A BRIEF HISTORY
Indian legend has it that the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley so awed the heavens that each star cast the brightest jewel from its own crown into the valley's limpid waters, there to sparkle and shine ever after in a gesture of celestial benediction.
Thus arose the valley's name: Shenandoah - Clear-Eyed Daughter of the Stars. The Valley was first viewed by English settlers in 1716 by then Virginia Governor Spottswood and a company of explorers, the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe, when they viewed it from the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Scotch-Irish and German immigrants coming from Pennsylvania began to settle the valley in the 1730's and established themselves along a well worn Indian path, known as the Great Wagon Road, that traversed the center of the valley. This road is still traveled today and is called The Valley Pike - U.S. Rt. 11. Indians from Georgia to Canada used this well watered path as a migratory route and hunting grounds. Resident tribes in the valley were probably sparsely settled in small villages and raised a few crops in addition to their traditional hunting, trapping and fishing.
Benjamin Borden received a royal grant, that included what is now Rockbridge County, with the stipulation that he would settle a hundred families there. He, therefore, made portions of this land available to settlers for the establishment of farms. The name of the county was derived from the "Rocky Bridge", an early reference to The Natural Bridge of Virginia, located in the southern portion of the county and one of the natural wonders of the world. The name of the county is unique as it has never been duplicated, to our knowledge, by any other county in the United States.
The shape of the county is in the form of an irregular rectangle stretching 32 miles down the Great Valley of Virginia. The Blue Ridge Mountains bound it on the east, and the Allegheny Mountains form its boundary on the west. Most of the county, as it appeared to early settlers, was comprised largely by meadows and savannas surrounded by beautifully rolling hills bordered by the two large mountain ranges. Soon farmsteads formed along the bottomlands and in the foothills began producing surplus grains and beef. Mills that processed wheat, barley, rye, and corn served as community business centers. Hunting and trapping supplemented farm production, and bounties for wolves and other predators helped produce cash.
With the arrival of the sawmill and the development of better methods of making brock came a half century of significant growth and development. Many of the buildings in and around the present City of Lexington date back to the early 19th century when men like John Jordan, ironmaster and engineer, built many substantial homes, bridges, mills, roadways, and iron furnaces throughout the county.
The coming of canals to the county spelled the end of bateau travel, By 1850, the James River and Kanawha Canal were completed through Balcony Falls. Starting from Glasgow, in the southern part of the county, the canal arrived at Lexington in 1852 and caused the creation of more facilities, such as warehouses, to take advantage of the convenience
The Civil War had a profound effect on the county. Union General Hunter burned Virginia Military Institute and pillaged Washington College yet spared most of Rockbridge County from the devastation that was experienced by some of our neighbors to the north.
Among the great men who have been born in Rockbridge County over the years are Cyrus McCormick (inventor of the reaper which revolutionized farming), Sam Houston (Senator of two states, trailblazer,governor & president of Texas ), "Big Foot" Wallace (well known frontiersman) and James A. Gibbs. Among those who have lived here are Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
Buena Vista originated from the unexpected construction of two railroads in 1880. Surrounding a junction, the resulting village of Green Forest, inhabited by approximately 100 persons, occupied the area now covered by Beech Avenue, Canal Street, Brook Street, Allegheny Avenue and Twenty Ninth Street. the laid off for the town amounted to about 900 acres. The streets, which were 75' wide, generally conformed to the cardinal points of the compass. The twenty six north-south avenues were given the names of trees while the east-west streets were numbered. The business quarter was established next to the river along the railroad tracks, while the residential section was established toward the Blue Ridge and spread somewhat onto some of its lower foothills. Under the management of A.T. Barclay, the Buena Vista Company was created in 1889 to promote the development of the iron resources of the vicinity, to utilize the water power of the North River (now known as the Maury River), and to create an industrial and manufacturing center. Within a year, Buena Vista was established as a town with a population of approximately 400 and all the promise of good things to come.
