Published: 11:33 AM - 06-22-11
POINT PLEASANT, WV — A decade ago, the odds of this small community attracting tourists from around the globe ranked right up there with getting hit by lightning and winning the lottery - on the same day.
"We probably get several thousand visitors a year," Josh Pitchford estimated from a storefront museum in the center of this 5,000-population town. Located between the Ohio and Kanawha rivers, Point Pleasant is about 60 miles north Charleston, the state's capital.
"We've had people in here from all over this country," Pitchford says, pointing to a wall map of the world, covered with little colorful pins. "They've been here from Europe, Africa, Australia, Japan. Even Reunion Island off the coast of Madagascar."
Pitchford serves as guide, answer-man and souvenir salesman at what's touted as the world's only Mothman Museum.
The Mothman legend, rather, the first sighting of the 7-foot tall, winged, red-eyed creature was first reported in Point Pleasant in the late 1960s. Around the same time, there were reports of mysterious looking "men in black" roaming around the community, along with several UFO sightings.
In 1975, author John Keel wrote a book recounting several local teens' claims of sighting the creature, along with what he claimed were related paranormal events that climaxed with a tragedy on Dec. 15, 1967 - the collapse of the Silver Bridge that spanned the Ohio River between Point Pleasant and Gallipolis, Ohio. Forty-six people were killed; no more sightings of the creature were reported.
When Charles Humphreys became executive director of Main Street Point Pleasant and the Mason County Development Authority in 2000, he and the board members shared a common goal - to promote the area's natural beauty and its rich Revolutionary War history.
Like many small towns across America, Point Pleasant had its share of economic woes. The area was once rich with well-paying jobs in salt and coal mines, a commercial boat-building factory, an explosives plant, along with a thriving agricultural base.
Even though Point, as the locals call it, still struggles with high unemployment, Main Street has realized many of its goals thanks largely to a golden opportunity that unexpectedly presented itself in 2002.
Keel's book about the legendary creature and the related paranormal happenings was used as the basis for the Richard Gere film The Mothman Prophecies.
While the locals were mildly miffed that the moviemakers chose Kittanning, Pa., over Point Pleasant for location shooting, they were thrilled at the end result. Interest in the Mothman legend, the paranormal and Point Pleasant, the community where it really happened, soared like, well, a giant winged creature.
"Mothman is the man," Humphreys chuckles. "He put us on the map; he's sustained us. Washington State has Bigfoot, we have Mothman. It was a golden opportunity."
Capitalizing on the Mothman connection, the small and economically depressed community has managed to garner millions of dollars from local donors, private foundations and state and federal grants, resulting in a remarkable riverfront development, an impressive river museum, increased attendance at existing attractions and several new downtown merchants.
A lot of people are interested in the unexplained and the Mothman, but everybody is interested in history, Humphreys says.