View from Route 38 of a coal-mining road in the hills along the Virginia-Kentucky border, Lee County.
In the 1700’s this region was mostly uninhabited and coveted as a rich hunting ground by Native peoples. Migrating bands of Cherokee, Shawnee, Chickasaw and other tribes entered this wilderness at their own risk, frequently clashing but the payoff was well worth it, particularly in winter when food and game elsewhere could be scarce or too competitive. Additionally,not well known is the fact that in the first two centuries of settlement before it became absorbed into English North America, the region was quite a mixing bowl of cultures and peoples; visited by Spanish conquistadors, French metis, Ulster Scots, German farmers, and finally by English settlers and later, both free and enslaved blacks. Early explorers included backwoodsmen, “longhunters” with colorful names like Elisha Walden, Uriah Stone, “Big Foot” Spencer, and of course that prototype of American folklore, Daniel Boone. Less known are the many heroic frontierswomen who endured incredible hardships, like Mary Draper Ingels and “Mad Ann” Bailey; the latter served as a messenger in the French and Indian War and lived alone in a hut on Warm Springs Mountain. She was an expert guide to settlers and local militia in this rugged region also known as Allegheny; Algonquian for “endless”. Understandably so; comprising the eastern high country of the Mississippi River basin and headwaters to several large rivers that flow to the Atlantic, this mountain realm is not as high as the Smokies but is far more extensive with long, parallel mountain ranges that run in a generally southwest-northeast alignment and whose heights attain an average elevation of between 2,500 and 4,000 feet. North-south running roads offer a pretty easy drive as they follow narrow valley corridors, a mostly agricultural landscape between ridges. The east-west running roads, except where they pass thru a gap or valley, tend to “cut across the grain” so to speak, encountering hairpin curves, switchbacks, and steep gradients as they climb and descend mountains ad infinitum (be kind to your brakes, try down gearing it).
Some geographical clarity (I hope!): The term, “Appalachians” comprises ALL of the mountain ranges in the eastern half of North America,; i.e. the Smokies, White Mountains, Adirondacks, Blue Ridge, etc., that stretch for 1,200 miles from northwest Alabama to the maritime provinces of eastern Canada. The “Alleghenies” comprise the central area of the Appalachians, mainly in Virginia, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania. However each state often uses both names interchangeably to describe their respective mountainous regions.
Detail of Diego Gutiérrez’s 1562 map of North America, showing the first known use of a variation of the place name “Appalachia” (“Apalchen”). From the map Americae sive qvartae orbis partis nova et exactissima descriptio .
“Our greatest difficulty is the roads. It has been raining in these mountains about six weeks. It is impossible to get along. It is that which has paralyzed all our efforts.” – Gen. Robert E. Lee, letter written from his camp in the Alleghenies, September, 1861, to Governor John Letcher.
In 1944 President Roosevelt signed legislation authorizing the development of a “National System of Interstate Highways.” Another decade would pass before President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, thus beginning construction of our Interstate System, hailed as “The Greatest Public Works Project in History”. Touring the wreckage of post-war Germany in 1945, Eisenhower was impressed with the German autobahn and how it was still in operation despite massive Allied bombing. As President during the Cold War he saw the need for a similar network of reliable, all-weather superhighways here in America that would help speed the evacuation of cities and aid in the rapid movement of military convoys and supplies in the event of a nuclear attack or natural disaster; while also serving the vital peacetime mission of connecting the different regions of the country, promoting commerce, and for better or worse, ending the isolation of many parts of rural America.
When the passage of highway bills stalled in Congress in 1955, including the financing of the interstate system, President Eisenhower was pissed; “Adequate financing there must be’, he said, ‘but contention over the method should not be permitted to deny our people these critically needed roads.” He never forgot the two month long, first U.S. Army trans-continental motor convoy that he helped coordinate back in 1919, the same journey today takes about five days, less of course if drugs are involved. Bumping along at a tortoise-like pace, an average of 6 mph, they encountered detours, unsafe bridges, poorly marked junctions, potholes, low spots with no drainage channels, rockslides, fallen trees, and few services; it all remained in his memory and reinforced his desire that America should one day have a modern, regularly-maintained, national road network. No doubt America’s aging infrastructure woes of today would see him taking executive action, how he’d propose paying for it without raising taxes would be interesting to see. Some context though, as evidenced by the outstanding, near perfect condition of many of the roadshots displayed here, not all of America is falling apart. Maintenance and upkeep yes, but crumbling and beyond repair? Don’t think so, America isn’t throwing in the towel yet.
