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Posts Tagged ‘VA history’

A visit “downtown” always gives me a jolt because I feel I am peeking at the past.  Lexington, Virginia (no, not Kentucky!) was the county seat of Rockbridge in 1778, and is a place steeped in history and charm.  In fact, the historic core of the city is a Nationally Registered Historic District.

In 1993 a film crew, actors and actresses came here from Hollywood.   The town’s main streets were quickly transformed for the filming of a quick segment in the movie, Sommersby, starring Jodie Foster and Richard Gere. The story is of a confederate soldier returning to his wife and home at the end of the the Civil War.  If you have seen this movie, do you recall the hanging scene?  The hero’s ride to the gallows (supposedly in Richmond) was actually shot right here in Lexington.

In preparation for the scene, the city’s main streets were quickly covered with layers and layers of dirt and building facades were dramatically changed to reflect another era.  Long-skirted women moved around town, busy with their daily lives, and the streets were alive with the comings and goings of horse drawn wagons and carriages.  It was magic. For a moment as I stood on the sidelines, I actually felt I had really traveled back in time.

Store Sign Saved from the Movie Sommersby
Main Street Lexington, Virginia

Sign from the Movie, Sommersby

But 1993 was not the first time the streets of Lexington were transformed.   Am I treading where so many others have gone before or is this a different street entirely?

LOWERING MAIN STREET BY EIGHT TO TEN FEET!

Even before the American Civil War, downtown Lexington, Virginia was a city of steep hills with crude unpaved roads.   Goods and people were transported through town by horse drawn wagons.  Can you imagine the transportation problems encountered during wet weather when Virginia red clay roads became sinkable quagmires?

Lexington was known to bottleneck at the hilltop intersection of Main and Washington Street, because in inclement weather the clay road became almost impassable.  Goods were hauled in by large covered wagons which would stall when they sank into the mud up to the horses’ knees and sometimes to the axles.  In 1852 a project to lower the town’s hill by eight to ten feet was finally completed.  That project left the currently standing Alexander-Withrow House on Main Street with an extra floor (once a full basement, but now suspended as a third story), requiring the owners to reorient their entrance.  There were other such changes to entryways around town that can still be seen today.

Alexander-Withrow House
Was 2 Stories – Now 3

An Artists’ Cooperative in the Once Full Basement
of the Alexander-Withrow House

Below is a photograph I took of the Stonewall Jackson House.  It was the pre-Civil War home of Confederate General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson and was built in 1802.  If you join a docent-guided tour, you will come close to experiencing how life was before the war in an ordinary house in an ordinary small southern town.

Stonewall Jackson House
Front Entry No Longer at Street Level

From 1907 to 1954 the “Jackson House” was utilized as the area’s only hospital (the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Hospital).  In 1954 the house was converted to a museum, now open to the public.  In my time there as a docent I met many visitors who were born or were treated in the house when it was a hospital.

But, back to streets – do we even notice the uneven elevations of front doors in a city?  Why do I have to climb to get into one building and step down to enter another?  How did they lower the main streets by ten feet without modern machinery?  I have asked around, and although some people claim to have heard the story about lowering the streets in Lexington, they aren’t quite sure how or why and haven’t really noticed the cattywampus foundation levels.

Here’s a Front Door That Used to Be at Street Level

Entrance was Once at Street Level
Virginia Born & Bred Gift Store

I am drenched in images of downtown Lexington in the days of wagon travel and unpaved roads.  Surely city streets are as much a part of history as the wood stoves used for cooking, the rope beds, and the horse-hair-stuffed furniture found in restored homes and museums.  But every time I go downtown, I am struck by the unusual variations in entry way access.  Perhaps our roads and streets should be considered the infrastructure of the past and noted on city plaques to be remembered as they once were and for what they eventually became.

As I drive into downtown Lexington,  I am reminded that I am once again on a Time Traveler’s Road to a colorful past.

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The Natural Bridge
Rockbridge County, Virginia

“I sometimes think of building a little hermitage at the Natural Bridge (for it is my property) and of passing there a part of the year at least.”   ~Thomas Jefferson, former owner of the Natural Bridge to William Carmichael, 1786

It has just occurred to me that the name of this blog is Virginia Views and I haven’t developed any posts with a touristic flavor.   I never tried my hand at travel writing, so this may be a challenge.  It’s definitely a departure from memorable meanderings around the countryside.   Well, “What the heck!” That’s an old fashioned way of saying, “Take ur chances.”  So, here goes!

Not far from me in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is the awesome Natural Bridge.  The Bridge is an immense overpass formed by nature over hundreds of years ago.  It’s old!  Very Very old!  I still go there (and not just because I am THAT old!).  If you come for a visit, I will surely take you there too.  Ha!

Popular with Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries, the two biggest sights to see were Niagara Falls and you guessed it – Natural Bridge.  The latter has even been listed as one of the “Seven Natural Wonders of the World” and is one of the oldest tourist destinations in the U.S.  I repeat, “This bridge is OLD.”

EARLY BUNGEE JUMPING

To illustrate my point, note that guests at The Bridge (before the horseless carriage – the automobile) rode on horseback or by horse drawn carriage to explore the country side.  Braver guests could be lowered over the edge in a hexagonal steel cage to the accompaniment of a violinist!  Talk about an exciting vacation!  This could be the earliest precursor of bungee jumping!

GEORGE DIDN’T SLEEP HERE, OR DID HE?

AS the legend goes, in 1750 young George Washington surveyed The Bridge for Lord Fairfax.  They say he even carved his initials on the wall of the bridge and yes, by golly, you can see them from across the creek – “GW” – Gee Whiz!  That’s an old saying meaning “Wow!”

JEFFERSON OWNED A BRIDGE?

And this is not a legend.  This is true.   In 1774 Thomas Jefferson purchased 157 acres of land including The Natural Bridge from King George III of England for 20 shillings.  Wouldn’t you love to own a bridge?  It would be almost as good as owning an island.  Jefferson was a brilliant fellow, that’s for sure.

BUT NEVER MIND THE HISTORY,

PICTURE THIS…

A serene nature trail along Cedar Creek goes right through and underneath the great stone archway of the Magnificent Natural Bridge! You can amble along this trail that eventually leads to the waterfall that once helped to form the bridge.  It’s a lovely walk and when you look up, the tendency is to stop in awe.  Like a physical blow to the gut, there is a stunned, almost overwhelming reaction to the sight of this enormous structure.  You see, the creek carved out a gorge in the mountainous limestone terrain to form a natural arch 215 feet high with a span of 90 feet!

How’s this for my first travelogue?  If you come this way for a visit, don’t miss The Natural Bridge!

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