As the sun dipped lower on the horizon, casting a warm amber glow, I found myself nearing the Fred Long Centennial Park nestled along the sweeping curves of US Route 219, five miles from the town of Thomas, West Virginia.
The roadside park that harks back to an era when such oases dotted the byways frequently. In their heyday, these wayside stops offered weary travelers a chance to pause, refresh, and perhaps enjoy a quiet picnic, surrounded by nature’s splendor. This particular haven was a crowning achievement for the West Virginia State Road Commission as it was their 100th roadside park. Its inauguration on June 20, 1963, wasn’t mere happenstance; it beautifully coincided with the state’s grand celebration of a century of statehood.
In 2006, the park was christened in honor of Fred Long, a son of Tucker County. Long’s legacy in these parts is legendary: a devoted employee of the State Road Department in the 1930s, a sheriff in the subsequent decade, and eventually the guiding hand behind the county’s State Road Department in the 1950s.
From the park’s elevated perch atop Backbone Mountain, 3,500 feet above sea level, one’s gaze can wander effortlessly. Below, the patchwork quilt of family farms along Sugarland Road unfurls, punctuated by the serpentine course of the Cheat River. Nearby is the Mountaineer Wind Energy Center, a wind farm that provides 66 MW of electricity, enough to power approximately 20,000 homes.
I made it just in time to witness the sun setting behind the Olson Fire Tower. Erected in 1922 as the Backbone Tower, Backbone was the state’s very first fire tower. The building was replaced in 1963 with Olson Tower, named for Ernst B. Olson for his 28 years of fire control and conservation program service to the Monongahela National Forest.