On any tour of back roads and rural areas, you will encounter the unexpected. The ratio of unexpected-to-expected goes up considerably when you enter West Virginia, and that's a big part of the fun. Moreover, rural Virginia can hold its own in this regard, too. In addition to a multitude of historical and scenic sites, my WV-VA trip offered some of the best driving/riding roads I've been on in a long time.
Once again, for expediency, my route came mostly from Mad Maps. These guys haven't let me down yet. So, on July 3, I drove the all-conquering BMW Z4 southwest through West Virginia, returning northeast on the other side of the border in Virginia. If I had done this before 1863, of course, it would have all been Virginia. (After Virginia seceded from the U.S. at the start of the Civil War, its western part seceded from Virginia and was accepted as a new state in the Union.) And I suppose back then I would have been riding a mule named "Emmaline," rather than driving a sports car. You can only take these historical digressions so far…
I expected to see some interesting old bridges, so this one was no surprise.
Unexpectedly, however, I ran across the Hopewell Centre Friends (Quaker) Meeting House, which was built in 1759, has been in continuous operation ever since, and seems to be doing very well.
As I continued on toward West Virginia, I stopped at this tranquil farm setting and a nearby general store that was hanging on despite the poor economy.
My first planned destination was the cryptically named "Old Stone Church," near Green Springs, Virginia. While planning the trip, I found a very brief reference to the church but could not find its address in either Google Maps or Mapsource. After some effort, I spotted what looked like a church and graveyard using the satellite view of Google Maps. There was no clear indication of how to reach the church, however. Once I arrived in the vicinity, I found an actual paved road, slightly wider than the Z4, that looked promising, but it led to a farm with a "Whoa" stop sign. Pressing on, only slightly daunted by driving through the middle of a privately owned farm, I soon discovered that the road became progressively less promising.
Fortunately, I was moving vaguely in the direction of the point I'd marked on the GPS, based on an educated guess about the church's location—and, soon enough, there it was in the distance.
On closer view, the Old Stone Church was in very good shape, perhaps due to its 2-foot-thick stone walls. Best of all, it was open to the public on this Sunday morning. The church was built in 1820 and renovated in 1838 after a fire; it has remained unchanged ever since. The interior was very primitive, lacking any electricity or plumbing, but it featured a simple pulpit, plain wooden benches, and an ancient pump organ. The elaborate grave marker in the foreground, incidentally, has hundreds of seashells embedded in its stonework and in two glassed-in enclosures. Little is known about its origins or purpose.
Backtracking to civilization (such as it was), I continued along Green Spring Road—only to unexpectedly discover, with a start, that this was the same road on which I'd low-sided my beloved BMW R1200GS back in 2008, breaking 5 ribs and collapsing my left lung in the process (see "Number 35," A Play In One Act
). With just a momentary thought about what might have been, I motored on without stopping.
The next goal was to find Willow Shade, the childhood home of one Willa Cather, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author who lived from 1873 to 1947. The house was reputed to be just off of Route 50, but, once again, there was no clear indication of exactly where it was. A helpful highway marker appeared, and I was able to just see Willow Glade through the trees. Since it's a private residence, I had to settle for an end-on shot from the start of the driveway. Ms. Cather used this house as the setting for the end of her last novel (Sapphira and the Slave Girl
My work colleagues, Cathy and Kim, having noted the lack of historic Baptist churches in my last couple of reports, urged me to do better. In the little town of Gore, Virginia, only a mile or so from Willow Shade, I located the 1830 Hebron Baptist Church, which was holding a service when I arrived. During the Civil War it became impossible for the itinerant minister to reach the church, and Sidney Gore (Willa Cather's great aunt and after whom the town is named) took over, teaching Sunday School for young women and, following that class, teaching the Bible to African Americans (who had to sit in the gallery).
At the town of High View, I finally reached West Virginia (but only by about 100 feet, since High View sits virtually on the state border). There wasn't a whole lot left of the town. This appears to have been the general store:
Across Highway 259 sat an abandoned farm. Now, it's not at all uncommon to find an abandoned farm with a tractor in the front yard. But how often is it a Mitsubishi
A couple of years ago, BMWBMW regular and general man about town, Ted Verrill, asked if I'd ever run across a mountaintop resort hotel in eastern West Virginia. He had motorcycled there many years earlier but no longer remembered its name or location. Well, Ted, I found it! It's the Capon Springs Resort, near the intersection of Capon Spring Road and WV County Route 23/3. In the process of getting there, I found the Willow Chapel School, which closed in 1956 after operating for 62 years…
…and right across the street, the 1890 Octagon House.
Meanwhile, Ted's long-lost resort turned out to be quite a gem. Capon Springs is named from the Indian word "Cacapaon," meaning "healing waters." The springs were "discovered" in about 1765 by a hunter, who subsequently built a cabin there. His ailing wife is said to have been cured by the waters, and by the early 1800s the spot had became a resort. The Mountain House spa hotel was built in 1850 and could seat 600 guests for meals. The hotel's dedication was given by Daniel Webster. Mountain House was destroyed by fire in 1911, and the resort was largely abandoned until 1932, when renovation began by the new owners, Lou and Virginia Austin. Their descendants continue to operate the resort today. The Main House shown here was originally an 1887 annex to the Mountain House. Today, it serves as the primary guesthouse and dining rooms for the resort.
