How Did Coopers Rock Get its Name?

Jun 14, 2019

Some of the names of places in Appalachia have a long history, dating back to the 1600s. The history and story behind a name can get lost over time – leading us to question how a place got its name.

One such place is Coopers Rock state forest, located outside of Morgantown. Who was Cooper? Was he a real person? Did he live there?

At the far end of the forest there is a giant rock overlook. It is the spot best known at Coopers Rock.

The rock is about the size of a large living room. Standing atop it, one can see for miles. It overlooks the Cheat River and basin, and in every direction are the Appalachian Mountains covered in lush green trees.  

Jan Dzierzak, Coopers Rock State Park superintendent, describes what is to the left from the overlook.

“Not a lot of lights not a lot of houses, not a lot of stuff going on that direction,” he said.

To the right is more development.

“We’re looking at Morgantown," Jan said. "You can see the Morgantown airport, the water tower, and the long straight line you can see the [West Virginia University] Coliseum."

Jan Dzierzak, Coopers Rock Park superintendent, at the park. He says the rock is named after a profession, not necessarily a person named ‘Cooper.’
Credit Caitlin Tan

Standing on the furthest corner of the rock one can see the lush forest below, with the Cheat River snaking its way through the valley. About 300,000 people come each year to see this view, and one of their main questions is, “Who is this man named Cooper?”

“Everyone thinks Coopers Rock is a rock named after someone named Cooper,” Jan said. “They say, 'I want to see Cooper’s Rock.'”

It turns out he does not exist. There is no Cooper.

“It’s actually named after a profession - a cooper - someone who builds barrels,” he said.

Coopers often build barrels used for aging bourbon.

The legend is that a fugitive cooper lived in this forest near Coopers Rock in the early 1800s. He likely spent time on the overlook as the forest eventually became known as Coopers Rock.

“The legend states that there was an outlaw that lived in the forest and he would steal the lumber and would build barrels,” Jan said. “Back in that day there was a lot of commerce in the area -- they were using timber to fuel the iron furnaces and early trade. So, he would make a living selling barrels while living here on the forest illegally.”

There is very little record on this outlaw. But it is not hard for Jan to imagine what he might have looked like.

“I always picture him as your typical woodsman running around the woods probably bearded, probably a bit dirty,” Jan said. “There’s a few caves in the park -- I predict he was probably in there. Someone you don’t want to mess with, but also a good sense of humor -- you have to have one to live out here and do what he did.”

Is there a name of a place in Appalachia that you’ve always been curious about? Let us know at Insideappalachia@wvpublic.org.

This story is a part of this week’s Inside Appalachia episode focusing on the beer and spirits industry and culture in Appalachia.