The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum

I left Jackson’s Mill and drove through Weston’s elegant buildings and houses that stored memories of an affluent past. That history is ignored by the speeding traffic on the interstate. On my way out of Weston, the West Fork River ran between me and the huge, domineering, old Weston State Hospital. 

I could almost hear the screams coming through the steel barred windows of the grey-yellow brick monster. It was first designated as the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum and was designed to house 250 lunatics but grew by the 1950’s to 2400.  Or was that home for lunatics the one over in Spencer? I keep forgetting. I would remember to google it.

The place looks massive and it is hard for me to imagine that there could have been enough known lunatics in West Virginia to fill the place. In the horse and buggy days it might have been hard to hear the screams from this easy to forget location and with a crowd of 2,400 there must have been screams. The possibility and the reality of abuse in such warehouses for the mad led to closing of all such West Virginia  lunatic housing in 1994.

 From the size of the place there would have been a local industry in providing food, clothing and medical supplies. Considering the workings of state government the corruption in contract granting for the care and supply of a population of lunatics would have been at least as spectacular as today’s political machinations and the treatment of the lunatics would have been far from prying eyes.

Was it here in Weston or was that it the one in Spencer where the experiments were done with frontal lobe surgery? It is easy to confuse and forget where forgetfulness and confusion was in one swift cut of the surgeons placed forever within the brains of lunatics.

I swerved across a bridge and headed back to get a better look. From the gate there was a two hundred yard avenue that could have been an entry road when nothing wider than a stagecoach needed to pass. To the right of the front steps was a tall woman dressed in the old fashioned white nurse’s uniform and cap and on the left was a tall man in white that I took to represent a doctor’s outfit. And there were some civilians milling about. At sign to the right of the gate said there was a tour of the cemetery and something else. A boy and girl teenager stood there holding balloons. I waved at them, and they waved back. I drove on and crossed the bridge leading back into Weston and continued on my back road journey south on Route 19.

The countryside was gentle and lovely and recalled many other gentle and lovely scenes throughout rural West Virginia. The folks in the back to the land movement, some the so-called “Hippies,” were attracted away from their urban and sub-urban warrens by these gentle and lovely scenes.

Ireland is a tiny community, just a few houses, no businesses, and has an annual Irish road bowling competition. Competitors role a twelve pound steel ball to see who can make the distance in the least throws. I don’t know what they do with the traffic on the road, it isn’t a very busy road, having been overruled by the interstate highway not far away, but it is important enough to have a yellow line and in the curves a double yellow line down the middle.

I was relaxed in the lovely and gentle countryside, unlike the droning boredom of the interstate. I don’t love interstates, which like not loving coal might be blasphemous or unpatriotic in West Virginia.  Interstates are no fun unless it is fun to be passed by huge trucks so close that just a twinge would send you under or if it is fun to be tailgated by NASCAR imitators, at seventy-four miles an hour, even in the rain.

Interstate highways devastate huge swaths of land, including any mountains that get in the way, (Ala Mountain top removal strip mining) and fill in miles and miles of natural streams or divert them out of the way of speeding masses of combinations of steel, glass, and plastic.

On the back roads like Route 19, I get to see barns, silos, farm houses, cows, horses, goats and sheep grazing in huge pasture fields cleared from mountain sides and tops with hard to imagine physical labor and harder to imagine heroic persistence—somebody did that a long time ago.

 An occasional incongruity appears, like a pleasant old farmhouse surrounded in no particular order with maybe twenty mobile homes (or are they trailers), and campers. A sign invited me to pull off to the Mills Falls overlook. I did and saw that Little Kanawha River waterfall for the first time. On the way to look over the look, I finished my bottled water and headed for a trash can. The can runneth over, as did the other cans in the park-like area. Not only runneth over but the one I headed for had all around it on the ground about thirty or forty empty cat food cans—why? And near here was the Bulltown Civil War battle site. I don’t remember ever being in Bulltown or even knowing where it was. But I must have been through there, probably almost car sick in someone’s backseat, as we went home to St. Albans, down Route 19, from WVU several times many years ago. That was before the interstates that I don’t love.

