Across the Tip of Virginia
Hello once again, Don Milne here, your ROADTRIP-'62 ™ traveler. This is the first of our ROADTRIP-'62 ™ routes, and we are traveling US-23. We’re at Pound, Virginia this morning, eleven days out from the northern beginning point at Mackinaw City, Michigan. We are still heading south, using the roads of 1962. After several days of very small towns and 2-lane roads, today we reach a freeway and some real cities, right near the end of the day. We’ll still be in mountain country for several more days, though. As we drive this virtual roadtrip, if you see anything you like, get out on the road and enjoy it in person. This type of roadtrip may be fun, but there's nothing like the real thing! And, at any time, click on an underlined word below to learn more about the places on the trip. Once again, it’s time to buckle up and ease on down the road!
We’ll grab some breakfast, maybe at the Ol Town Diner, and then head south on Business US-23, which used to be just US-23 before the bypass was built. We join current US-23 for the trip to Wise, Virginia. This part of the trip is a divided highway, with the northbound traffic using the old road and 2 new lanes built for the southbound traffic. This was an inexpensive way to widen a road if little regrading was needed. At Wise, we could have stayed last night at the historic Inn at Wise back in 1962. This 1910 hotel was the only full-service hotel in the area from the time it opened until 1985. The last owner restored many of the antiques in the building, but it has now been closed for several years. Recently, the County of Wise purchased the building and has refurbished the Inn at Wise, and opened this gem as a hotel once again. Leaving Wise, we take the old road to Norton and Big Stone Gap, Virginia. At Norton, we meet US-58ALT: both it and US-58 stay completely within Virginia. US-58ALT now uses the same freeway as US-23 but it used to run along with us all the way. Out on the freeway you can share the road with coal trucks and spot a few other signs of mining activity, such as roadside loading areas and even a conveyor belt that passes over the road. In the days before trucks were required to be covered, coal was everywhere here. You might still find a few small chunks of coal on the road shoulders from the trucks.
In West Virginia, I once saw some homes with a coal seam in the backyard, where they dug their winter's fuel supply. I expected something similar down in the Norton, Virginia, area but it never existed here. The coal dust has largely been left in the past, and today in June when rhododendron bloom they cover the neighboring hills with color. And, you can get some spectacular views of these hills! Norton and the whole Powell River Valley have several spots to find wonderful views just up along the ridges from the valley. We're going to visit Flag Rock Recreation Area in Norton and High Knob Recreation Area in the Jefferson National Forest, both south of town on the same road. Flag Rock towers above Norton and has, appropriately, a U.S. flag planted at the top. High Knob is the highest point on our journey so far, at an elevation of 4,162 feet. There was an observation tower, originally a fire lookout tower built in the 1930s. Ironicly, the tower at High Knob was burned several years ago by an arsonist but a groundbreaking will be held in October to rebuild the tower. From here you can see several states from one panoramic point of view. It's barely 5 miles from US-23, up a very twisty mountain road so we’ll drive slowly. Afterwards I'll make a short stop at the much newer Powell Valley Overlook near Industrial Park Road, as we leave town on old US-23. Besides looking down on Norton, and up the valley, we can actually look back across the valley at Flag Rock from this site!
As we drive out the west side of Norton, we find another drive-in theatre, the Central Drive-In. Built in 1952, it’s surrounded by the Jefferson National Forest. From what I’ve read, it may have been closed at least part of the last few years but it's open now. Down the road at Appalachia, Virginia I’m going to drive around the Peake Building. It’s been featured in the Guiness Book of World Records because of the unusual arrangement of the street. Virginia Avenue wraps around the building going up a hill, so that the first, second and third floors are all accessible from the same street. This is not the only building remaining from the boom time of Appalachia, as the town is largely intact from its historic era of the late 1800's and early 1900's. Besides buildings, much coal mining equipment still remains. One truly huge piece of coal equipment can be seen from old US-23: the Westmoreland Coal Company’s Transloader. It loaded millions of tons of coal per year into waiting railroad cars, but has not been used for many years. Another railroad oddity nearby is Bee Rock Tunnel, which is listed in Ripley's Believe It or Not as the "Shortest Railroad Tunnel in the World". It's only 47 feet-7 inches long. For anyone who doesn't know, Ripley's Believe It or Not was a strip printed with newspaper comics that always highlighted unusual things. It was still in many papers in 1962, but I haven't seen it in years. They have provided the name for a number of museums of the unusual, however.
