This paper focuses upon the tourism efforts in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, a small town located at the confluence of the Ohio and Kanawha rivers. I maintain that Point Pleasant serves as an unusual case study because, without a single dominant tourism focus, it is in the process of coordinating efforts in the areas of heritage tourism, paranormal tourism and dark tourism simultaneously.
Point Pleasant: a Most Unusual Place
With a total population of fewer than 5,000 residents, Point Pleasant is unusual in several respects. First, in terms of physical geography, it is located at the confluence of two rivers, the Kanawha and the Ohio. Second, although many small towns in West Virginia promote their roles in the state’s history, Point Pleasant identifies most with the era of the nation’s founding rather than the more typical associations with the Civil War. Third, it is the location where two highly unusual events occurred that were covered in the national media. Between 1966 and 1967 there were numerous alleged sightings of a creature dubbed the “Mothman.” The events surrounding these sightings were the subject of the 2002 film, “The Mothman Prophesies,” which starred Richard Geer. The other event was the tragic collapse of the Silver Bridge on December of 1967 which claimed over 40 lives in rush hour traffic during the holiday season.
Point Pleasant: A Heritage Tourism Destination
The current marketing of Point Pleasant as a heritage tourism site relies upon claims of historical authenticity in relation to the American Revolution. However, in 1909, state historian Virgil A. Lewis challenged the historical basis of such a claim as “manufactured history.” Any such controversy is absent from my conversations with Charles Humphries, Director of Mason County Development Authority. Humphries, in his late sixties, has the manners of a southern gentlemen and an ever-present twinkle in his eye when he describes his efforts to foster heritage tourism in Point Pleasant. Although he notes that the funding for the waterfront park was obtained prior to his arrival, it was the commissioning of huge murals for the town’s flood wall along the waterfront that situated the town historically for visitors. The commissioning of the murals promoted a local dialogue – in this case between historians, local people and Native Americans.
At the end of the flood wall is the beginning of Tu-Endie-Wei State Park, located at the point of the confluence. As mentioned earlier, the state park sports a federally funded monument dedicated to the militia men who died in the Battle of Point Pleasant. The park also serves as the burial site of Chief Cornstalk who was murdered at For Randolph after the battle and of “Mad” Anne Bailey. Chief Cornstalk’s monument is noticeably smaller and more peripheral compared to the larger and more centrally- located obelisk that honors the militia. The obelisk at Tu-Endie-Wei State Park reflects the late 19th century fad for monuments signifying events relating to American Independence (Corrales-Diaz 2013). Although the historical contextualization of the Battle at Point Pleasant is contested, the form of the monument situates the event symbolically in terms of traditions of national reverence and physically in terms of its central location within the park.
Point Pleasant: Paranormal Tourism Destination
In the period between November 1966 and December 1967 there were numerous local sightings of a creature that was dubbed the “Mothman” by the local press. In various accounts, the creature was described as standing erect and having glowing red eyes. Initial sightings occurred at a 3655-acre area known locally as the “TNT Area”. The site was used during World War II for the production of munitions which were stored in semi-covered concrete “igloos” intended to be invisible to enemy aircraft. The area is now a federally-owned recreational area officially known as the McClintik Wildlife Area.
Paranormal investigator John Keel visited Point Pleasant after the initial Mothman sightings. Five years later, he published The Mothman Prophesies which drew national attention to the Point Pleasant Mothman. Keel’s notoriety in relation to Point Pleasant was cemented in The Mothman Prophesies (2002), a major motion picture starring Richard Geer. Although the film is only loosely based on Keel’s book (and was filmed, not in Point Pleasant, but in Kittanning, Pennsylvania) it situated the Mothman and Point Pleasant in the context of mass popular culture.
Shortly after the film’s release, a local business owner saw an opportunity to capitalize on the film to promote tourism in Point Pleasant. Jeff Wamsley was the owner of several struggling record stores before he established the Mothman Museum in a store front on Main Street. Wamsley anticipated a major tourism boom as a result of the film.
The “boom” which Wamsley anticipated is part of a broader trend of “people travelling to destinations to recapture the distinctive sense of place portrayed on screen” (Alderman, Benjamin and Schneider 2012, p 13). The entrance to Jeff Wamsley’s Mothman Museum has a distinctly geographical twist. Mounted on the wall are two maps – one of the United States and the other of the world – with many pushpins indicating where visitors to the museum come from. The museum has a low-tech, grassroots and folksy ambience. In addition to offering the displays in his museum, Jeff also takes visitors on the Mothman Bus Tour which extends the range of a “Mothman Trail” by presenting a variety of places that are located several miles from downtown Point Pleasant.
