WILLOW ISLAND, W.Va. - Built in 1869, the Willow Island Baptist Church stands along West Virginia 2, just north of the Pleasants County line. Next door is the Willow Island Cemetery, originally established on a couple acres adjacent to the church in 1904.
Many graves in the cemetery date back to that time, with birth dates on the grave markers going back as far as the first half of the 19th century.
The graveyard has grown a bit since its establishment, according to the Willow Island Baptist's current pastor, the Rev. Richard Cale.
Photo by Sam Shawver
Visitors walk among the graves in the Willow Island Cemetery along West Virginia 2 in Pleasants County.
"It's been expanded at least three or four times-the additional property was purchased from American Cyanamid (now Cytec Industries) " he said. "But now there are only between 120 and 130 burial plots left, and when those are sold the cemetery won't be able to expand anymore."
Cale said although the church trustees maintain the cemetery, the property is treated as a separate entity.
"The trustees do the mowing and upkeep, but the cemetery has its own account and is supported through donations and sales of burial plots," he said.
The cemetery may be 109 years old, but part of its historical significance is related to a tragic incident that occurred just 35 years ago at the nearby Willow Island power station.
On April 27, 1978 one of the station's two huge cooling towers was under construction when it suddenly collapsed and 51 workers fell to their deaths in what has been described as one of the worst construction site disasters in U.S. history.
"Several people from that tragedy were buried at Willow Island Cemetery," Cale said.
Walter Carpenter, 96, president of the Pleasants County Historical Society, was teaching a science class at St. Marys High School when news of the power plant accident arrived.
"I remember it very well, it was the most hectic day I've ever had," he said, noting that some of the teens in his class had fathers, grandfathers and uncles working at the power station that day.
"We tried to console the children as best we could. Many of them just wanted to charge out of the school when they heard the news, but there was nothing anyone could do except wait for word from the families," Carpenter said. "All teaching stopped. It was just impossible to go on."
Area news agencies at the time reported five members of the Steele family from St. Marys were among those who died in the tower collapse. All were buried in the Willow Island Cemetery.
"I'd had at least three of those boys in my classes over the years-and their uncle was my next door neighbor," Carpenter said.
Today the Steele family's graves rest side-by-side near the southeast end of the cemetery, and a monument bearing the names of all 51 victims has been erected on a hillside along W.Va. 2 near the power plant.
Carpenter said the Willow Island graveyard is well-maintained and local community groups often help out during special occasions like Memorial Day or Veterans Day.
"It's a well-organized effort. The Boy Scouts and 4-H Club help place flags on the veterans graves there every year," he said.