The Gaps in Albemarle’s Blue Ridge History
By Phil James
Can you name the seven wind gaps atop western Albemarle County’s Blue Ridge Mountains? They traverse the ridgeline border shared with Augusta and Rockingham Counties. For some, perhaps even long-time natives of this area, it might prove as difficult as pealing off the names of your eight great-grandparents. (When this writer was first posed with that genealogical query, he had never even paused to consider that he had eight gr-grands.)
One has to step back a right smart ways to take in the entire view of Albemarle County’s western border. One such vantage point is just east of Charlottesville on Pantops Mountain. From that perspective, the undulating ridgeline of the Blue Ridge Mountains seemed a formidable barrier to those with a pioneering spirit who arrived from eastern Virginia in the early-to-mid-1700s.
Some began to survey the foothills for buffalo trails that might lead them to a practical route up and over what was then labeled the “Blue Ledge.” Imagine their surprise when they encountered the Woods and Wallace clans who had already arrived in that part of the region from the west side of the mountains around 1734. With no one close by to interfere with his settling in, Woods did not even bother to register a title to his lands until 1737, a full seven years prior to the naming of the new county in honor of the Virginia Colony’s absentee Crown Governor, Willem Anne van Keppel, 2nd Earl of Albemarle.
The breach, or gap, in the ridgeline exploited by pioneer settler Michael Woods was known by his name until Thomas Jarman purchased the mountain summit and, thereafter, mapmakers applied his surname to that place.
Woods’ or Jarman’s Gap at 2,175’ elevation was a prominent point of reference for travelers for nearly two centuries as it was through that gap that the storied Three Notch’d Road was surveyed as a primary east-west route from Richmond to the Shenandoah Valley.
During the Revolutionary War, a military presence gathered at Woods’ Gap to resist Tarleton’s entry into the Shenandoah Valley should his British army attempt to pursue the Virginia statesmen who fled Charlottesville ahead of his arrival there. Around that time, the Hessian soldiers who had been imprisoned at The Barracks west of Charlottesville were marched west through Woods’ Gap to prevent their release by Tarleton’s forces.
Unknown to many, Shenandoah National Park lands halted at a seeming dead end, or cul-de-sac, at Jarman’s Gap. Only after President F.D. Roosevelt approved construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1933 to connect Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Parks did negotiations proceed for a 200’ right-of-way (only) through the 8+ miles of private lands between Jarman’s and Rockfish Gaps.
Not until the much-improved road that would become U.S. Route 250 was laid through 1,900’ elev. Rockfish Gap in the 1930s did Jarman’s yield its eminent role as a primary thoroughfare across the Blue Ridge.
Between Rockfish (technically not in Albemarle) and Jarman’s Gaps lie Beagle and McCormick Gaps. At Beagle Gap (notable today for its prominent communications towers), a roadway once went through that was a travel route between Greenwood (via Greenwood Hollow) and Waynesboro. McCormick Gap, above Newtown near Scott Mountain, apparently commemorates an early landowner at that place, but the primitive road that once passed through there would be considered little more than a 4WD trail by today’s standards.
Prior to the closing of all public access through Shenandoah National Park within Albemarle County in the latter 1930s, travelers heading west through White Hall and Sugar Hollow had three options to choose from to cross the Blue Ridge, dependent on their destination in the Valley. Going up the South Fork Moorman’s River Road, they first encountered the road through Turk’s Gap. The Turk family’s name was also applied to Turk Mountain in Augusta County. The old roadway passed the once-profitable Crimora Manganese mines at the western foot of the mountain, terminating at that village’s depot on the Shenandoah (later N&W) Railroad.
The road through Jarman’s Gap to the town of Dooms north of Waynesboro was accessible farther up the South Fork Road from Sugar Hollow.
Taking the North Fork Moorman’s River Road from Sugar Hollow provided access through Black Rock Gap. On the west side of the mountain, this road followed Paine Run to the village of Harriston and its railroad depot south of Grottoes. Stagecoaches once plied this venerable road, transporting passengers from the east to Black Rock Springs. That mountain resort, replete with mineral waters, a post office, hotel, cottages and bowling alley, operated from the mid-19th century alongside this roadway that is now inside Shenandoah National Park in Augusta County. As with the Crimora Mines, mountain residents of western Albemarle found employment opportunities and an outlet for sales of milk, eggs and butter. A major forest fire in 1909 ended most of that resort’s glory days.
Brown’s Gap was the northernmost point where a mountain crossing could be made in Albemarle County. Connecting Grottoes in Rockingham County with the Three Notch’d Road at Mechum’s River, the Brown’s Gap Turnpike toll road operated from its completion in 1806 until shortly after the Civil War. It was a major crossing for freight wagons of Valley produce headed to Richmond markets. As a vital mountain crossing used for troop movements during the Civil War, sentries were often posted there, military breastworks were constructed there for its protection, and armies found shelter and rest there both before and after battles.
Because of the travel inconveniences caused by closing all mountain passages through Albemarle following the establishment of Shenandoah National Park, calls persisted for legislators to reopen and improve access through Brown’s Gap. As late as 1949, the Board of Directors of the Charlottesville and Albemarle Chamber of Commerce unanimously endorsed its reopening for better access between Albemarle County and Harrisonburg.
Now that you have checked off the seven named mountain gaps in Albemarle County, maybe it’s time to get cracking on that list of eight great-grandparents which most of us are purported to have had.
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