With the increasing flow of tourists to Point Pleasant, Jeff and other local leaders decided to establish an annual “Mothman Festival” – a carnivalesque outdoor event downtown that features vendors, guest speakers and, even, a “Mothman Beauty Pageant.” Over the past 14 years, the festival has grown from a few card tables on the street to a major event that attracts, I was told, over 5,000 visitors.
A Mothman statue was installed on a small island in downtown Point Pleasant that had hosted a small war memorial for many years. While the focus on the Mothman is controversial among local residents, it is specifically offered to visitors for the purpose of generating revenue from tourism. Denny Bellamy explains that he is frequently asked whether he “believes” in the Mothman or not. His good-natured reply is:
I tell them, “I’ve never seen the Mothman, but I have seen Mothman money and we all believe in that!
Point Pleasant: Destination of Memory and Dark Tourism
On December 15, 1967 the “Silver Bridge” that connected Point Pleasant to Gallipolis, Ohio collapsed at rush hour. The tragedy left more than 40 people dead and tons of debris in the Ohio River. Although hardly a typical tourist attraction, the event can be viewed in terms of “Dark Tourism” in which tourists deliberately set out to experience a location of mass violence or tragedy (White and Frew 2013). When the replacement bridge was constructed in 1969, it was located enough south of the downtown area to completely bypass downtown Point Pleasant. While a contemporary visitor to the town might not see any evidence of the event as they drive across the new Silver Memorial Bridge, the downtown street that used to lead onto the Silver Bridge now dead-ends at the flood wall.
In addition to the physical juxtaposition of three Silver Bridge memorial markers with downtown sites, the tragedy also intersects with discourses of local heritage and, also, of the Mothman. For example, while the cause of the bridge collapse has been explained in terms of engineering, some have linked the collapse to Chief Cornstalk. Popular legend contends that Cornstalk placed a curse upon Fort Randolph (then located at Point Pleasant) at the time of his murder. Furthermore, there were alleged sightings of the Mothman on or around the bridge prior to its collapse. The storyline of the The Mothman Prophesies suggests that the Mothman sightings ceased after the bridge collapse.
Summary and Implications
By examining the geographical implications of tourism in Point Pleasant, West Virginia several conclusions may be drawn. While the local community leaders have no control over the town’s past — its colonial history, its paranormal events or its tragedy, they are exercising influence over the ways in which those events are contextualized. In an era of increasing competition for limited resources, the leaders of Point Pleasant show considerable versatility in their approach to tourism development. Beyond a focus on geographies of tourism, Point Pleasant serves as a vivid case study reflective of the longstanding geographical interest in how landscapes are the products of negotiated and situated discourses. Local tourism projects can manifest in changes in place perception and provide opportunities for residents and outsiders alike to re-imagine Point Pleasant and the state of West Virginia as a whole. This opportunity is especially significant given the history of negative media coverage and the dire images of Appalachia widely circulated during the “War on Poverty” of the 1960s.
References Cited (in complete version of this paper)
Alderman, D. and Dywer, O. 2012. Primer on the Geography of Memory: Site and Situation of Commemorative Landscapes. Accessed 13 June 2014 at http://docsouth.unc.edu/commland/features/essays/alderman_2/.
Alderman, D. Moreau, T. and Benjamin, S. 2011. The Andy Griffith Show: Mayberry as Working-Class Utopia. In Blue Collar Pop Culture, Volume 2, ed. M Brooker, 51-69. Santa Barbara: Praeger.
Alderman, D., Benjamin, S. and Schneider, P. 2012. Transforming Mount Airy into Mayberry. Southeastern Geographer 52(2): 212-239.
Baker, B. 2012. Destination Branding for Small Cities. Portland: Leap Books.
Carney, G. 1994. Branson: The New Mecca of Country Music. Journal of Cultural Geography 14(2): 17-32
Carrales-Diaz, E. 2013. A Monumental Fad: The Obelisk and North Carolina’s Revolutionary War Monuments. Accessed 13 June 2014 at http://docsouth.unc.edu/commland/features/essays/corrales-diaz/.
Colten, C. 1997. The Land of Lincoln: Genesis of a Vernacular Region. Journal of Cultural Geography 16(2):55-75.