Still on Route 19 and Route 4, I passed the empty Libby’s Lunch in Heaters that used to host me and maybe generations of Charleston bound West Virginia University students winding home on Route 19. The interstate highway easily tempted travelers away from Libby’s place into the gawdawful spectacle on the interstate at Flatwoods.  

The night-time Flatwoods garish glare makes me wonder if the Braxton County monster might not have taken up residence or if Pinocchio’s Toyland theme park for bad boys with donkey ears might not be right there in Flatwoods.

A few years ago I saw that Libby’s sign was faded but still there on the plate glass. Libby’s looked tiny compared to the one in my memory.

I stopped in Sutton starving for breakfast and had that in a restaurant whose large sign on top was dangling loose on one end. That is another victim of the interstates—how could this restaurant compete with the gawdawful mess just three miles up the road at Flatwoods which was assaulted all night long with bright lights and offered several gasoline and fat-food troughs as well as “factory outlets” that seemed neglected. Mom and pops operations in Sutton are no match for that glom. That sign might never get righted.

There were eight customers–if that was the best the restaurant could do at ten o’clock Saturday morning, it sure didn’t have enough extra income to fix the sign. I opened the door and said hello to four obese men in bibs at the end of breakfast enjoying coffee and stories.  Four other obese folks were at two tables in the adjoining room.

The obese lady who waited on me called me honey and sweetheart—but I wasn’t special, she said that to all the guys. It was not what I would call a fast food joint but my cheese omelet and bacon with biscuits and coffee were ready in the time it took me to go pee and then read two pages of a brochure about Booker T. Washington and Malden, West Virginia. My breakfast did the trick. I recovered from my low blood sugar monster.

          The Elk River valley was so narrow that the road was cut out of the hillside that originally extended right down to the river. Ivydale, across the river, was partly on a narrow strip of “bottom land.”I wondered at the distinct green color of Elk River—what caused that? There couldn’t be enough chemicals leaked into the river to give it color like that. The ten thousand gallons of coal-cleaning chemical, giving it the stink of licorice and contaminating the water supply of 300,000 people,  happened far downstream in Charleston. I think someone once told me the green color was caused by algae.

Ivydale was where John and David Morris once held great old-time music festivals, every one of which attracted rain and mud and fun and some fornication, which was also fun. Fornication makes it sound evil and to some it surely was and is. But what to call it? It wasn’t always making love and sexual intercourse is just too prissy as a cover for fucking, which may sound too much like gymnastics and offensive to some. Maybe screwing would describe it, but that too might be offensive. I like calling it “doing the wild thang.” Let the reader give it a shorter name.

I wondered at the distinct green color of Elk River—what caused that? There couldn’t be enough chemicals leaked into the river to give it color like that. The ten thousand gallons of coal-cleaning chemical spill into the Elk River just a few days ago made the river and air stink of licorice and contaminated the water supply of 300,000 people. But that happened far downstream in Charleston. I think someone once told me the green color was caused by algae.

I split off with Route 4 as Route 19 morphed into a four-lane near Sutton. Before I reached Clay on now lonely Route 4, the road suddenly looked and felt diseased. It was pothole after pothole, I mean ten miles an hour or else. Old man winter had spoken and let us know that water expands when it freezes and then returns to its original size as it melts–pushing and pulling the binding agents in the asphalt. That is the disease, the expansion of water and collapsing to the original size. It’s caused by the shape of the water molecule and the positive and negative charges therein. Just a little crack and the liquid water infects the asphalt and on freezing, splits it asunder like the pipes under our house and the brass fittings in the bathroom were busted in the winter of 1994. Strong stuff, that solid water.

Houses started to get closer together as Clendenin approached and even more so through Elkview. The lovely and gentle aspect was diluted. Homes were less kempt, some ramshackle and some deserted and collapsed. I was entering suburban congestion with houses close to the road. It was ugly and sad.

This descent into another reality was not “Almost Heaven, West Virginia.” That figment of John Denver’s song writer’s imagination was farther upstream. Neither his writer nor Denver was ever in West Virginia before that song was written, which if we are to be honest about it describes western Virginia, not West Virginia. The Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley are mostly in Virginia and barely enter West Virginia on the eastern edge for about five miles.


About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (, and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation ( I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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