If you visited during the first week of August, you could enjoy Appalachia Coal / Railroad Days. It's an annual town-wide festival with arts and crafts, music, and good food, celebrating the history of Appalachia. In 2011, it was held from August 4-6. Anytime, there are a couple of short trails along US-23, just west of town, and we can even see our first waterfall of the trip! The Appalachia Trail is a short 1.3 mile excursion to Little Stone Mountain. There you can get some more views of the city, distant Black Mountain, and Kentucky. At the Roaring Branch Trail, which is found near where US-23 crosses the Powell River, the trail is too new for us. It was opened in the 1970s, built by the Youth Conservation Corps. However, from the road at the trailhead you can see a waterfall. Also, the short part of the trail that hugs the highway is along a steep cascade with lots of small waterfalls which are loud enough that you can’t hear each other talk if you’re hiking with someone. Makes a nice little stop without even taking the new trail. If you do venture farther, the first 3 miles are along a beautiful, steep-sided, limestone ravine. You'll get a taste of the Smoky Mountain region farther south, as the area is heavily wooded with 200-year old eastern hemlocks and rhododendron thickets along the stream.
The Southwest Virginia Museum in Big Stone Gap, Virginia was opened in 1948, so it would have been a must-see museum in 1962. The building is the late 1890s Rufus Ayers mansion and it would be good to visit even if it weren’t a museum. It is ornately decorated with hand-chiseled native sandstone, marble, and carved oak woodwork. Besides the usual collection of tools from the late 1800s, there is a nice grouping of old musical instruments and even a half-ton lump of coal. You’re not going to see that anywhere else! There is also an impressive display of quilts, one of my favorite things. The rest of the museum follows the entire history of southwest Virginia, with artifacts from all eras, from pre-historic through the 1890s. Mr. Ayers was one of a group of businessmen who settled here in the town’s boom days and made his fortune. Late in the 1870s, extensive coal and iron ore deposits were discovered in the region and northern financiers tried to transform Big Stone Gap into the "Pittsburgh of the South." Before we leave, we need lunch. There are several older restaurants in the heart of town; a couple that are unusual combinations of businesses. Knox’s Café and Grocery is one, and Mutual Drug and Cafeteria is the other. This store was featured in a recent novel: "Big Stone Gap" by Adriana Trigiani, which was released as a movie in 2015. It is one of the few remaining drug stores with a cafeteria type dining experience. I'm going to enjoy this old-fashioned soda fountain type meal.
At Duffield, Virgina, US-58 and US-421 head west together, and we turn east on the old road to Natural Tunnel State Park. In the 1880s it was declared the "Eighth Wonder of the World" and has long been attracting sightseers. Daniel Boone was among the first non-native Americans to see the tunnel. This 850-foot long tunnel was carved by water running underground through fault lines in the local limestone and only later did Stock Creek, which flows through it today, enter the cave. In 1890 the South Atlantic and Ohio Railroad made use of the natural formation, laying a railroad through the tunnel. For a long time it was operated as a tourist attraction by the Natural Tunnel Chasm and Caverns Corp., who were the owners in 1962. The State of Virginia bought it in 1967 and made it a state park. We will spend quite a while here today, hiking some of the seven walking trails. If you are here on a Saturday, you can take part in a guided canoe trip on the nearby Clinch River to see some caves. Also, the visitor’s center has historical, geological, and natural history displays and of course, there’s a gift shop. A chairlift opened in 1989 takes you to 230 feet down to the bottom, but in 1962 we would have had to walk the steps. Either way, the view is great all the way down and back!
You may have noticed that the mountains have changed to more rolling hills. These flatten out even more for the rest of the day as we enter the Great Valley of Virginia, which is actually a series of river valleys. These valleys of the Powell, Clinch, Holston and other rivers all align in the same direction and helped this region become settled before other nearby areas. After we leave the park, we rejoin US-58 and US-421 and all travel together to just past Gate City, Virginia. Like US-23, US-421 runs from inland sea to sea, as it travels from Michigan City, Indiana at US-20, to Fort Fisher, North Carolina. From Duffield to Gate City, US-23 is also approximately the route of the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail, one of the nation's most historic routes. It was blazed in 1775 from near Kingsport, Tennessee through the Cumberland Gap of Virginia into Kentucky. Hundreds of thousands of settlers followed it into the western frontier. The trail did not go through Natural Tunnel, but instead crossed over a natural bridge of land nearby. We also pass by a railroad yard and community named for Daniel Boone. He inspired stories in all media, from books to song to television. But we can’t yet watch Daniel Boone on TV, as the show premiered in 1964. Besides the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail, two other heritage trails use this part of US-23: the Crooked Road (Virginia’s Music Heritage Trail), and the Virginia Coal Heritage Trail. Country music speaks (sings?) for itself. The Virginia Coal Heritage Trail travels through southwestern Virgina, past both active and abandoned locations commemorating the important coal mining heritage of the area.
