By Phil James
Writing in 1900, historian Rev. Edgar Woods stated, “Rockfish Gap has always had that name, acquiring it from the river which rises in part from its base.”
Afton Mountain, on the other hand, is a recent appellation, officially applied in 1998 to a summit southwest of the gap in nearby Swannanoa Golf Course. Afton village came into being in 1859 following the opening of the Blue Ridge Tunnel to rail traffic.
Had the first American Indians who followed the old animal paths through this wind gap somehow been allowed to linger through the centuries, what transitions they would have seen, and oh, the endless tales they could have told!
Their stories surely would have been illustrated with references to the ceaseless westerly winds lifting up streams of migrating birds and flying insects; of unmarred vistas into the eastern Piedmont lowlands and western Appalachian ranges, and night skies so clear that the secrets of the heavens were nearly revealed; with descriptions of dramatic seasonal changes with the early and latter rains draining off to the west and the east; of fogs that subdued daylight and transformed the night into a foreboding cave; of the welcome arrival of the earliest greens of spring or autumn’s brilliant rainbow of colors; of majestic ice-coated trees standing like crystal monuments, or snapping suddenly and loudly beneath the frozen burden; and of the steady and certain cycles of life and death and rebirth.
Aside from its dramatic natural history, modern day Rockfish Gap has been all about traffic, or better put, travelers. The earliest settlers arrived from the Shenandoah Valley, passing first through Woods’ Gap to the north in the 1730s; for some years it was that road, the Three-Notch’d, that received funding for improvements from the colonial government.
In 1745, this Albemarle County road order was issued: “On the petition of the Inhabitants of the Uper part of Mitchams River leave is granted them to Clear a Road from Rock fish Gapp the nearest and best way to D.S. road.” This eventual “clearing” constituted little more than a bridle trail, for in 1751 the traveling parson Rev. Robert Rose noted that the passage through Rockfish Gap “might easily be fitted for carriages of any kind.”
When later improvements were made for wheeled conveyances, the eve of modern-day surely had arrived. Rest stops soon appeared along the road in the form of taverns offering food, drink and shelter to the traveler. The Rockfish Inn was established in the gap in the 1770s. Positive public response to its ideal location led to subsequent improvements and expansions and a name change: The Mountain Top Inn.
Among the travelers in 1781 who did not have time to tarry at Mountain Top were then-Governor Thomas Jefferson and several members of the Virginia legislature. They were in flight from Charlottesville, heading toward Staunton to avoid capture by British cavalry led by Colonel Banastre Tarleton.
Governor Jefferson’s escape was successful, and Cornwallis’s dastardly deal went down to an ultimate defeat. In 1818, then-former President Jefferson was back at the Mountain Top Inn in Rockfish Gap. This time his fellow travelers included former President James Madison, then-U.S. President James Monroe, and Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court John Marshall. In party with a distinguished group of dignitaries, they comprised the Rockfish Gap Commission charged with deciding the location for the University of Virginia.
Claudius Crozet surveyed through Rockfish Gap in 1839, working to determine the most favorable path for the Louisa Railroad to pierce the Blue Ridge Mountains. In 1849 he was assigned the task of engineering the actual construction of that line.
Land travelers in Rockfish Gap during the 1850s certainly had their senses assaulted with strange sights and sounds. Shanty villages of Irish railroad workers lined portions of the road. Dull “booms” could be heard and the ground beneath their feet vibrated as drilling and blasting took place inside Col. Crozet’s Blue Ridge Tunnel. And within view of guests at Mountain Top Inn was a most unusual sight: a steam locomotive pulling cars across the ridge top.
Charles Ellett, the Civil Engineer who designed that temporary track issued this description: “The crest of the Blue Ridge is very narrow, and is passed on a curve of 300 feet radius. There is barely room for an engine with an ordinary train to stand on the summit, before the road slopes off, descending both towards the east and west, to the valleys on either side of the ridge.”
Four years of Civil War saw troop movements by both armies through Rockfish Gap and along the Blue Ridge Railroad. Artillery was wheeled over the mountain. Infantrymen monitored all road and rail traffic.
“Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy, if possible,” stated legendary Southern commander Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. He executed that philosophy to perfection in 1862 as he slipped his forces beneath Rockfish Gap on Virginia Central Railroad trains to begin their Shenandoah Valley Campaign.
Following the cessation of war hostilities in 1865, defeated former Confederate General Robert E. Lee spent a night at the Mountain Top Inn while en route to Washington College in Lexington where he would serve as president until his death in 1870.
An all-consuming forest fire swept across these mountains in 1909. The Mountain Top Hotel was among the losses and was not rebuilt.
Frederick Scott and James Dooley purchased properties on either side of Rockfish Gap in the early 1900s. Dooley’s marble Swannanoa palace eventually became a base for Walter and Lao Russell’s art and philosophical pursuits. Scott’s influences at his Royal Orchard castle weighed significantly on the alignment of Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive between Jarman’s Gap and Rockfish Gap.
Since the 1930s, the gap has been prominent as the southern terminus of the 104-miles long Skyline Drive, as well as Mile “0” of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s 469 miles of ridge top traverse connecting the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks. The Appalachian Trail hikers’ path between Georgia and Maine also intersects with Rockfish Gap, crossing Interstate 64 at that low point ever since the superhighway was opened across the mountain in 1973.
Travelers have found one form or another of food and accommodation at Rockfish Gap for nearly 250 years, from chef-prepared meals to hoecake to kettle corn; from beds fit for Presidents to pallets beneath the stars. Their personal stories and experiences, as well as your own, when mingled with those of the earliest foot travelers, could fill a grand library to overflowing.
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 © 2003–2012 Phil James