Two small towns in West Virginia have had names thrust upon them that indicate more drama than they ever experienced.
Hurricane never had a gale-force storm rip through its downtown and Cheat Lake never actually “cheated” anyone.
In 1774 a party of surveyors commissioned by George Washington arrived at the mouth of a creek and found a grove of trees all bent in the same direction. Surmising the trees were damaged by a hurricane, they called the location “the place of the hurricane.” Subsequently, the creek became known as Hurricane Creek, and by 1811, early Virginia maps named the settlement Hurricane Bridge.
An equally plausible explanation for the oblique foliage, however, was that the trees grew in swampy soil and were gradually bent by decades of robust prevailing winds.
Nevertheless, the undocumented legend stuck, and so did the name.
Hurricane Bridge became a stagecoach stop and burgeoning livestock market center. In 1873 a single-track railroad slightly relocated the settlement, bringing hotels and stores to the area, which then became known as Hurricane Station.
When the town was incorporated in 1888, it acquired the formal name of Hurricane.
The town’s location was ideally situated between the larger cities of Charleston and Huntington and began to grow rapidly, facilitated significantly by the construction of an interstate connecting the two cities. The population rose to 3,000 in the 1970s, elevating the town to a city. The population in 2020 was 6,977, and the city continues to be one of the fastest-growing municipalities in West Virginia.
The city has never taken its success for granted, as indicated by the current mayor’s welcome message on the city’s website, hurricanewv.com:
“Welcome to one of the most progressive communities in the state with many amenities such as indoor/outdoor recreation, parks, retail shopping, entertainment and a business climate that is second to none. The City of Hurricane was ranked the second fastest growing community for the past 10 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“The City continues to strive in providing its residents and businesses with top-notch services and infrastructure to succeed. Our path forward is not focused on today or tomorrow, but how we can achieve our objectives and goals for the next 50 to 100 years. The City of Hurricane exemplifies great leadership, determination and resourcefulness for a bright future.”
The modest municipality of Cheat Lake, population 10,187, is overshadowed in every way by the manmade body of water which bears the same name. And the original lake is consigned to a footnote in history, thanks to that same body of water, created by the hydroelectric dam constructed in 1926.
The original indictment of “cheating” was rather weak, sounding like conviction based on hearsay, with the only accusation on record from “The West Virginia Encyclopedia”:
“Roots of laurel and hardwood leaves tint the water, hiding sharp rocks and treacherous currents. This led to drownings which some say caused settlers who began to live along its banks before the American Revolution to say the river ‘cheated’ people of their lives.”
George Washington surveyed the area in September 1784, and by the early 1800s, Cheat Mountain was the centerpiece of a growing iron industry for half a century.
Collateral industries — boat making, sawmills, nail factories — sprang up to support the export of iron ore.
In 1910 planning began on a hydroelectric dam to provide electricity. The dam was to be 1,000 feet wide, 125 feet high and would form a 1,729-acre lake. The dam’s four 18,000-horsepower turbines would churn out 52 megawatts of power.
The dam opened — and the new lake was created — in 1926. The lake was called Lake Lynn after the power company’s president, but the residents raised such an uproar the U.S. Board of Geographic Names officially renamed it Cheat Lake. Apparently, the townsfolk were not about to be “cheated” out of the name they had grown so fond of.
The lake eventually became contaminated and drastic remediation efforts needed to be put into place. Major efforts were launched to clean up the lake, culminating in the formation of the River Promise Task Force, whose mission is to clean up the waters, stop pollution and work to restore the marine ecosystem.
Efforts continue, and according to a current entry on cheat.org/about-the-cheat-watershed:
“Due to the ongoing work of FOC and the River of Promise Task Force, the Cheat River main stem, once completely devoid of life, is no longer considered impaired for pH, and aquatic communities have returned, including pollution-sensitive walleye. Fish can be found throughout the entirety of the river and populations in Cheat Lake show continued growth and diversity.”