Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Former Watt Powell Park, Kanawha City

Professional baseball has  had a long, but rocky history in Charleston.  In 1910, the first professional baseball team, the Statesmen, played two seasons at Werhele Park, which was located on the corner of Ruffner and Virginia Streets.  After a two year period of no professional team, the newly formed Senators played another three seasons, also at Werhele Park.

Unfortunately, following this three season run, Charleston was without a professional baseball team for the next 14 years.  However, in an effort to keep interest up in local sports, and to hopefully attract a new pro league, two local citizens joined forces.  In 1917, Charles Beers and Watt Powell funded a new park to replace the aging Werhele Park, and make room for new urban development.  The new wooden park was moved to Kanawha City and aptly named Kanawha Park.  Seating 3500, it would eventually come to be known as Exhibition Park.

By 1931, pro ball was back in Charleston with a return of the Senators, who made their home at the Kanawha Park.  In 1939, a fire at the wooden park destroyed the grandstands, forcing the team to play many of its home games out of town.  This turn of events would be the start of another rocky period.  By 1943, Charleston once again lost its professional league, and the following year, the entire Kanawha Park was consumed totally  by a second fire.  The fire and the effects of World War II would put things on hiatus.
It would be four years later before efforts were once again made to bring professional baseball back to Charleston.  In August of 1948, Watt Powell once again took an active role, and with the help of a $350,000 government bond, financed the building of a new and improved park.  The new ballpark held its opening night on April 28, 1949, and once again, saw the Senators as the home team, now under the Class A Central League.  Sadly, Watt Powell passed away a mere two months before opening night, and the park was dedicated and named in his honor.  The new park seated 4,474 when first built, and was renowned for its picturesque mountain backdrop.

The Senators would play at Watt Powell Park, both under the Class A Central League, and then the AAA American Association until 1960.  In 1961, they were replaced by the Charleston Marlins under the AAA International League, followed by the Charleston Indians of the AAA Eastern League until 1964.

After 1964, Charleston was once again without a professional baseball league, until the franchise was purchased in 1971.  Named the Charleston Charlies after the owner's father, the team played in the AAA International League until 1983.  After another brief hiatus, pro ball once again returned in 1987 with the Charleston Wheelers, later named the Alley Cats, in the Class A South Atlantic League.

As early as 1993, the aging park was rumored to be replaced, and in 2005, the Alley Cats moved out of the old park, changed their name to the Charleston Power, and moved into their new park in downtown Charleston.  By late 2005, the grandstands had already been demolished, and the entire park, save for the stadium lights, was gone by mid-2006.  The land was sold to the University of Charleston, who then sold 2/3 of the property to Charleston Area Medical Center (CAMC).

Before the grandstands were torn down, many visitors to the park were convinced the area was home to a ghost.  Witnesses reported seeing an older man sitting alone in the stands.  When they looked away, and then looked back, the man had vanished.  With the stands gone, the identity of the spectator specter may never be known, but there are plenty of theories.

The most popular explanation is that the man was an elderly citizen who never missed a game.  The man, who passed away in the late 1990s, continued his love of the game, well into his afterlife.  Apparently he has been positively identified by witnesses who knew the man in life.

Another theory is that this is possibly the spirit of Watt Powell himself.  Watt Powell was a dedicated baseball fan, putting his time and money into building a Charleston landmark, which he would never get to see finished.  Has Mr. Powell returned to watch over his beloved park, a task he never got to complete in life? 

One last theory is that this entity is the ghost of someone killed on the bordering CSX train tracks.  The train tracks, which ran right up against the field, were a popular spot for spectators to enjoy the game without purchasing a ticket.  As late as 1995, there was a makeshift memorial set up near the tracks within sight of the baseball diamond.

Today, part of the property formerly housing the park is now home to the University of Charleston's softball team's field.  Perhaps whoever the ghostly visitor to Watt Powell is will be drawn out by the love of the game, and begin attending softball games!

History of WV Pro-Ball

Update March 2012:  Aaron alerted me to this wonderful documentary on Watt Powell Park from 2005.  Produced by Bob Wilkinson, Rounding Third:Watt Powell Once More is an excellent look at Watt Powell's history.

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