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The Last Resort

When all else failed, they turned a flood-prone West Virginia town into a mountain-lake getaway.

By Craig Stoltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 22, 2004; Page C02

West Virginia's Stonewall Jackson Lake features Stonewall Resort, an Adirondack-style retreat with 198 handsome rooms, spacious indoor and outdoor pools, five restaurants, an Arnold Palmer golf course, some of the best bass fishing in the state, a luxe spa, miles of trails ideal for autumn-leafing hikes, 10 stylish lakeside cottages and, at the very bottom of the lake, buried under 60 or more feet of clear mountain water, the remains of a small river town called Roanoke.

You can't see much of Roanoke anymore, though in certain parts of the lake the colorless limbs of trees that once shaded the town's streets poke up from the water's surface.

Stonewall Resort
Stonewall Resort
Stonewall Resort sits on Stonewall Jackson Lake, which covered the town of Roanoke, W.Va., in 1988. (Stonewall Resort)

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But if you go to the adjacent state park's main visitors building, you can learn plenty. You'll see the 1950s-style logo of the Roanoke Rockets high school sports teams. You'll find sepia-toned photos from the 19th and 20th centuries showing simple frame houses and barns; stern families posed in front of wooden porches; a soldier home from war, saluting from under his visored hat.

A larger color photo tells the rest of the story: an aerial view of the town taken about 25 years ago that shows the West Fork River's clay-brown waters washing across Roanoke's streets, yards and buildings. The floods in the valley, which had tormented the townsfolk as early as the 1820s, could not be controlled. In the 1980s the state government condemned the private property, bulldozed what was left after the people moved out and dammed the river. Stonewall Jackson Dam -- named for the Lewis County boy who made good in the War Between the States -- was put in operation in 1988.

My family and I spent a week hard by the lake's shores not long ago, in a nearly new, well-outfitted two-bedroom cottage. The kids fished just a few feet from our bedroom window every morning. One day they caught a beautiful ebony catfish nearly a foot long. Too cute to eat, they decided, so they kept him in a plastic box as a pet.

The comfortably contemporary resort, along with the defunct village it replaced, makes a good metaphor for West Virginia today. The Mountain State's mill and coal towns are being transformed by time and economics into verdant getaways, creating an extremely efficient catch basin for vacationers from Virginia, Maryland, D.C., Pennsylvania and Ohio. West Virginia already has a portfolio of state parks ranked among the best in the nation, and private developers have discovered the land, too. Stonewall Resort is managed by Benchmark Hospitality, the folks who run the tony Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg.

The Stonewall property is girdled by hiking trails. My favorite is Hevener's Orchard Trail, a 3 1/2-mile loop that rambles through the woods high above the resort, yielding occasional views of the golf course, the lake and the canopied bowl of leaves that envelops it all.

Roanoke was settled by several generations of Heveners beginning in the 1830s, I learned at the visitors center, and the property on the hill remained in the family until the state bought it for the dam project. The hiking (and biking) path meanders through meadows that once grew wheat, gnarled fruit trees overtaken by forest scrub and a handmade stone wall banded by ancient barbed wire.

But the real resort action today is on the water. The marina has sailboats, canoes and kayaks for rent. Some pretty serious fishers were working the waters every morning and evening of our visit. We were too. One afternoon my clan rented a slow-moving catamaran, and the highlight was jumping off the back into the cool, dark water.

Another fishing sortie required a nasty bare-legged bushwhack through native brambles; it turned into a wading party when nothing was biting and the water was just too big and quiet to resist. While hiking another trail, we stumbled upon a rope swing. The kids traced a high, slow arc over the water and at its farthest reach dropped in, like depth charges fragrant with SPF 15, hooting all the way down.

As it happens, I have a more powerful attraction to the land -- more specifically to sprawling, surreally groomed tracts of Bermuda grass planted with 18 decorative flags and bordered by paths for small electric carts. And the Arnold Palmer Signature Course didn't disappoint. The day we arrived, the course was hosting a qualifier for a Nationwide Tour event -- that's sort of the minor leagues of pro golf -- and I spent some time following the players.

Happily, the course is suited to amateurs, too. Like many good resort courses, the Palmer layout offers multiple tee boxes, making it possible for just about any kind of player to reach the fairway without embarrassment. Most of the challenge is around and on the gently undulating greens. The course winds through swaths of undeveloped habitat, and better players have to think hard about risks and rewards before they pick a club.

I found it difficult to pay attention to that stuff, though. The course is knock-you-back-on-your-heels beautiful. The fairways are aqua green and as spongy as a yoga mat. Two greens are embraced by amphitheaters of piney woods, creating postcard backdrops for the tweaky art of putting.

Numbers 15 through 17 are sky holes, arranged around the highest elevations in the park and approached via tortuous alpine cart paths. The tee boxes yield 360-degree views of God's plenty. (I hereby forgive, for reasons of aesthetic distraction, any shots that fly the green of the 173-yard, downhill, par-3 No. 16. Take a mulligan and club down one.)


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