A History of the Howardsville Turnpike

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Howardsville Turnpike on the west side of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

In the mid-1800s, the hearty people driving their wagon teams up the slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains and through low-lying valleys were traveling on a near-forgotten road called the Howardsville Turnpike. In the 1850s it provided this area’s major transportation link with eastern Virginia. During severe weather, only a few miles a day could be made in the heavy wagons, sometimes taking up to two weeks to complete the trip. The road was narrow and during rainy periods, filled with muddy ruts that took off many a wagon wheel. Also, people had to be on the lookout for robbers who frequented the highways. Large teams of horses or mules pulled the wagons, sometimes as many as six animals per wagon. The custom of the time was to have “bell teams,” consisting of a set of bells hooked on the horse’s harness or on the wagon itself. If a wagon got mired down in the mud or its wheel slipped off the road and needed assistance from a passing wagon, the bells were automatically forfeited to the one helping. There was a certain amount of prestige in having a lot of bells adorning one’s wagon because it showed the driver was a very capable handler on often dangerous terrain. The turnpike was also unique for its time in that it was an excellently engineered road. It was a point-to-point route of even grade, making it possible for the cumbersome wagons to maneuver the steep mountain slopes. The specifications for the road, set in June 1848, were as follows: Regular road width: 30 feet; width on hills, 20 feet; and width on cliffs, 12 feet. 

Turnpike toll booth

Wagons burdened down with freight such as various grains and agricultural products, hogsheads of tobacco, and pig iron from the Mount Torrey Furnace near Sherando were hauled over the early road known as the Howardsville Turnpike. The Mount Torrey Furnace produced 1,000 to 1,500 tons of iron ore between the years of 1801 and 1880. Whiskey was a likely cargo, since Augusta County produced 90,000 gallons of spirits in 56 distilleries, according to an 1840 census report. Cattle and turkeys were also driven over the steep mountain inclines of the Blue Ridge in order to reach the Howardsville destination, where the goods were then shipped east by boat on the James River.

Back in the early 1980s I talked with Ruby Hamner, who told how families drove large flocks of turkeys over steep mountain inclines to reach Howardsville. She said her family made the 2-to-3-day trip in a covered wagon and camped along the way. I asked how they kept the turkeys going in a straight line on the road for that length of time and she said children would walk along the roadside with long sticks, herding the birds forward in a tight group. In the evening, the turkeys would roost in the trees and that’s where the family stopped and made camp. Before the birds flew down in the morning, they would break camp and be ready for another long day on their journey to Howardsville. In my mind’s eye, I can see the turkeys walking the road and envision a covered wagon creaking up the side of the mountain before stopping for the night. The glow of a campfire and the aroma of supper cooking over the open fire makes a nostalgic picture that’s not hard to imagine.

Remains of an old canal lock at James River Visitor Center

Originally, the turnpike was built to allow the people of Shenandoah Valley to haul their goods to Howardsville, where it was put on boats bound for Richmond. A canal around the Falls of Richmond was completed in 1795, allowing travel west on the James River for a distance. As settlers increased and began traveling west, a better mode of transportation was needed. And so, the Kanawha Canal system was built paralleling the James River. The Kanawha was an important lifeline for Confederate troops during the Civil War.  The remains of Battery Creek Lock (1851-1880), located at the James River Visitor Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 63.6, was built in 1848 and the lock lowered or lifted boats 13 feet, allowing them passage to and from the river. At the time it was completed there were 90 locks with a total of 728 feet of lift between Richmond and Buchanan. The canal reached Howardsville sometime in 1834. The James River and the canal reached their closest point to Augusta County at the thriving little town of Howardsville on February 17, 1846. The General Assembly adopted an act incorporating a company to build a turnpike road from Howardsville to Roberts Ford, across the Rockfish River. It is not known who took the initiative for the project, but someone realized that the area that is now Nelson and Augusta Counties did not have a direct connection with the James River/Kanawha Canal system and consequently with Richmond and Tidewater Virginia. The road was built and controlled by the Howardsville and Rockfish Turnpike company. Shares of stock in the company were sold for $100 each, and 30 stockholders formed the original corporation. As word of the project grew, as many as 68 shareholders would be part of the company. Over the years, the road was expanded, but because of lack of funds and several construction disputes, the turnpike, which stretched 53.31 miles from Howardsville to Middlebrook in Augusta County, took almost ten years to finish. There were toll booths set up along the route, where gatekeepers would collect a fee from people traveling the turnpike. The tolls were used for road repairs.

By the time the road was completed in 1858, the railroad had come across the Blue Ridge via a tunnel at Afton and connected with the Maury River canal in Buena Vista, and the turnpike’s usefulness began to wane. The road was thought to be abandoned after the Civil War, but in 1860 boat traffic peaked when around 195 boats traversed the canal on a regular basis. In 1880, Mt. Torrey Furnace ceased operations and around 1887 the canal system ceased operations in Howardsville.

Early covered wagon

The suspected route of the turnpike from Howardsville to Middlebrook is as follows: From Howardsville the route follows Mt. Alto (Rt. 602) to Rt. 617 in Schuyler. From there by the old railroad bed (which was built on the old road) to Rockfish Station, and then it picks up Rt. 617 through “Old Stage Bridge.” At present Rt. 29, the route doglegs west to Rt. 619 through Twin Poplars to Rt. 810 (part from Poplar School to Rt. 810 which is no longer maintained). From Rt. 810 to Rt. 16 to near the junction of the south and north forks of the Rockfish River, where it followed the South fork. On to Lodebar, Rts. 612 and 613 in part. The route then follows near present Rt. 151 north, passing near the front of Rockfish Presbyterian Church, through Martin’s Store (present junction of Rts. 6 & 151, near Greenfield). The route continues along Rt. 151 to Rt. 709 near Proffet’s Chapel (present Chapel Hollow Road) and up the mountain on a portion that is no longer used, to Humpback Gap (under Humpback Rocks, touching the parking area on the east corner). It then parallels the Blue Ridge Parkway for a short ways and crosses on the east side to the junction with Rt. 610 (Augusta County) and proceeds through Sherando to Rt. 608 through Stuarts Draft, and on to Rt. 340 southwest on to Greenville. Although not as carefully researched, the company reported that on September 30, 1853, the road was completed from Stuarts Draft to a point near Middlebrook, intersecting the Brownsburg and Middlebrook Turnpikes. Mileage was 34.25 miles from Howardsville to Sherando, 14.06 miles from Sherando to Greenville, and 5 miles from Greenville to Middlebrook for a total of 53.31 miles or a round-trip total of over one hundred miles.

Special thanks to Eugene Ramsey and Mrs. Ruby Hamner for detailed information about the turnpike as well as other information obtained at the Waynesboro Library that was used in the May 1982 and the April 2002 issues of the Backroads magazine. Thanks also to Becky Howard of Nelson County Historical Society for providing more information about the Howardsville Turnpike taken from the Nelson County Library. 

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