Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Lost Communities of the Blue Ridge

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Joseph and Rosa (Shifflett) Harris’ home on the west side of Pasture Fence Mountain above the north fork of Moorman’s River was filled with the family sounds of children, and often rang with the music of house parties. Phil James Historical Images Collection.

A whole heap of living took place, once-upon-a-time, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Albemarle County. Much of that living took place within Shenandoah National Park’s South District, extending from Swift Run Gap, at milepost 65.5, to Rockfish Gap, the southern terminus of the park at milepost 105.4.

To the curious gazing up from the Piedmont lowlands, however, nary a clue is visible of the once-vibrant mountain culture that blanketed these highlands. Likewise, neither are its secrets easily revealed to those who choose to cruise comfortably along the scenic Skyline Drive, slowing only for brief glances from its overlooks.

Like the proverbial “dash” between the dates on a grave marker, it was the rugged souls that populated once-private lands adjacent to the skyline Drive’s mile markers who could tell the real stories of former times in these high places. One such storied section embraced the nearly 14-mile-long stretch between Brown’s Gap and Jarman’s Gap, from the ridgeline down to the south and north forks of Moormans River.

One who was intimate with many of the families in that upper Sugar Hollow community during the early decades of the 1900s was Rufus Cline. Cline (1902 – 1986) drove cattle from his family’s farm near New Hope in Augusta County to mountaintop pasturelands between Jarman’s and Black Rock Gaps. His travel route took him east through Harriston, past Horsehead Rock, and upward via Paine’s Run Road towards Black Rock Gap (milepost 87.4.)

Herding cattle through the mountains was never an easy task. Cline’s route of necessity passed the entrance to the summer cottage enclave at Black Rock Springs Resort, about a mile below Black Rock Gap.

“There’s one problem we always had,” Cline said. “When I’d get the cattle up there and I’d make that short bend [in the main road at the entrance to Black Rock Springs], you couldn’t keep them from going in there to the springs, and getting them to head up that mountain was something else.”

Land tracts of approximately 400–500 acres each, extending from the Blue Ridge summit down to Moormans River, became available following the death of Dr. Charles Brown (1783–1879), a son of Bernard Brown Senior. The 1,686 acres of Dr. Brown’s “Mountain Land” was surveyed into nine parcels and then sold at auction on the Albemarle courthouse steps for prices ranging from 10¢ to 20¢ per acre.

Wayside Brethren Church, at the intersection of the north fork of Moorman’s River and Black Rock Gap Road, was one of five churches that served the greater Sugar Hollow community in western Albemarle County. Courtesy of Helen Via Stogdale.

Survey points and borderlines defining Brown’s mountain lands reflected some of the descriptive cultural history of that area, such as Calloway’s Rocks, Craig’s Gap, tobacco house, Pond Ridge Branch, Big Branch, Stable Branch, Sapling Stand Branch, Slaughter Pen Branch, Cool Spring Branch, and Pine Stand Branch, as well as adjacent landowners including Brown, Garth, James, Jarman, Maupin, Shaver, Shiflett, and Sprouse.

In time, the new owners’ lands also changed hands, introducing an even more diverse neighborhood of families including Ballard, Barger, Borden, Craig, Driver, Early, Fulton, Garrison, Harris, Hoy, McCauley, Marshall, Miller, Roller, Patterson, Sandridge, Sipe, Weast, Western, Williams, Wonderly, Wood and Via.

These families included blacksmiths, distillers, midwives, orchardists, saw mill operators, shepherds and teamsters. They built churches and schools on the mountainside, boarded their pastors and teachers, and entertained themselves with string music and house parties. They assisted one another in laying to rest their dead in various family burying grounds.

As Rufus Cline recalled, “They built good houses. I stayed with them, talked and ate with them, played with their children. They took care of themselves. They were a thrifty people. The Harris and Via boys would come out here [to New Hope] for two, three weeks, whatever we needed, and help with the harvest work.”

Robert H. “Bob” Via Sr. (1883–1958) and his wife Mary Elizabeth (Mace) Via (1883–1962) with their family in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Bob Via, a native of Sugar Hollow in western Albemarle Co., challenged the Commonwealth of Virginia’s right of blanket condemnation of private properties via eminent domain for the purpose of gifting those properties to the federal government. His case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1935, where it was dismissed without a full hearing. Phil James Historical Images Collection.

Life in these Blue Ridges, as it had been for generations upon generations, was targeted for drastic change in the 1920s when the Commonwealth of Virginia’s politicians and business interests were enticed by the siren song of tourist dollars.

Proposing a new national park for the eastern United States, the federal government’s offer pitted state against state, with a requirement that the land be gifted to the government and be devoid of residents. Such a scheme had worked fine in the west where vast expanses were still owned by the government. In the east, centuries of population growth had left no such uninhabited swaths.

When Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains were identified as a prime possibility for a new national playground, the inconvenient reality of hundreds, if not thousands, of longstanding mountain residents had to be surmounted. With the news media at their behest, and an ever-increasing public clamor for new parkland, a subtle campaign was undertaken by the Commonwealth that maligned and summarily disregarded the individual rights of its very own citizens—all under the guise of the state’s right of eminent domain.

Minnie (Garrison) Via (1883–1982), wife of Daniel C. Via (1877–1930), at home with her children on the north fork of Moormans River, western Albemarle County. Following Daniel’s death, and, later, isolation brought about by the establishment of Shenandoah NP, Minnie moved with her children to Pennsylvania and married Henry Via who earlier had relocated there from Sugar Hollow. Phil James Historical Images Collection.

Even before legal challenges to the forceful taking of these several hundred thousand acres of privately occupied lands could be heard, groundwork was begun in earnest to prepare for the masses of anticipated visitors. The most visible court challenge came from a small but determined group headed by Sugar Hollow landowner Robert H. “Bob” Via. On January 13, 1935, in the U.S. District Court at Harrisonburg, Via’s lawsuit challenging Virginia’s right to condemn and confiscate private land in order to gift it to the federal government was struck down.

Bob Via’s subsequent appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., was cut short and abruptly dismissed on the Monday before Thanksgiving in 1935. Shenandoah National Park was signed into existence one month later on the day after Christmas.

Rufus Cline recalled, “Worlds of people lived back in that mountain [above Sugar Hollow]. Their main way out was [to] come out by Black Rock Spring. They began to move out when the park began to make it so they couldn’t get across the [Skyline] drive. They had all kinds of problems to get across with their wagons to get out. They saw this coming, the government taking over their land, so they got out.”

Then, stripping away the obvious losses of personal property and trust in elected officials who were to look out for constituents’ well-being, Cline paused, and then cut straight to the quick: “The main reason they left was on account of the park taking over their freedom and their tramping grounds.”  

Solitary stone chimneys such as this example inside the park border west of Sugar Hollow’s north fork of Moormans River bear silent testimony to the purging of families and pulling down of former homes on private lands taken for the establishment of Shenandoah National Park during the 1920s and ’30s. Photo: Phil James.

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: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2021 Phil James

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