Photos credited below and Story by Justin Harris
Canaan Valley Resort Opened its premier slope last weekend, the 1.25 mile long Timber Trail, and with it comes a ride through Canaan Valley history.
Davis, WV, December 23rd, 2019 – On Saturday, December 14th, Canaan Valley Resort opened Timber Trail for the 2019/2020 season. Timber is the Canaan Valley Resort’s premier ski trail, taking skiers and snowboarders on a 1.25 mile ride through a snow encrusted Red Spruce forest, with spectacular views of Bald Knob and Canaan Valley State Park. But a trip down Timber Trail is more than just a ride on another West Virginia ski slope. This trail is a unique journey through a piece of West Virginia history.
Often on snowier days, upon exiting the lift at the summit of the mountain, resort guests are immediately surrounded by the beautiful, snow-covered spruce trees that are native to the West Virginia ridge lines.
Many skiers and snowboarders utilize this opportunity to snap a photo with friends as the backdrop of a snowy forest creates the perfect selfie for social media. Timber Trail is a diverse ride that caters to all skill levels. Beginners enjoy the fact they can visit the top of the mountain and still descend the slope easily, while advanced riders appreciate the diverse landscape and lines available to explore.
However, this beautiful forest tells a story of West Virginia history that has left an undeniable mark on the landscape for over 100 years. The original old growth forests of Canaan Valley from the 1800’s were so thick and massive, that no sunlight reached the valley floor, and no settlers made the area a permanent home until the 1870’s. The landscape was truly an impenetrable wilderness.
Between the years of 1888 and 1922, the forests of Canaan Valley were clear-cut on a level that will never again be seen in American history. By the end of the campaign, not a single tree was left standing. During that time enough board feet were cut to stretch a timber bridge from the earth to the moon 13 feet wide and 2 inches thick. The environmental devastation left in its wake forever changed the landscape of Canaan Valley and West Virginia.
Historically, the high elevations of West Virginia contain red spruce ecosystems. These habitats are very rare for the state, but the elevation of certain ridge lines produce an alpine climate conducive for the spruce to flourish. Timber Trail offers guests of the resort a rare, up-close view of the red spruce forest of the Allegheny Highlands. The original old growth spruce of the 1800s produced a forest canopy that supported an ecosystem of black bear, mountain lion, wolves, the northern flying squirrel, and the Cheat Mountain salamander. However, the devastating timber cutting and resulting wildfires that followed burned the top soil and seed, leaving a barren landscape behind. When the valley winds blew the red spruce seedlings back over the ridge lines and new growth began, the layered canopy no longer existed.
Today as riders make their way down Timber Trail, it’s obvious that all of the second and third generation growth are of the same age. As beautiful as it may be, this growth rate is unnatural and a direct result of the logging devastation of the early 1900’s. Local Canaan Valley legend John Lutz said, “I remember skiing Timber Trail in the early 1970’s, and those Red Spruce were all waist high on me. It’s amazing how the forest landscape has changed since then.”
There are still some remaining small tracks of virgin, old growth, red spruce forests in West Virginia, however, they are rare. Gaudineer Scenic Area in the Monongahela National Forest is one such example of these remaining giants. The unique landscape of the upper part of Timber Trail through these second and third generation forests of today provide a window into history that is experienced as skiers begin the ride down Timber Trail. Once exiting the spruce forest, a break off spur trail is revealed on the skiers left, allowing a dramatic view of the Bald Knob summit to the north, and bringing guests to the next piece of history of this one of kind mountain trail.
Timber Spur is a moderately steep, 150 yard long cut, giving more advanced riders an alternative route down the mountain. The main trail continues to the east as an option for beginners, but that wasn’t always the case. Timber Trail was originally cut in 1971, with the formation of the state park, and when it was, the steeper Timber Spur was the only available option and route of the original trail. This section of trail is noticeably steeper than the rest of the 1.25 miles of slope, with multiple twists and turns as guests descend. When the state park upgraded Timber in 1982 with snowmaking equipment, it was also decided that an easier route around the spur was needed to create a safe passage for beginner skiers. The outer loop of Timber Trail was added as a secondary option, and quickly became the main route for most skiers. Today Timber Spur is a secondary access trail, and the slight grade of the outer loop is the route for most guests. Skiers can take a break at the top of the spur, take in the view, and appreciate the history that this section of trail holds.