A 1 1/2-ton Packard sporting a recruiting sign heads down a dusty road during the original 1919 transcontinental motor convoy.
“The scenic beauty of Appalachian America is well known to the observant
tourist. The landscape is never monotonous, because there is a change with each
new point of observation. When the woodlands of this county are in summer
foliage, the contour of the many ridges assumes a most pleasing appearance.”
– A Centennial History of Allegheny County, Virginia, Oren F. Morton, 1923
“Tuesday 13th May 1862 I have been much struck with the wild & mountain scenery. The Shenandoah Mt. Pass is grand indeed, you ascend to the very top of the mountain and from there you see as far as the eyes can reach, Mtn. after Mtn. in every variety of shape and grandeur whilst away down below a little valley & stream with winding road, winding around from Mt. to Mt. to descend the grade. After reaching this valley we ascend the hd waters of the James to a point where the waters turn the other way & then we discerned the hdwaters of the Potomac. The Mts. Tower above us beautifully. Every now & then you will find a fresh & sparkling stream gushing out of the mtn. side and running away into the larger streams of the Valley.” – Dairy of Frank B. Jones, Major, 2nd VA. Infantry
Augusta County-W. Augusta Rd (Rt 716), looking east towards Great North Mountain in the background.
Now a rural backcountry road, Rt 716 was originally a busy section of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike. During the time of westward expansion in the 1800’s this was the main highway thru what was called at that time, Virginia’s “Trans-Allegheny” region. Now a lightly used dirt road, it once carried wagon-traffic, ox-carts, loners on foot, and the dreams and hopes of landless pioneer families bound for the Ohio River and the open prairies beyond.
Flowing northward from headwaters in North Carolina, carving and transecting its way across the Alleghenies of Virginia and West Virginia, the “New” River has been called one of the oldest rivers in the world. But age estimates vary widely from 320 to 10 million years old, scientists aren’t exactly sure. What we do know is that it follows the course of the ancient Teays River Valley and that it was flowing for untold millennia long before the Alleghenies came into existence.
Approximate course of the Teays River superimposed on a modern map. This grand river flowed east to west during the Tertiary Period, 2 million years ago before being buried under repeated glacial advances.
Straight ahead in the distance is Sinking Creek Mountain, site of catastrophic mega-landslides at the end of the Pleistocene Age, the largest ever in North America. Geologists believe there were many “block-slides”, i.e. enormous chunks of rock, some as large as 1.5 mile square, and up to 3 miles in length, that came crashing down the eastern slopes of this mountain between 10,000 and 25,000 B.C. ; probably long before Paleo-Indians were in the neighborhood. “Rock of Ages” indeed.
A pleasant summer sunset on the slopes of Salt Pond Mountain(above) belies the power of an event that took place in these parts over a century ago. On May 31, 1897, Giles County was the epicenter of a major earthquake estimated at a magnitude VII, or roughly 5.8 on the Richter scale, the strongest ever known in Virginia history and second largest earthquake in the eastern United States in the last 200 years (the Charleston, South Carolina earthquake of 1886 is nu#1). Its effects caused little damage outside Giles County but rattled buildings and frightened citizens from Lake Eire to coastal South Carolina, from Baltimore, MD to as far west as Indiana and Kentucky.
