Secrets of the Blue Ridge: If These Mountains Could Talk

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Detail from Edward Beyer’s 1857 lithograph titled “Rockfish Gap and the Mountain House”, depicting the Virginia Central Railroad that passed over Rockfish Gap 1854–1858, prior to the completion of Claudius Crozet’s mountain tunnel passages. (Courtesy of Phil James Historical Images)

If these mountains could talk, where would they begin? Would it be with the voice of God separating the waters from the dry land? Or with great volcanic explosions, the colliding of subterranean plates and the wrinkling and thrusting up of Earth’s crust?

Or might the stories begin in simpler ways, closer to the places where we walk, and to the heights where untold generations have stood awestruck? The Blue Ridge Mountains in central Virginia are scattered with many evidences of their geological, natural and cultural past.

Exposed cliff faces exhibit bends in various types of sedimentary rock. Broken and weathered boulders reveal fossils of creatures that formerly lived on sea bottoms. The very nature of the rounded Blue Ridge summits speaks to their place as elders among the mountains of this planet.

The water gaps are fewer than the wind gaps that add interest and definition to the Blue Ridge skyline. Herds of bison and caribou as well as musk ox, and, some say, mastodons, once chose paths of least resistance through these gaps. Indigenous spear hunters seeking meat, garment-skins, and bone for tools eventually followed them. Archaeological discoveries have confirmed these and other such evidence.

The mountains have seldom been without a plentiful share of drama, both actual and perceived. Those spending the night in the woods in earlier days might have been startled by the night sounds of wolves howling or the chilling screams of panthers. Adding to their imaginations would be the scuffling and crackling sounds of unseen animals walking in the forest’s understory. In winter, tree boughs encrusted with ice could snap off with a report like a rifle shot. These experiences undoubtedly made their way into a number of hair-raising tales of yore.

Blanche Standup, on left, and her sister Thelma, visited with Jim Ragland at their mountain home near Boonesville in northwestern Albemarle County. In the 1920s and ‘30s, the Standup family’s Rocky Bar property was among 216 tracts of Albemarle land threatened with condemnation by the establishment of Shenandoah National Park. (Photo courtesy of the Standup family) Additional images accompany the print edition of this story.

When English settlers migrating from eastern Virginia finally arrived in western Albemarle, they likely were surprised to find some of the land already settled by the pioneer Woods and Wallace clans who had migrated south down the Shenandoah Valley from Pennsylvania. These families had crossed the Blue Ridge from the west side in the 1730s at Woods (now Jarmans) Gap.

Enslaved laborers worked the plantations of most of these planters from dawn ’til dark, and were sometimes quartered in the mountains to tend crops and shepherd livestock. In late evening when the moon was bright enough for safe travel, they would occasionally travel the coves and hollows between neighboring farms for social contact.

During the Revolutionary War, German mercenaries and others fighting for Britain captured in New York were marched south and imprisoned at The Barracks off Garth Road west of Charlottesville, arriving there in January 1779. As the war unfolded, concerns mounted that an attempt might be undertaken by the enemy to retake the prisoners quartered in Albemarle County. Accordingly, in November 1780, 800 prisoners were moved from the prisoner-of-war camp and marched across the Blue Ridge Mountains through Woods Gap en route to Fort Frederick, Maryland. The remaining 1,500 German troops were removed permanently from Albemarle by the same route in February 1781.

By the late 18th century, seekers of pleasure from the east regularly were making their way across the mountains by horseback, buggy and stagecoach in order to luxuriate and rejuvenate themselves in the mineral springs of the Shenandoah Valley and western Virginia. In one of its promotional broadsides, the Mountain Top Hotel at Rockfish Gap proclaimed, “The Waters of the place are the many pure Free-Stone Springs and a fine spring of Chalybeate water.” As these medicinal spas proliferated, Black Rock Springs Resort was established in the 1830s in the mountains of Augusta County only a few miles over the border from Albemarle County.

In the 1850s, the mountains were pierced in a fantastic way at Rockfish Gap to make way for steel rails and steam locomotive engines pulling both passengers and freight. The vibrations of its drivers and shrill sound of its whistle carried the sound of progress far through the mountains.

Unending sounds of human emotions have long carried through the mountain air: delightful laughter of children, joy-filled singing voices accompanied by strains of string music, the shuffling foot cadence of home and foreign military troops, the mournful sobs of those laying a loved one to rest, or packing up their belongings and bidding adieu to sheltering homes, barns and sustaining gardens confiscated by a government’s program to establish a tranquil pleasure- ground for city lowlanders.

Dense fogs that can obscure one’s hand before one’s face have lent a mysterious silence to the mountains, while also contributing to tragic automobile pile-ups and numerous airplane crashes. The observant explorer can still happen upon scattered metallic remnants, from forged iron horseshoes to machined alloys of jet airplanes, slowly disappearing into the humus beneath leafy canopies.

The tree-covered heights most familiar today have always been in a state of flux. Settlers cleared plots to build houses and bring in the sunshine to grow crops; livestock producers cleared trees from swaths of mountain land in order to establish pastures; lumbermen harvested timber to build the cities of a great nation; coke ovens, iron furnaces, and hide tanneries consumed countless trees during the courses of both war and peace.

Nearly unstoppable, raging fires, natural and human-caused, and horrific roaring floods have cleansed and partially reshaped the mountain landscape, but, repeatedly, nature has shown its perfect order and design by reclaiming its own. From glory to glory, the mountains have been a constant.

Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2017 Phil James 

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