The Fairfax Cottage was previously known as Hygeia House, after the Greek goddess of healing. It sits immediately above the spring.
I strolled around the grounds, admiring the numerous cottages and other buildings—and taking a good, long drink from one of the several fountains fed by the spring. The water tasted quite good, and I'm sure I even felt better.
All in all, it was a beautiful spot for a long weekend of relaxation.
Connecting back to Highway 259, I spotted the Whipple Truss Bridge, which I had explored on motorcycle with The Intrepid Buzz some years ago. It continues to stand proudly over the Cacapon River—well, over most of it, anyway. As shown in the photo, it ends abruptly at the far stanchion. The bridge carried traffic along Capon Springs Road to Highway 259 as recently as 1991.
After reaching Wardensville, WV, I took the fast way on Interstate 55 to Moorefield, rather than the much more scenic and entertaining Old Route 55 (which I'd explored by bike and car on previous occasions). My next goal was the Smoke Hole Canyon. Although my venerable Dad had canoed the South Branch of the Potomac River in this area back in the days, I had somehow never managed to tour the canyon. Getting there offered the usual, expected scenic views.
And once at the Canyon, it did not fail to deliver its expected beauty. Over eons, the river has carved the canyon through the Allegheny Mountains, with Cave Mountain on the right and North Fork Mountain on the left, each climbing as high as 1,000 feet above the river.
Knowing next to nothing about Smoke Hole, I was pleasantly surprised to discover Eagle Rocks, named after Colonel William Eagle, a Revolutionary War veteran who settled in this area. (Incidentally, note the difference that lighting can make in a photo, with these two shots having been taken on opposite sides of Eagle Rocks. Some day I'll figure out how natural lighting works…)
The Potomac River water was surprisingly clear—and very inviting on this extra-hot day. There were numerous swimmers and tube-floaters enjoying the day.
Next to Shreve's Store (a landmark in its own right) is St. George's Church, built in about 1850. Remarkably, it, too, was open to anyone who felt like wandering in and looking around.
Retracing my steps along the river to Route 220, I stopped to get another photo of the canyon and promptly found this striking flower/bud/something on the riverbank. It was about 6 inches tall, and I'm counting on you, Jody (a.k.a. "Flash") to identify it for me!
There was very little room to pull over for pictures along Smoke Hole Road, so when an opportunity presented itself, I generally took it. (Sometimes it's best to not look up.)
The hamlet of Upper Tract was once the location of Fort Upper Tract, commissioned in 1756 by George Washington for defense during the French and Indian Wars. Despite its presence and that of nearby Fort Seybert, Indian attacks were a frequent occurrence, and in 1758 Washington ordered reinforcements to Upper Tract. They arrived just in time for another attack by Delaware and Shawnee Indians, led by a famed medicine man named Bemino. The attack resulted in the complete destruction of the fort and the death of all the militia and local residents and their families who had taken refuge in the fort. (The next day, Bemino and his warriors visited the same fate upon Fort Seybert and its residents.) Today, Upper Tract is a small town with, among features, this beautiful Presbyterian Church.
After Upper Tract, I made it all of a couple of miles before feeling compelled to photograph this elegantly decaying house:
But next up was Franklin, WV, where I turned onto the legendary Route 33, one of the twistiest and most exciting roads in all of the the state—which, since we're talking about West Virginia, is saying quite a lot. After trundling around back roads much of the day, the Z4 was altogether willing to enjoy some upper-RPM exercise and pronounced-but-still-prudent g-forces. The 40 miles to Harrisonburg, VA, feature an unending series of corners, mountains, and general fun. While my Z4 is just the 3.0i variety, with 215 horsepower, it also has the sport suspension, and it was a blast to give it a good run on the mostly empty road.
And it may have been the longest non-highway drive I've ever made in the Z4 without stopping to take a single picture…
With the day growing late and many miles to go, I grabbed only a quick photo of the Harrisonburg Statehouse…
…the down-on-its-luck Lacey Springs Grocery…
…and then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a sign for the Meems Bottom Covered Bridge. Who even knew that there were any covered bridges remaining in Virginia? (I didn't.) But, sure enough, there it was. At 204 feet, it's one of the longer covered bridges I've encountered. It was built in the late 1800s and, sadly, burned by vandals in 1976. It was rebuilt, using as many of the original timbers as possible. Incidentally, the first covered bridge at this location was also burned, in 1862, not by vandals but by Stonewall Jackson's troops as they battled with Union forces.
Under the bridge, two families were cooling off by putting their lawn chairs in the shallow North Fork of the Shenandoah River. Their Labrador Retriever enjoyed living up to his name, swimming downstream after a tennis ball and successfully bringing it back, over and over again. I have to admit that when he brought it back to me, and shook water off of his coat all over me, it felt pretty good.
With the sun starting to set, I found the Woodstock Courthouse in Woodstock, VA without any trouble. It was designed by Thomas Jefferson and constructed in 1795—making it one of the oldest courthouses still in use in the country.