The construction of the Norfolk and Western Railroad helped trigger a great land boom in 1889 over the entire Valley. access to the industrial cities of the North would be easier and quicker. People eager to take advantage of the opportunities relocated to the town and by February 15, 1892 it had a population of 5,240 persons. The City of Buena Vista quickly became the center for this "boom" activity in the county. It was incorporated as a first class city in 1891 and thus became politically independent of Rockbridge County.
The attraction to Buena Vista was iron ore which was located in the foothills, The Buena Vista Company decided to build a furnace to convert pig iron to steel and opened an old mine which had been use for many years before by John Jordan. Though the furnace was operated for many years , the supply of local ore only lasted a short time and the furnace had to be fed by ores transported over a long distance. Subsequently, a fertilizer factory was built along with a glass plant, woolen mills, firebrick plant and a foundry. The Buena Vista Paper Mills manufactured from eight to ten tons of books, news and wrapping paper per day. The Buena Vista Cassimere Mills, producer of cassimere and woolen cloths, was capable of 650 yards per day of 3 quarter goods. The Marr Egg Crate Company manufactured its owner's patented invention designed for the safe transportation of eggs. The Wise Wagon Works, which was capable of producing 1,000 wagons per year, and the Wilbourne Saddle and Harness Factory, were also located in Buena Vista. The panic of 1893 signaled the end of the land boom. and like many other boom towns of the period, Buena Vista suffered.as a result. By that time it had over 5,000 residents and 19 industries employing 1,000 workers. Buena Vista's hearty people survived the crash better than most other towns that experienced the same disappointments. and has always managed to bounce back so that progress is steady toward the establishment of a viable economy. It has also been the victim over the years of mother nature's hand in the form of occasional flooding that has occurred mostly in the downtown business district. The Army Corps. of Engineers, however, is close to completing a floodwall project that will make such occurrences a thing of the past.
A hotel built by the Buena Vista Company in 1890 burned down and another was constructed shortly thereafter. While it never attracted many visitors, the hotel was eventually converted into the Southern Seminary Junior College for Women. This institution for higher learning, which served young ladies from all over the country for many years, became the Southern Virginia College for Women in the 1990s and recently was rejuvenated by the establishment of Southern Virginia University, a four year, co-educational institution for higher learning that will probably serve as the catalyst for another boom period for Buena Vista's economy.
In in the Spring of 1778. The name chosen by the Virginia Legislature for the new county seat was in honor of the first battle of the Revolutionary War, the battle of Lexington, Massachusetts, which has occurred three years earlier. It was created at the junction of the "Great Road" and the "Midland Trail". These two are now called the Valley Pike (U.S. Rt. 11) and Midland Trail (Rt. 60).
Thomas Jefferson, who owned a tract of land in the new county that included the Natural Bridge, is reported to have played a part in naming the county as well as the town of Lexington.
Lexington, which benefited from its location on the Great Wagon Road and close to the North River (now known as the Maury River), was originally 1,300 feet long and 900 feet wide. It was smaller than what today comprises the city's Central Business District (CBD). Four original interior blocks were created by the intersection of Henry, Washington and Nelson Streets by Randolph, Main and Jefferson Streets. All but one was named after prominent supporters of the nation's struggle for independence.
The City of Lexington was incorporated in 1841 and almost from the beginning its main industry was education. Liberty Hall Academy was established in 1790 just to the west of the town. When George Washington made a sizable gift to the college's endowment, the institution's name was changed to Washington College so as to honor the nation's first president. At the end of the Civil War the presidency of the college was offered to General Robert E. Lee who presided over it for the five years preceding his death. Upon his death the trustees renamed the school Washington & Lee University. Today, it enjoys a reputation as one of the finest coeducational centers of learning in the country. Its enrollment is in excess of 1600 undergraduates and 350 law students.
