the area focused on the difficulty of navigating in the dense thickets of “accursed lorals”, rhododendron and spruce trees, and framed the area as one for travelers to avoid. However, by the mid-1800s news had gotten out about the “great falls of the Blackwater” and a group of adventurers visited the area, going on to publish an article in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, a popular periodical of the day. The illustration below is by David Hunter Strother, who also illustrated the Harper’s article.
In 1859, George and William Dobbin acquired property in the area that is now Blackwater Falls State Park, and built a 12-room log building that was used as a hunting and fishing lodge. Wealthy sportsmen would travel by horseback from Oakland, Maryland and stay at the Dobbin House during the summer. Although the original house no longer exists, the area past Pendleton Lake (near Pace Point) is still sometimes referred to as the Dobbin House tract.
However, the Blackwater area did not stay a vacation spot. Beginning in the 1870s, Henry Gassaway Davis and other early industrialists began buying up thousands of acres of land in and around Blackwater. Rail lines were built into Thomas, Davis, and down the Canyon through the 1880s, facilitating exports of timber and coal. Smaller “stringer” railroads came off the main lines, and in areas too step for a train, logs were hauled up-slope using huge cranes. In a relatively short period, nearly all of the timber was stripped from the Blackwater Canyon, and subsequent fires damaged the top soil in many places. The timber trade was centered in Davis, and more than a billion board feet of lumber would have passed through the town, but by 1924 the boom was over and all the mills in Davis had shut down.
In 1934, the first 446 acres of what would become Blackwater Falls State Park was deeded to the West Virginia Conservation Commission. It was officially turned into a state park in 1937, and the Civilian Conservation Corp began replanting trees. An additional 935 acres was added in 1953, and the first set of cabins were opened in 1956, followed by the main lodge in 1957. That same year, a land swap added 744 acres to the park. Smaller purchases in the 2000s have added more to the park, and Friends of Blackwater was involved in Governor Wise’s 2002 addition of 500 acres upstream of the falls.
In 2015, Blackwater Falls State Park had an economic significance of $25,386,266. The park now includes a nature center, boat rentals, a sled run, and miles of trails in addition to the falls that everyone knows and loves.