Somehow, they thought, the system of government wasn't working, so when the silver bus rolled out of West Virginia yesterday they were determined to get their story to Congress.

The image of the lobbyist, of honeyed tongues and $50 lunches, never seems to include those desperation bus rides like the one that brought 60 persons here from Lewis county.

But it is a scene repeated almost daily on Capitol Hill-sometimes naive and innocent petitioners reaching out in a last-ditch effort to save a cause or win a vote.

The west Virginians traveled six hours to Washington, then spread out across the Hill to try to persuade House members to vote against money for an Army Corps of Engineers flood-control dam in their county.

For years, they have been fighting the corps' $122 million project. They say its benefits have been calculated wrongly, that it will destroy their rural way of life, expel them from their homes.

Just as adamantly, others in Lewis County who were not here yesterday argue that the dam, authorized in 1966, is needed to protect from flooding along tributaries of the Monongahela River and to promote development.

The irony of these petitioners' journey was that they had come to push for an amendment that congressman from another state is offering to stop the Stonewall Jackson Dam project. No West Virginia legislator opposes the dam.

The amendment of Rep. Robert W. Edgar (D-Pa.) to remove $9.1 million from the fiscal 1980 public works appropriation is expected to come to a House floor vote today.

The depth of their predicament began to come clear when nine of the Lewis Countians marched into the office of their congressman, Rep. Harley O. Staggers (D-W.Va.) at 10 o'clock sharp.

Staggers wasn't there (they didn't have an appointment) and they were left waiting in his office. Two hours and 15 minutes later Staggers showed up.

"Okay, who's your spokeman?" Staggers asked, businesslike.

Kenneth Parker, head of the Upper West Fork River Watershed Association, said that all nine had come to speak for themselves and that they wanted Staggers to support the Edgar amendment.

But Staggers was miffed. The 16-term Democrat recalled that Lewis Countians had criticized him last year. "You did your best to defeat me, but it didn't hurt me a bit," he said. "I didn't think it was fair."

He was miffed even more because he had been portrayed as a supporter of the Stonewall Jackson project.

Then several points came up. No, he had never toured the area where the corps would build the dam. No, he doesn't support the project, but he doesn't oppose it either. No, he is not an expert-he accepts the engineers' advice on needs.

As his constituents took turns explaining their opposition to the dam, Staggers sat in his big chair, reading letters and memos on his deck.

"I've had calls all morning in support of the dam," he said. "There's much pressure on me from one side as the other . . . I will listen to the debate and make up my mind."

When Pete Peterson, a sunburned farmer, said, "We no longer have the faith in government and our representatives that we once had," Staggers looked up again from his papers.

"You are trying to insinuate that some people here in Congress are working against the public. I don't believe that," Staggers said.

Hayman Rastle, a former county official, said he thought Staggers would be "fair and honest with us."

"I appreciate your support," Staggers said, "but I was disappointed because Lewis County people said I supported the dam. I have been on record for it."

Helen Bunten interrupted. "No, people were saying that Harley Staggers hasn't gone either way on this."

"That's right," said Staggers. The meeting was over. CAPTION: Picture, Lewis Countians Ralph T. Bunten, Charles E. Peterson, Helen B. Bunten and Vernon Hyre wait in the offices of Rep. Staggers for a chance to have their say. By James K. W. Atherton-The Washington Post