DeLeyser, D. 2001. When Less is More: Absence and Landscape in a California Ghost Town. In Textures of Place, eds. P Adams, S Hoelscher and K Till, 24-40. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Dixon, D. 2007. A Benevolent and Sceptical Inquiry: Exploring ‘Fortean Geographies’ with the Mothman. Cultural Geographies 14: 189-210.
Ebert, R. 2002. The Mothman Prophesies. Accessed 13 June 2014 at http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-mothman-prophecies-2002.
Fort Randolph. Events. Accessed 13 June 2014 at http://fortrandolph.org/index_files/events.htm.
Fort Randolph. Siege of Fort Randolph. Accessed 13 June 2014 at http://fortrandolph.org/index_files/siege.htm.
Frey, R. (2010). New York Central. e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. Accessed 13 June 2014. Accessed at http://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/1646.
Gentry, G. 2007. Walking with the Dead: The Place of Ghost Walk Tourism in Savannah, Georgia. Southeastern Geographer 47(2): 222-238.
George, J. 2008. Small Town Essentials: Constructing Old World Charm in ‘Backwater’ Communities. Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 22(6): 827-838.
George, J. 2011. Gazing Through the Sepia Lens: Critical considerations of tourism’s nostalgic construction of the small town. Social Alternatives 30(2): 30-34.
Govers, R. and Go, F. 2009. Place Branding. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hammond, K. 2004. Monsters of Modernity: Frankenstein and Modern Environmentalism. Cultural Geographies 11:181-198.
Jossi, F. 1997. Small Town Survival Strategies. Planning 63(10): 4-9.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, B. 2008. Destination Museum. In A Cultural Geography Reader, eds. T. Oakes, and P. Price, 448-456. London: Routledge: 448-456.
Kruse, R. (2005). The Beatles as Place Makers. Journal of Cultural Geography 22(2): 87-114.
Livingplaces 2014. Mason County, West Virginia. Accessed 13 June 2014 at http://www.livingplaces.com/WV/Mason_County.html.
Mason County Development Authority. Regional Employers. Accessed 13 June 2014 at http://masoncounty.org/regional-employers.htm.
Mayer, H. and Knox, P. 2010. Small-Town Sustainability: Prospects in the Second Modernity. European Planning Studies 18(10): 1545-1565.
McKay, I. 2003. The quest of the folk: Antimodernism and cultural selection in twentieth- century Nova Scotia. Montreal: McGill – Queen’s University Press.
Myrdahl, T. 2013. Ordinary Small) Cities and LGBQ Lives. ACME 12(2): 279-304.
Oakes, T. and Minca, C. 2004. Tourism, Modernity and Postmodernity. In A Companion to Tourism, eds. A. Lew, C. Hall, A. Williams, 280-290. Maldon, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, Ltd.
Pistrick, E. and Isnart, C. 2013. Landscapes, Soundscapes, mindscapes: Introduction, Etnografica 17(3): 503-513.
Song, Y. and Gammel, J. 2011. Ecological Mural as Community Reconnection. iJADE 30(2): 266 -278.
Thompson, R. 2010. “Am I Going to See a Ghost Tonight?” Journal of American Culture 33(2): 79-91.
Thorn, Arline R. 2013. “Mason County.” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. Accessed 13 June at http://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/1563.
West Virginia Department of Education: Westest2 Overview. Accessed 13 June 2014 at http://wvde.state.wv.us/oaa/westest_index.html.
West Virginia History 1997. Manufactured History: Refighting the Battle of Point Pleasant. West Virginia History 1997(56): 76-87. Accessed 13 June 2014 at http://www.wvculture.org/history/journal_wvh/wvh56-5.html.
White, E. and Frew E. (eds) 2013. Dark Tourism and Place Identity: Managing and interpreting
dark places. London: Routledge.
Williams, S. 2009. Tourism Geography. London: Routledge.
Wirtz, R. 2011. An Interview with Three Small-Town Advocates. Grassroots Editor, Spring 2011:13-15.
Wvculture.org. Accessed 13 June 2014 at www.wvculture.org/history/notewv/mothman3.jpg. and www.wvculture.org/history/notewv/mothman2.jpg.
WVGenWeb 2011. Point Pleasant. Accessed 13 June 2014 at http://www.wvgenweb.org/mason/pointpleasant/ptplst.html.
WVtravel4kids.com. Accessed 13 June 2014 at http://www.wvcommerce.org/travel/wvtravel4kids/.