From Roanoke, Va.: Telegram from Giles County that Mountain Lake still intact. “Advices from Giles County, however, still report much uneasiness there. The courthouse at Pearisburg was badly cracked by the earthquake shock, and numerous chimneys were thrown down or badly damaged. In other parts of the county, it is said, several brick houses were seriously damaged, and some shaken down completely. Along the railroad track tons of rock fell from the overhanging cliffs. In one instance derailing a freight train, and causing a delay to traffic for five hours or more. At Pearisburg bricks rolled from the chimneys to the roof of the courthouse in such numbers and to such an extent that Judge Jackson, who was holding Circuit Court when the shock occurred, left the building, along with the lawyers and others present. For a week or more before the shock people throughout Giles County were much disturbed by subterranean noises, and all day Monday detonations like the explosion of distant artillery were heard throughout the county. As to the crack in Angels Rest Mountain reports are so conflicting that it is hard to get at the truth. For several days after the shock last Monday the water in many of the springs and branches were muddy. An attorney of this city who was in Pearisburg on Monday bears out some of the above statements, and says that for nearly fifty miles from that place he saw hardly a sound chimney standing. In his opinion, if the buildings throughout Giles had been largely of brick, the damage would have been very great, and serious loss of life would have occurred.”
“Earthquakes are less common east of the Rocky Mountains than in California, but because of differences in crustal properties, an eastern earthquake affects an area about ten times as large as a California earthquake of the same magnitude.” – Earthquakes in Virginia and vicinity, 1774-2004, USGS
Giles County-Green Valley Road, outskirts of Pearisburg
“Earthquake especially strong at Pearisburg, where the walls of old brick houses were cracked and bricks were thrown from chimneys which had been damaged. A few earth fissures and small landslides were reported from this area, but no serious damage…. At Narrows (Va.) large rocks rolled down the mountains. The sounds were compared by veterans to those made by siege guns in action…. Minor tremors continued from time to time until June 6.”
Cincinnati. Ohio: Felt “here and in the suburbs…. The printers ran out of the Times-Star office. The occupants of other buildings were alarmed, and at Coney Island, Chester Park, the Zoo gardens, and elsewhere there was consternation among the holiday crowds. At the Lagoon, on the Kentucky side, there was a panic among several thousand people on the grounds. The waters in the Lagoon were so rough that the life-saving crew went to the relief of those out on the electric pleasure boats.”
Washington, D.C. : Chandeliers swayed and floors trembled perceptibly. “It was noticed at the capitol, in the Telephone Exchange, and in several of the high buildings. In the Associate Press office, in the Post Office Building, the vibrations were felt very distinctly.”
Savannah, Ga.: “A slight earthquake. Windows and doors shaken throughout the city. Many made dizzy.”
“I had foretold on the Credit of a Dream which I had last Sunday-Night, that we shou’d see the Mountains, this day, & it proved true, for Astrolabe [William Mayo, surveyor] discover’d them very plain to the NW of our Course, tho’ at a great Distance.” – Colonel William C. Byrd, A Journey to the Land of Eden, 1733
Wythe County-Forest Route 14, entering a grove of old growth forest along East Dry Run Creek
“Located in southwest Virginia, the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area (NRA) manages approximately 200,000 acres of National Forest land near Mount Rogers. The area features four Congressionally designated wilderness areas; the Virginia Creeper Trail; the Mount Rogers Scenic Byway which traverses over 50 miles offering views of the National Recreation Area and open rural countryside; the 5000 acre Crest Zone featuring elevations over 4,000 feet, large rock formations, and a mixture of mountain balds and spruce-fir forests; a herd of wild, free-ranging ponies; and the highest elevated road in the state of Virginia leading to the summit of Whitetop Mountain.” – from Mount Rodgers NRA web site. Wythe County, Forest Route 14, Jefferson National Forest
“Prior to European settlement, the landscape of southwestern Virginia included forests of different ages interspersed with expansive open woodlands with grassy understories, and occasional dense cane thickets, barren areas, and swamps. Forests were constantly changing as a result of receding of the glaciers to the north, fantastic beaver activity, large grazing animals like the eastern woodland bison, uncontrolled lightning fires, and widespread Native American use of fire and crop cultivation. Unfortunately, most of the forests on the George Washington & Jefferson in the 21st century are about the same age. This is because much of the forest was logged in the late 18th century and early 19th century. This was before there were many foresters in the United States. Also, most people did not think about the effects that logging such large areas would have on wildlife, soil, and downstream water quality. Today, the majority of the George Washington & Jefferson National Forests are between 70 and 100 years of age. Only one percent of the Forests are less than 10 years old and only one percent of the Forests are over 150 years of age.” -USDA, George Washington and Jefferson National Forests publication.
