I’m working out the details for a short trip in March, a county counting adventure, although I haven’t determined all of the details yet and I’m not quite ready to share the objective. I’ll hit a personal milestone if everything works out as planned so I have plenty of motivation. Part of the drive will push me deep into Appalachia, into the wilds of southern West Virginia. Eyeing potential routes, I noticed an interesting geographic feature.
Big Ugly Wildlife Management Area? That sounded too good to be true. What kind of big ugly wildlife might one see there? The website described "deer, grouse, raccoon, squirrel, [and] turkey" in a setting "steep with mature upland hardwood forest." Are you thinking what I’m thinking? BIG and UGLY animals in the mountains conjured images of Sasquatch and Hairy Man a lot more than grouse and squirrels. That couldn’t be right. Something else must have happened over there to cause the name. Either way, I probably won’t get a chance to star in my own episode of Finding Bigfoot.
Indeed, Big Ugly referred to a local creek.
Big Ugly had been around for a long time. Internet book searches found results going back to the 1840’s, when West Virginia was still part of Virginia. This wasn’t simply a big ugly creek, it was an old ugly. The creek formed a tributary of the Guyandotte River which in turn flowed into the Ohio River, onward to the Mississippi River and eventually down to the Gulf of Mexico. It wasn’t particularly noteworthy except for its unusual name, stretching no more than twenty miles (32 kilometres). Nobody really knew how Big Ugly Creek got its name, either. There was a little weak speculation that maybe it had been named for an ugly settler or maybe in recognition of its twisted shape, although citations never materialized. We will probably never know exactly what might have been considered big or ugly to early Nineteenth Century settlers. That was a shame.
Also, I wasn’t the first person to enjoy Big Ugly references. The Intertubes developed a natural way of gathering unusual place names like that. One reference stated that, "I live very close to Big Ugly State Park in West Virginia. Honest headline from local newspaper, ‘Big Ugly Woman Killed’." Another site mentioned Big Ugly as "one of those place names newspaper columnists grab on a slow news day." Every day was a slow news day on Twelve Mile Circle so I didn’t mind referencing Big Ugly one bit. The difference 12MC brought to the discussion, I believed, was a deeper appreciation of the geography and history than the typical site that simply referenced the humor.
For instance, I admired the Big Ugly Community Center (map)
When Big Ugly Elementary School closed in the mid-1990s, this small, isolated, Lincoln County community lost the one thing that held them together… The county school board was persuaded to turn over the property to the community… It is the only public building within a 30 minute drive in any direction. The building returned to its place at the heart of the community. It hosts gatherings, and provides many services for children including The Big Ugly afterschool program, which is one of the longest running in the state. It offers summer camps, runs greenhouses, and hosts arts programming. Their library program gives away 5,000 books each year and the ‘Grow Appalachia’ gardening project produced 4,000 plants and 24,000 pounds of vegetables in 2014.
According to the video, Big Ugly was the poorest census tract in one of the most disadvantaged counties in West Virginia. A full 98% of children attending the center were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. What they’ve been able to accomplish at Big Ugly with very few resources was remarkable. They earned a Governor’s Service Award for their efforts in 2015.
They will blow that land up and scoop it by DanaK~WaterPenny on Flickr (cc)
Large chunks of Appalachian have been stripped to the bone for coal, a process called mountaintop removal mining. That’s exactly what happened on a massive scale immediately north and east of Big Ugly Creek and its wildlife preserve and its community center. The Hobet 21 coal mine quickly became the largest in West Virginia — which was saying something pretty remarkable — as it stretched almost fifteen miles (24 km) over the hills and hollows. Mountains were flattened and debris pushed to the side to create valley fills obliterating all traces of earlier terrain. It also created a string of environmental violations and water pollution problems.
That was the real Big Ugly.