Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Mountain Top: Standing in the Gap

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This c.1890s elevated view looking north across Rockfish Gap shows stonewalls lining the former Staunton and James River Turnpike. The sweeping 300’ radius of the railbed used by the Mountain Top Track 1854–1858 can be seen directly alongside the Turnpike at its apex. Courtesy Augusta Co. Historical Society’s Frances Scruby Collection.

The place known as Mountain Top, situated at Rockfish Gap in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, was an active witness to perhaps more historical events than any similarly positioned notch in the entire Appalachian Range.

A most humble 18th-century stone ordinary, Rockfish Inn was located in that gap, and provided supplemental income to the farm that surrounded it. In 1781, Virginia’s General Assembly fled west through Rockfish Gap to avoid capture by Banastre Tarleton’s British Raiders, even as home militias hurried to positions in the pass to thwart the enemy pursuers.

By the advent of the 19th century, various business managers had seen fit to enlarge those facilities to include a multi-story tavern, a requisite stable, and outbuildings to meet the needs of increasing traffic. In August 1818, the Rockfish Gap Commission picked Rockfish Gap Tavern as the meeting place to render a decision on the location for a new, centrally located public university. That prestigious three-day gathering, held in lofty yet unpretentious surroundings, was comprised of former U.S. presidents and other prominent influencers. The assembly, presided over by the 75-year-old Sage of Monticello, ultimately selected Charlottesville’s Central College location ahead of competing sites west of the Blue Ridge, thus leading to the establishment of the University of Virginia in 1819.

Around this same time, the General Assembly authorized construction of the Staunton and James River Turnpike to facilitate movement of goods in the Valley to a port on the James River near Scott’s Landing. This route passed through Rockfish Gap, which hosted one of the tollgates. Turnpike construction took place between 1826 and 1830.

The veranda at Mountain Top Hotel, a witness to eras of war, peace, and great change, welcomed wearied travelers, families, dignitaries, belles and their suitors, as well as the infirm. Courtesy Augusta Co. Historical Society’s Frances Scruby Collection.

Upon his inspection of the new roadwork in Rockfish Gap, Claudius Crozet, principal engineer and surveyor for the Virginia Board of Public Works, was critical of methods used, especially employing the extreme grade at the summit. His follow-up report to the General Assembly stated, “Although this turnpike is not so good as it might have been, it will nevertheless be one of the best roads in the state.” An 1830 report stated that the road was 22’ wide with timber cleared an additional 14’ on each side.

In the summer of 1836, Samuel Leake, at Mountain Top, offered to rent or lease “my Hotel and Farm [of 800 acres] at Rockfish Gap… The traveling is immense, this being the great thoroughfare to the Virginia Springs, the South and South-western States, and from thence to the east. The house is of brick, two and three stories, 90’ long by 46’, having many large, airy rooms and chambers, with a wooden wing with four rooms, stable large and built of stone… near Brooksville Post-office.”

Encompassed by farm lands, the Mountain Top Hotel, which grew from an 18th-century ordinary (or tavern), was situated at Rockfish Gap close to the Augusta County line. Courtesy Augusta Co. Historical Society’s Frances Scruby Collection.

Claudius Crozet returned to the gap in 1839, surveying options for routing the Louisa Railroad into the region west of the Blue Ridge. A new age was approaching.

William M. Leake, in 1843, “respectfully inform[s] the public that he has opened the Mountain Top Hotel, for the reception of travelers and boarders… on top of the Blue Ridge at Rockfish Gap… He is also prepared with hay and grain for movers and gentlemen driving stock to market, horses, cattle, hogs, and etc.”

For the fortunate ones who secured space at Mountain Top Hotel during the summers of the 1850s, events and activities playing out within view of the inn’s front porches were worthy of the price of room and board. The Staunton Spectator reported in July 1849: “Col. Crozet and his corps of engineers have been at the mountain for some time past making surveys with a view to the Railroad and Tunnel… The Governor and one or two other members of the Board of Public Works recently came as far as the mountain top, for the purpose of inspecting the route of the improvement.”

Unprecedented activity followed on adjacent sides of the mountain with the simultaneous building up of stockpiles of construction materials, foodstuffs, and living arrangements for laborers and trades workers. As drilling and blasting proceeded into the sides of the mountain, the muffled explosions and reverberations were heard and felt in the vicinity above the tunnel bore.

The Chesapeake & Ohio Railway utilized this descriptive broadside to encourage its patrons in 1882 to ride the rails to the Mountain Top at Rockfish Gap. Courtesy Phil James Historical Images.

For Samuel Leake, business continued to expand at the Mountain Top Hotel. He announced in 1851, “The proprietor has greatly enlarged his dining rooms, and added eight or ten chambers to the establishment, by which better to accommodate his guests with boarding, and transient visitors with comfort.”

From 1852 to 1858, an official U.S. post office was installed at Mountain Top, Augusta Co., VA. Father Donald Downey of Staunton established a mission outreach to the tunnel project’s predominantly Irish workforce and their families. His Catholic Chapel of the Blue Ridge station served congregants until fire consumed it in 1857.

In July 1853, all eyes were on the unbelievable sight of David Sheeler commanding a team of 18 mules as they navigated an 18-ton locomotive over the mountain, not on rails, but along the old stagecoach road. The locomotive was used to facilitate construction of the Virginia Central Railroad to the west. Before the event, few if any witnesses would have wagered that the never-before-seen occurrence could have been possible.

Hotel proprietor Wm. C. Lipscomb operated Mountain Top School in 1854. He employed a private teacher for his daughters, and advertised openings for an additional 10-12 Boarding Scholars: “Misses or Young Ladies… [who] will be considered members of my family, and the same care and attention paid to them as to my own daughters.”

From the spring of 1854 until the official opening of the Blue Ridge Tunnel in 1858, a temporary rail line known as the Mountain Top Track extended from near Brooksville at the eastern foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Valley floor near Waynesboro. Specially designed steam locomotives navigated the eight miles of temporary track four times daily, pulling three or four rail cars of mail, passengers, baggage and freight at a safe average speed of six-and-one-half miles per hour. During that period, a simple flag station stood in the gap to serve Mountain Top.

Charles Ellet, civil engineer and designer of the Mountain Top Track, gave this description of the spot where the temporary track crossed the summit at Rockfish Gap: “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.”

For the Mountain Top Hotel, its ensuing years were stuff of legend. The inn was filled each summer with guests from the eastern lowlands, fleeing the heat, humidity and mosquito-driven diseases common during those times. Their days on the mountain were filled with the renewing of acquaintances, music and balls, hikes, carriage rides, rest, and always, refreshing breezes, good foods and sweet slumber.

The sad ending of those magical times arrived, without warning, on a September Sunday in 1903. Fire emanating from a defective flue left the venerable hostelry in ashes. Available hands managed to save much of the furniture, but little else was salvaged. The cottages survived, but the irreplaceable charm fostered by numerous proprietors, enhanced by guests of every persuasion, had departed the mountain top.

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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