The rest of Woodstock looked pretty interesting as well. But with the sun going down, rain about to fall, and the gas gauge pegged on "E," it was time to think about the timing of the rest of my trip.
Strasburg, like Woodstock, deserved more time and attention. But I was anxious to get to Belle Grove Plantation and Stephens City.
Belle Grove Plantation was built in the late 1700s by Isaac Hite and his wife Nelly Madison Hite (sister of future President James Madison).
Although the mansion is open to the public, by 7:30 PM on a rainy Sunday, I was a little late for a tour.
I wasn't able to figure out exactly what this colonial mini-duplex house might have been, but I could get closer to it than to Belle Grove, so here's its photo:
As I rushed on toward Stephens City, racing the setting sun, I (naturally) stopped immediately in Middletown for more photos. The St. Thomas Chapel was as stately as they come, dating back to 1834. During the Civil War, it served as a hospital for wounded Confederate troops—until the Union army arrived, turned out the wounded Rebels, burned the interior, knocked out the windows, and generally left only the four walls standing. Nice guys.
Middletown also featured some interesting old homes and stores, with this one being my favorite:
As it happens, I spotted a highway marker in downtown Middletown, which read "One mile west is the old stone fort, built about 1755. The northern end is loop-holed for defense against indians." Now, faithful readers, despite my desire to reach Stephens City and its many historic buildings before dark, how could any red-blooded tourist fail to try and find an old stone fort? I certainly couldn't, despite the vague indication of the fort's location. But, after consulting the GPS, I set off with great hope and optimism on Capon Springs Turnpike. (As far as I can tell, this "turnpike" never goes anywhere near Capon Springs, WV. Go figure.)
I was encouraged by the Zumo GPS showing a little dot marked "Nieswander's Fort." This couldn't be a coincidence. But at the appointed spot, which agreed closely with the "one mile west" directions, there was no sign of a fort or even a pile of stones. Nothing. After checking further up the road and going back to Middletown looking even more carefully into the lengthening shadows, nothing. I returned to the spot on the Zumo and parked. Still no sign of a fort in any direction.
But on the adjacent hillside, there was a fenced-in area and a sign identifying it as "an unknown cemetery … believed to be the old Nieswander family plot" with as many as 15-20 graves. Although archaeological work is still continuing, the simple stones in the plot are apparently individual gravestones.
That was all I could find that evening. But, back home, a considerable amount of online searching eventually led me to the Library of Congress, which had a 1941 report of a "fortified house" built in about 1755 and typical of the Shenandoah Valley "forts" of the time. Specifically, the basement was built as a defensive enclosure against Indian attacks, with no windows and only "a small splayed opening at shoulder height said to be a rifle loop hole. In the center is a branched wrought iron swivel which served the double purpose of preventing small animals from entering and apparently as a rifle rest. In the foundation of the chimney is a pool served by a spring. This was arranged so drinking water would be available in times of siege." Best of all, the Library had pictures. As indicated, the stone house was not in terrific shape even in 1941, and other evidence suggests that it has since been demolished, with some stone rubble remaining as recently as 1995. An unexpected mystery solved, more or less.
Meanwhile, back in Virginia on July 3, with some disappointment at my failure to locate the old stone fort, I pressed on for Stephens City, arriving as the sun had just about disappeared. First settled in 1732 by Peter Stephens, Stephens City was chartered in 1758, making it the second-oldest town in the Shenandoah Valley. Among other industry, it became well-known for its 13 wagon-making businesses. Today, the town stands out because so much of it is original and largely unchanged despite the March o' Time. This "Newtown-Stephensburg" wagon is owned today by Colonial Williamsburg.
With too little time and not enough light, I whizzed around trying to find and photograph some of the key buildings. I believe this was the Samuel Hulls Store. (Note the reflection of the setting sun in its window.) During the Civil War, there was considerable fighting around Stephens City. After Confederate Colonel Harry Gilmore attacked a Union wagon train within the town, killing several of the soldiers and capturing many, Union General David Hunter ordered the town burned in retribution. Hearing of this threat, Colonel Gilmore nailed a letter to Hulls' store advising the General that 41 Union prisoners would be hanged if the town were burned. General Hunter ordered Major Joseph Stearns to burn Stephens City anyway. Upon the Major's arrival, however, he saw a town full of despairing old men, women, and children—and he disobeyed the order, thus sparing their homes and businesses.
This was Jon Cryder's house, who was one of the town's wagon makers and purchased this land in 1798.
Captain John Bell Tilden built "Bell Air" in 1788. He was a doctor, minister, and veteran of the Revolutionary War.
With the last of the available light, I photographed the 1800 home of George Ritenour, a tanner.
If you're inclined to visit Stephens City, there's a detailed walking tour available at http://stephenscity.vi.virginia.gov/pdf/Walking%20Tour.pdf
. Try to arrive earlier than 8:45 PM…
Between the expected and unexpected things to see and do, it ended up being an 8:00 AM to 10:30 PM kind of day, with roughly 500 miles of getting there / touring / getting back. And I'd do it again tomorrow!