Nature’s Cathedral

Untouched by ax or saw, this peaceful state park in Preston County is home to an ancient forest of virgin hemlocks.

Once you’ve stepped onto the hallowed grounds of Cathedral State Park, the origin of the park’s name becomes obvious. A soaring canopy, hundreds of feet above your head, filters sunlight so the landscape is awash in an ethereal light. Reverential silence envelops you until you come upon Rhine Creek, where the rhythmic hum of the babbling brook is accompanied by the lilt of birdsong. It’s nature at its best in this preserved cathedral of hemlock trees, many of which have remained uncut for more than 400 years. “It’s always been known as Cathedral Forest, even before it became a state park,” says Eric Risinger, who’s been park ranger for almost five years. “It reminded people of a chapel—the high ceilings and the feeling you got when you walked into the forest. It’s really peaceful, like when you go to church.”

Originally Brookside Woods, the 133-acre plot of land that sits just east of Aurora along U.S. Route 50 became a state park in 1942 and is now part of the Brookside Resort National Register Historic District. Brookside was a resort born in the mid-1800s, when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad came through nearby Oakland, Maryland. In summer, city dwellers escaped their hot industrial habitats and retreated to the cool, quiet mountains of West Virginia. “People could come to Oakland by train and the resort would pick up guests by horse and carriage,” Eric says. Visitors traveled by rail from Wheeling, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City. “People came then for the same reason people come today—lower humidity, cooler summers, lower temperatures.”

Eventually, the land changed hands. Longtime resort caretaker Brandon Haas purchased a parcel of acreage and cared for it until 1942 when he sold what would become Cathedral State Park to the State of West Virginia for $13,000. But, Eric says, “Haas knew it was important to keep Cathedral Park uncut.” So he sold the land on one condition—the forest had to remain untouched by ax or saw. The promise was kept, as Haas continued to care for the park until his death in the 1950s, and in 1966 Cathedral State Park gained even greater protection when it was designated a National Natural Landmark.

Today, thousands of visitors come to Aurora each year to visit the only remaining stand of virgin hemlock in West Virginia, and one of few left in the country. Six major trails and several footbridges traverse the park and its waterways, where visitors discover more than 30 tree species and more than 50 species of wildflowers. And because of recent damage to the park during Hurricane Sandy in fall 2012, Eric, whose background is in wildlife management, says he’s excited to see how life in the park will change. “Damage looks and sounds bad when you hear about it, but it’s not always a bad thing,” he says. A unique tree, hemlocks tend to grow and grow, always reaching for more sunlight, always fighting—and usually beating out—other trees for more light. When left untouched, they can grow as large as 15 or 20 feet in circumference and 94 feet tall, like the Centennial Hemlock at Cathedral. Because of their height, hemlocks are frequently struck by lightning, and when the Centennial tree took another hit in 2004, it was the final blow. Lightning struck, Centennial fell, and today all that’s left is a 20-foot stump behind the ranger’s office and residence.

What’s most unique, however, is how the hemlock dictates what grows on the forest floor. Because so little light ever makes its way through the canopy, hemlock forests remain very damp and flora and fauna tend to grow low to the ground. With the recent storm damage, though, trees broke off at the crown and more light is getting through. Eric says, “It’s exciting to see what the sunlight will change in the park. I’ve really noticed birds are more visible now. In the past, they’d be up in the canopy and you’d hear them but never see them. Now, they have more security from predators in all the brush on the forest floor. Wildlife is coming out of its normal hiding spots and venturing into new places.” Eric says he’s also seeing more salamanders than ever before.

These new habitats aren’t bound to change anytime soon. As a national landmark, the park is protected. “Even when we’re cleaning debris from storm damage, the only thing we’re allowed to do is clear the trails. No one can come into the forest and take anything down or out of the park,” Eric says, meaning that most of what falls in the park, stays in the park, simply becoming part of the natural landscape. Many of the trails have been cleared and are open, and Eric continues to clear the park’s public areas of any debris.

Cathedral State Park is open year-round from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Tours are available upon request, and there is no admission fee.

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