Once rounding the bend, the trail begins to straighten out and pick up a bit in speed, continuing to switch between a few remaining Red Spruce and the more typical hardwood forest of the West Virginia mountains. As riders progress down the next half a mile, a fascinating piece of Canaan Valley history is hidden somewhere under the ski’s of the mountain guests.
Timber Trail was originally cut in 1971, and completed in the winter of 73-74. It was during the 1960’s that the state acquired the land for the park from private residents through the practice of Eminent Domain. Needless to say, not all residents of the valley willfully cooperated with these land acquisitions, and one of the most famous local cases was that of Ab Crossland. Ab was a well known local resident born in 1884 who lived in the hills of what is now the Canaan Valley Ski Area. But what made Ab so well known was the moonshine he brewed in a still on Mill Run deep in a holler of what is now Lower Timber Trail. As skiers run down Lower Timber, Mill Run is clearly visible on the right side of the slope. Ab guarded his still with a shotgun while spending time with his pet skunks, and he decorated the hidden shack with pelts he had collected over the years. Ab would sell his potent elixir to the valley residents at the local dance hall called The Platform, and one long time, anonymous local and employee of the ski resort stated, “I remember Ab. He was a great guy. I use to love his moonshine. Bought a jar every week and hung out at his still with my lady friends. His pet skunks were always friendly.”
In the 1950’s, the farmland around what is today Canaan Valley Ski Area was owned by a man named Joe Heitz, and legend states that he was the man behind the moonshine operation. Ab and Joe ran the still successfully for years in the 50’s, but eventually local law enforcement caught up with them. Ab took the fall for the crime, and protected Joe from being connected to the operation. When Ab went to jail and served 90 days for running an illegal moonshine operation, Joe made a deal with Ab that he would gift him a place to live for the remainder of his life once released.
When state park officials began to explore the hills and survey the land for the ski resort in the late 60’s, they stumbled upon Ab and his still on Mill Run. Ab had hidden the still well on ‘the crick’. He utilized a small cave that included natural ventilation for the smoke produced by the fires used during the distillation process. The smoke was drawn into the cave and carried upwards like a chimney, and then faintly expelled somewhere on the far side of Weiss Knob almost 5 miles away. Needless to say, this was not exactly a convenient discovery for Ab, and as local folklore states, “he refused to leave.” There are many local stories about how Ab finally gave into the state. One included the police making the trek up the hillside to talk with Ab. However, the colorful local character offered the officers a drink of his potent brew and the men ended up staying for the evening, becoming desperately intoxicated, and stumbling back down the mountain without ever arresting old Ab.
Eventually Ab lost his battle to remain on Mill Run with his famous still, and the construction on Timber Trail began. Legend states that when the trail was built, the bulldozers covered over the still and cave and it remains somewhere under the skis of the guests today. Over the years, locals have ventured up Mill Run in the summer after hearing rumors that a cave exists with a stash of moonshine hidden deep within. However, no cave has ever been found along Mill Run, but the story continues to hold merit through the generations.
But Ab Crossland’s famous valley shine is not what made him the stuff of legend. It was Ab’s victorious battle against the state that put him in the history books. Joe Heitz kept his promise to Ab upon his release from jail, and gave him a place to live on the farm. But when the state acquired the land to build the park and ski area, Ab had nowhere to go and was determined that the state was going to honor the promise Joe had made. A local lawyer from Elkins took on Ab’s case pro bono, and the two used squatters rights to fight the state, eventually taking the case to the State Supreme Court. The court ruled in favor of Ab Crossland, and Ab was allowed to stay on the land. Ab was living in an old rail car turned into a cabin when he was victorious against the state, and he remained there as the state park formed around him.
Ab spent his remaining days with his pet skunks living in the rail car-turned-cabin near the entrance to the ski resort. Local legend states that whenever state park officials would approach Abs cabin, he would meet them with his shotgun in hand, telling them to get off his land. He would then bang the butt of his gun against the porch. This would alert the pet skunks to danger, and they would greet the officials with their tails turned high. Local Valley resident, Kim Bennett recalled seeing Ab and his pet skunks at the railcar while she waited for the school bus as a young girl. And Ab’s great grand niece, Candy, recounted playing with the skunks in her childhood. Eventually Ab moved from the railcar to a small cabin where the ski resort sign sits today, and he remained there until his death on April 4th, 1973. Both Ab and his mother are buried next to the ski area maintenance building on a small plot of land.