The Grayson Highlands, Virginia’s highest mountain range, an area once thickly covered in an evergreen forest of fraser fir and red spruce, “so thick, it was like darkness underneath”. All of the virgin timber was cut and long gone by the 1920’s but since then, under forestry management, the forest has returned while much of the high country has been purposely kept open as pasture thru controlled fires and cattle grazing.
According to the Old Man of the Mountain its not as productive a site as it was 30 years ago, the trees have grown tall and now keep it in shade for all but a few hours each day. But he ain’t complainin’, and after showing me all his seedlings and plans for this years garden he kindly told me , “you come on back anytime, ya hear?” Sometimes I have to confess that most so-called “backwoods” folk possess infinitely superior knowledge of life than many of the successful, articulate,wealthy individuals I’ve known. Its certainly a long ways from the American suburbia I grew up in,with its splendid homes and finely-trimmed yards where most people barely make eye contact.
Its well-documented that Spanish soldiers in the 1500’s, beginning with the De Soto Expedition and followed by several others, traveled thru the Carolinas and Tennessee where they fought many pitched battles with the native inhabitants and built several temporary log forts, but the northernmost limit of their explorations remains unclear. Though not conclusive, there is strong evidence, mainly from several written sources, that indicates a small expedition of Spanish soldiers known as “Moyano’s Foray”, accompanied by Indian allies from the North Carolina Piedmont, very likely traveled into present-day southwest Virginia in 1567 on their way to raiding the Chisca village of Maniateque, present-day Saltville. Perhaps one day a researcher in the Archivo General de Indias (General Archives of the Indies) in Sevilla, Spain, will uncover a hitherto lost letter or diary spelling out details that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt a Spanish presence in the hills of Virginia’s Appalachia. Or, just as likely, a local farmer tilling bottomland along the South Fork of the Clinch River will turn up a fragment of a harquebuss, a rusty belt buckle, or a small piece of a Toledo sword bearing a faded Spanish inscription. But until then this is mere speculation, so far no artifacts have shown up, and no Chisca are left to tell us their side of the story.
“I look around me-no road at all!
Driver, where are we going?
Suddenly I hear the whinny of a horse
that seems to come from empty sky.”
– “Things Seen on the Road to Hsin-Yang”,
Yuan Tsung-Tao, China, 1600’s.
Heading to the high country in summer to escape the sweltering heat of lowland areas and big cities is not a new concept. Early travelers from Jefferson and Lafayette to Civil War generals and wealthy Victorian-era tourists traveled by horseback, bateau, buggy, and rail, to enjoy the soothing qualities of mineral springs and the “cool airs” of various mountain resorts throughout this region. Fortunately today you don’t have to be a member of the upper crust to enjoy this region. Like our National Parks, the public lands of Appalachia, including large areas of national forests, state parks, and wildlife management areas, all belong to you and me, forever.
