When Widewater State Park was about to open in Stafford County last fall, a host of staffers from other parks poured in to help do required last-minute work.
Among the bevy of workers was Russell Johnson, the relatively new manager at Westmoreland State Park, who spent several days wielding a chain saw.
And while he wasn’t the only one in park management there lending a hand, the tackling of that grunt work by the guy who runs one of the state’s original parks demonstrates that Russell is a guy who came up through the ranks in the state park system.
“We’ve all had times at other parks when we’re cleaning up after a storm or getting ready for a big event or opening, and simply needed more help than we have on hand,” said Johnson. “So I was glad to help out.”
The 57-year-old Johnson is like many managers at Virginia’s 38 state parks, having worked his way up from a seasonal employee to a ranger, then a chief ranger before serving as a manager at several parks around the state.
The Maine native, who arrived at Westmoreland in fall 2017, got his start at First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach a while after graduating from the University of Maine with degrees in forestry and wildlife management in 1984.
From there, he worked for stints that helped him climb the management ladder at Occoneechee, York River, Pocahontas, Leesylvania, York River and James River state parks, the manager at the last two before being assigned the top slot at Westmoreland.
“It’s a truly beautiful park,” Johnson said of the 1,321-acre park that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. “I love its history and the history of the whole area surrounding it.”
Johnson noted that no one gets a feel for the beauty and grandeur of a pristine site like the Westmoreland County park than the staffers who both work and live there.
“From the colors in the forests here in the fall to the old-growth trees that are astounding and bigger than you can believe, it’s a very special place,” he said. “In the summer, we’ll often have people filling the parking lots by the water just to watch the big, red moons coming up over the water.”
Johnson noted that there’s a flip side to the fact that Westmoreland State Park has history that dates to its construction in the 1930s: many of the structures and systems have serious age on them.
He said projects coming soon or already started include the construction of a new bathhouse by the riverside pool and the replacement of one of the large campgrounds in the park that will include water and electricity services.
He said the park was also extremely grateful to receive grants recently from the Garden Club of Virginia and the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
The $10,000 Garden Club of Virginia grant, secured by The Garden Club of the Northern Neck, is being used to update the park’s Discovery Center. It’s largely used for environmental education to teach visitors about nature and the various ecosystems in and around the park.
“The grant is allowing us to fix the building’s bones: to put in new floors, cabinets, lighting and more,” he said, noting that the structure was one of the original buildings in the park. “We have nice display pieces and exhibits there already, but the building that’s now refurbished and lighter now will hopefully allow us to step our educational programs with school groups in the area.”
He noted that the grant from the John Smith Trail, roughly $80,000, will allow for construction of displays that will go in the park’s relatively new visitor center.
“One will be on the CCC boys, another will be about fossils found here and a 3-D part of the display will show sections of the cliffs that rise up above the water here,” he said. “And of course, there will be sections about John Smith and his explorations, as well as about Native Americans who were here.”
Johnson noted that the weather has been a bit kinder to the park in recent years than earlier ones, when ice storms and hurricanes ripped down buildings and trees in their path.
“All the rain last year and this have caused some slides on the cliffs,” he said, “which is why we ask visitors to stay off of them, because it’s not safe out there. We’re happy for them to search for fossils on the beaches and other spots, but for their own safety, we request they stay off the cliffs.”
He said high water did rip up one of the docks in the beachfront area, though not to the extent that hurricanes had in earlier years.
Johnson said the park—which has seven full-time employees but adds more than 60 staffers in the summer, when cabins, campgrounds and the pool are busy spots—is one of best spots in the state for camping and riverfront fun.
“We have more than a mile and a half of river frontage, and people really love it down there when the weather is nice,” he said. “And the pool is a very popular spot on the hot days of summer.”
For more information about Westmoreland State Park, go online to dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/westmoreland.