As skiers make their way toward the very bottom of Timber Trail and the final section of the 1.25 mile slope, one more piece of trail history comes into focus. This story was researched and documented by Kim Bennett, owner of Mountain Trail Rides Horseback Riding. Kim is a relative of Mary Heitz Warner, and she tells the story of the famous ‘Mountain Maw’ , who lived above where the Bear Paw Cafeteria sits today at the Canaan Valley Ski Area. There is a a small grove of pine trees clearly visible from the lift where Mountain Ma’s house sat. Kim’s account of the story of Mountain Maw is as follows……..
‘We introduce one of our most storied relatives – Mary Heitz Warner – younger sister of Lizzie Heitz Lanham. Mary, whose given name was Annie Marie, was our family’s version of Calamity Jane. She did not have an easy life. Born in 1908, in her era, just to survive in Canaan Valley required fortitude. And this lady did a fine job of raising five good children, and did it by herself after splitting with her husband. She walked three miles one way to work as cook and custodian at the local school. She farmed. She hunted. She wasted nothing. She cut timber. She definitely worked like a man.
Mary, known also as “Mountain Maw” became better known in the 1960s when the State of West Virginia made the decision to create the Canaan Valley State Park and condemned several local farms (including hers) to do so. To give account of her actions, we offer the following newspaper excerpt:
“West Virginia officials have found the good people of the Canaan Valley a bit resistant to land acquisition ‘rigamarole’, according to this report from Davis. An officer, bent on serving the necessary legal papers, approached the mountain domain of one stalwart lady, known for her forthright manner and independent attitude. He was stopped at the gate by the indomitable female, who was armed with a double barreled shotgun. Somewhat taken aback, he suggested that he could leave the documents on the gatepost. The landowner agreed; then ordered him to step back and reduced the papers to confetti with one blast of her shotgun. As he looked at the tatters in dismay, the forthright citizen reminded him that she had a barrel left for him, so he had better “git”. He did; and that’s how things are with land condemnation in the Canaan Valley.”
Another incident involved a shot Mary took at a low-flying helicopter that was surveying for the park condemnation and hovering over her home – what would soon be the ski area. Mary’s cows were mooing, the chickens (with feathers flying) were scurrying, the goose was honking, the dog barking – and Mary stepped out on her porch with an ancient Craig rifle and fired a warning shot upward. She was taken to court. And, for the record, she did lose her home and her 41-1/2 acre farm in the condemnation proceedings for which she was paid $14,250.00.
If you visit the Canaan Valley ski area this winter, and warm yourself by the fire pit near Quenchers Pub, look up towards the right of the chairlift. You will be standing very close to the place where Mary Heitz Warner took that shot at the helicopter.’
If you have an opportunity to descend the bottom of Timber Trail and make your way toward the lift, hopefully you can now appreciate the history of a trail rich with local legend, colorful characters, and 100 years of environmental impacts. Timber Trail is truly a journey through the history of the Canaan Resort Ski Area, and the valley as a whole. Guests of the resort should be cognizant of the Red Spruce forest and it’s environmental lessons, consider the origins when dropping the Timber Spur, ponder over the buried moonshine still under the skis and snowboards of riders who pass by, and imagine Mountain Ma sitting on her front porch with her shotgun, ready to terrify the local officials who approach. And as the guests of the resort turn up the road toward the ski area, they will now have the opportunity to imagine the old railcar cabin that sat at the corner of Route 32, complete with Ab Crossland and his pet skunks. Timber Trail and the history behind it, and underneath it, are just another aspect that make this park and this resort a unique West Virginia tradition.
Written and Researched By: Justin Harris
Acknowledgement and Thanks
This account of the history of Timber Trail would not have been possible without the assistance, contributions, and knowledge of the following people.
Canaan Valley Ski Patrol: Josh Vance, Dan Sullivan, Mike Mullens, Stan White
Canaan Valley Ski School: Warren Wik and Liz Moore
Tucker County CVB: Ed Worten
Mountain and Trail Rides: Kim Bennett (a HUGE thank you for the history)
Local Resident and Ski Legend: John Lutz
Elkins Law: Joe Wallace Sr.
Canaan Valley Employee: Chef Richard
Crossland Family: Candy Crossland
Behold! The Land of Canaan Volume Two, by Tucker County Highlands History and Education Project