“…what is most remarkable of the Virginia springs is their peculiar accommodation as a summer retreat from those vast malarious districts which extend through the richest portions of the South and lie in the Valley of the Mississippi. The fertile regions of the Mississippi are liable to fevers (the calentures of the Spaniards’ time), and will always be so : wherever vegetation is prolific and exuberant — precisely in the richest portions of the South — the wealth which Nature has bestowed is counterbalanced by chills and fevers. The escape from these malarious influences, and from the diseases which abound in summer along all the tributaries of the Mississippi, is naturally to the springs and mountains of Virginia — that area of high land crowned with health-giving waters and beautified by the finest natural scenery of America.” – Sketches of the Springs and Mountains of Virginia, Edward A. Pollard, 1870
Burkes Garden is the state’s highest valley, elevation of the valley floor averages about 3,000 feet. Encircled by a ring of mountains, from the air it looks like a meteor crater but this fertile valley was actually the bed of an ancient sea. Several back roads crisscross this pastoral basin of small working farms and grazing pasture; a place of tranquility. Small wonder that local farmers refused the lucrative offers of a New York fatcat tycoon named Vanderbilt back in the 1880’s when he sent his yes-men out looking for a place to build his Gilded Age monument-to-himself, the Biltmore. No one would sell him an acre, let alone most of the valley (they wanted most of it of course). He settled on his second choice property outside of Asheville, North Carolina instead. Today, Burke’s Garden remains off the beaten track, still entirely agricultural, serenely tucked away “down in them thar hills”. Take that Wall Street.
Scott County is the birthplace of country music legends, the Carter Family and one of the great female country singers of all time, June Carter Cash; a legend and sweetheart sorely missed. Johny Cash, “the man in black”, played his last gig here at Carter’s Fold, a historic music venue located in a barn in Poor Valley at the foot of Clinch Mountain.
“The oxen are found no more in the woods, the powerful truck hauls the logs to the market, or to the railroad station. The railroad came and had its day like the rafting tide, and now the good highway and the auto-truck. But nothing today compares in adventure to those days of logging with the oxen and the floating of the mighty rafts down the Clinch. Truly the history of man’s progress is the history of transportation. But do we have better men with it all? Have we in Scott County builded men as we have builded roads and school houses?” – Gate City Herald editorial, 1930’s
Rt. 58 parallels the east slopes of Cumberland Mountain, capped by “White Rocks”, view looking northwest. For early immigrants traveling the Wilderness Road, seeing these cliff formations meant only one more day of travel before reaching the Cumberland Gap and the big turn to the west, to the bluegrass country of “Kaintuck”.
Lee County is the westernmost county in Virginia and site of the Cumberland Gap, a famous historic and natural landmark where Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee come together. In the early 1800’s this natural low pass was the main thoroughfare to the west for thousands of early pioneers and their families. Its importance as a portal thru the mountains pre-dates the coming of the white man of course, various Native peoples had been using the Cumberland Gap for millenia in their travels between the southern Appalachians and Ohio River country.
“These mountains are in the wilderness, as we pass from the old settlements in Virginia to Kentucke, are ranged in a S.west and N.east direction, are of a great length and breadth.“ – Daniel Boone, autumn, 1773
Virginia is on the far left, Tennessee is in the middle foreground, and the low-lying cloud formations on the far right are above Kentucky. The famous gap is directly beneath these rocks and goes left to right as marked by the thin stream of clouds seemingly pointing the way west on the right side of the picture.
“The Great Indian War Path”, or “Athawominee”, Algonquian for “Path where they go armed” was the main north-south foot trail thru the central Appalachian valleys linking numerous tribes of the intermontane east; including the Iroquois of Pennsylvania and upstate New York, the Monacan, Shawnee and Mingo of Virginia and Ohio, the Catawba and Cherokee of the Carolinas and Tennessee, and Creek, Chickasaw, and Choctaw in the deep south. It branched off with many trails, some that would later become modern highways including the Catawba Trail, Cumberland Trace, Kanawha Trace, Great Shamokin Path, and Old Chickasaw Trace.
“This portion of the state abounds in mineral wealth. Bituminous coal and iron ore are found almost every where; — beds of limestone are extensively distributed, and the caverns which abound in them furnish large quantities of nitre. The salt wells of the great Kenawha and Holston, are even superior to those of Onandagua, in New York ; and new springs are every day developing themselves and being brought into operation, on the little Kenawha, and in other places. When greater facilities of transportation shall be given to this district of country, it may be confidently predicted that no portion of the United States will present greater rewards to industry and enterprize.” – Martin and Brockenbrough, Gazetteer of Virginia, 1835
Cumulus formations are building up as thunderclaps rumble with increasing frequency o’er the green pastures of Powell Valley. Smells like rain…