In 1816 the General Assembly of Virginia established three arsenals for the the housing of arms. One of these was built in Lexington. By the mid 1830's a prominent local attorney and graduate of Washington College, John T.L. Preston, advocated the establishment of a state military school at the arsenal. The Virginia Military Institute enrolled its first cadets in November of 1839 and prospered in the years prior to the Civil War. Among its faculty was Major Thomas J. Jackson, soon to become known as "Stonewall Jackson" and be noted as one of the South's most famous and revered heroes. The rigid military lifestyle of V.M.I. together with its reputation for requiring academic excellence in engineering, the sciences and liberal arts has earned it a national reputation for producing graduates who consistently go on to achievements in both the military and business worlds.
Lexington began to grow with the arrival of the railroad arrived between 1860 and 1880 as well as with the speculative real estate boom of the 1890's which saw the Lexington Land Company acquire 1,275 acres to the west of the town and along the railroad and river fronts. Lots were marketed in the spring and summer of 1891 but there were few buyers at the time. The stage was set, however, for the expansion which was to take place as the new century arrived.
A modern bridge was constructed over the Maury River in 1935, replacing an old covered bridge that had been there for years and could not handle the increased traffic the growing town was entertaining. The present Rt. 11 going uphill from the city was constructed and the Rt. 11 bypass was completed in 1956 giving driver the option of going around town rather than through it. Commercial shopping began to be constructed along East Nelson Street in the early 1960's and this area now serves as a second major commercial center within the city limits.
Interstate 81 (I-81) was constructed through the heart of the Shenandoah Valley in the early 1960's as well. Two Lexington exits were provide at that time. This replaced Rt.11 as the main north-south artery connecting various cities and towns in the Valley. It also meant that the valley had become a major conduit for truck and automobile traffic.
Interstate 64 (I-64) leading traffic from I-81, as it passed north of Lexington, to Charleston, West Virginia was completed in 1978. Lexington now finds itself conveniently located at the junction of two interstate highways giving the traveler easy north/south and east/west access.
Today, Lexington serves as the retail, cultural and historic center of Rockbridge County as well as the home of local government and the courts. The addition of major shopping centers both within its boundaries and to its north on U.S. Rt. 11 has changed the character of the retail trade within its CBD. Thanks to the Historic Lexington Foundation, Lexington Downtown Development Association and active Chamber of Commerce, Lexington's downtown is a thriving collection of shops and restaurants housed in restored buildings with brick sidewalks and old fashioned lantern street lamps that serve the many visitors and tourists that come here all year long. Because of the style of the city as well as its many historic attractions (such as the Stonewall Jackson House, Lee Chapel, Marshall Museum, historic walking tour and carriage rides), tourism is challenging education as the city's largest industry.
The entire town is well known for its outstanding architecture, record for historic preservation, friendly people, cleanliness and extremely low crime rate. In short, Lexington is a very unique and special place. But don't take our word for it. Visit us either in person or by clicking onto our photo gallery.
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
The advent of twentieth century technology , especially the automobile, would remove Rockbridge County from a century of comparative isolation with little change in occupations and customs. Autos brought betters trade routes and bridges as well as a greater variety of goods and services. Glasgow and Goshen were incorporated as towns.
The two world wars and great depression were brief interruptions in a period of relative prosperity. Trucking took over much of the railroad business, which closed primarily due to irreparable damage caused by flooding. By the 1970's, one-third of the county land area was devoted to agriculture. The remaining two thirds were in forest including parts of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Fairfield and Raphine have developed businesses for the refueling and repair of tractor trailers and numerous motels and hotels have sprung up along Rt. 11 to accommodate the steady flow of travelers, college parents and tourists that pass through our area. There are still plenty of areas of the county which still enjoy the pristine beauty as it was first discovered by the county's original inhabitants. Brownsburg and Collierstown provide the history buff with interesting and unique structures and sites to visit. There are plenty of places to see in addition to Natural Bridge: scenic Goshen Pass, McCormick Farm, and the Virginia Horse Center among many others.
And now, Rockbridge County is part of the greatest technology to come out of the last quarter of the twentieth century, the Internet. Be sure to "click around" the rest of "The Community" site to the left of this screen so you can see what products, services and locations our beautiful area has to offer. Maybe we'll see you downtown?