Rolling through the countryside, old US-23 stays within eyesight of the newer divided highway nearly all the way to Gate City, Virginia. Here we can see the Bush Mill, which is plenty old enough to have seen in 1962. This is a flour mill, built between 1896 and 1897. It’s the only restored operational mill in the region and is currently a school-based enterprise supported by the Nickelsville Ruritan Club, the Scott County School System, and others. All the workers are students at Twin Springs High School, who are learning how to work as a team and run their own business. When the mill is operating, you can buy a bag of stone ground corn meal, the same as you could for over 100 years. And speaking of food, if it were time for dinner we could stop at another old-fashioned drive-in, the Hob Nob Drive-In. They’ve been here over 50 years and up until 2006 they still had curb service, so we could have experienced that in 1962. I’ve heard their baked potato is at least a pound and can feed two people. Something that was probably not on the menu in 1962 is their ostrich burger.
Almost a soon as we enter Tennessee, we move from rural forests to cities. Kingsport, Tennessee is only 8 miles from Gate City and also has what appears to be an old drive-in restaurant: maybe there’s a bunch of these down south! The Campus Drive-In may have been here since at least 1962. It features fresh cut french fries, also worth a try. While driving through, we cross part of US-11. This route runs from the Canadian border at Rouses Point, New York to New Orleans, Louisiana, right down the spine of the Appalachian Mountains and it often runs near I-81, but it has not been eliminated. It splits into US-11E and US-11W in Bristol, Virginia, less than a mile north of the Tennessee-Virginia state line, so we are only crossing US-11W at this time. They rejoin at Knoxville, Tennessee and we will cross the other half before it does. Kingsport is a newer city than most in the area, laid out in 1917 by professional city planner Dr. John Nolan. But Kingsport does have several old sites to see, so let’s make a couple of stops here.
Bays Mountain Park has been a city park only since 1965, but the lake and surrounding land has been a city-owned reservoir since 1916, so we could have stopped in. It’s one of the largest city-owned parks, including over 3,000 acres as a nature preserve. You can take a barge ride on the lake for a quiet escape to nature or hike on over 22-miles of hiking trails. They even have a planetarium and a Raptor Center where you can learn about and observe hawks, owls, and falcons, though they are both much newer than the woods and lake. I’m taking a long hike, as I’m sure you’ve noticed I often do. In fact, I will not have time to make the next stop, so you go on ahead if you like. That next stop is the Netherland Inn, which has been here on the banks of the Holston River since 1818. It was build to serve the 1760s travelers who came by wagon down to the river bank where they built boats to migrate west. The site was originally a boat yard which shipped salt for William King and later the Netherland Inn was built as an inn and tavern on the Great Old Stage Road, the main route to Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee. Still later, this three-story building was a boarding house which was purchased in 1968 to be preserved as a historic house museum. If we wanted to stop by in 1962, I suppose we could have seen a room if we inquired about renting one. Today, it’s been furnished with period pieces to represent life as it was, using information from the diary of Richard Netherland, as well as other primary and secondary historic sources. There are also period boats in the boatyard.
Also nearby, only 2 miles east of old US-23 on Orebank Road, is Exchange Place. This is a working 1850s farmstead using Belgian draft horses. I don’t know the age, but as these types of outdoor museums are usually newer than 1962, we won’t be stopping. And even though Warriors Path State Park has been around since the early 1960s, I’ve had enough hiking for now so we won’t stop there either. The park is build around Fort Patrick Henry Lake, created by the Tennessee Valley Authority when it built Fort Patrick Henry Dam from 1951 to 1954. There are about a half dozen dams in this part of the state built by the Tennessee Valley Authority. This is a federal government agency that began building dams on the Tennessee River and tributaries to it back in 1933. The purpose was to supply electricity to these rural, poorly developed areas and mitigate the floods of the rivers. Most of the dams were completed before 1962, so the lakes in this area would have been here for us to see, and in some cases play in, at that time. Today the park has grown to include everything you would expect from a major urban park, plus an eighteen-hole golf course, a campground, and a water slide. Also within the park are the archaeological ruins of Childress Town, which once stood on the banks of the South Fork of the Holston River, and the Roller-Pettyjohn Mill. This mill operated only until 1955, so we couldn’t have seen it run in 1962. If I cared to try it, and I never have yet, Warriors Path State Park would be a good place to try horseback riding. The park stables host a good selection of riding horse and ponies, available to use on the trails through the woods.
Right here in Kingsport is also the home of a restaurant that got it’s start about the same time McDonald’s did. In 1952 Fred "Pal" Barger got an idea for a walk-up fast-food restaurant from one he saw in Austin, Texas. I took him awhile to get everything together but while researching equipment in 1955 he met Ray Kroc at the National Restaurant Convention in Chicago. Ray and associates showed him the first McDonald’s then under construction in Des Plaines, Illinios. In 1956 Pal opened his first Pal’s Sudden Service on Revere Street in Kingsport. It even looked much like an early McDonalds, with a large arch-shaped sign (though somewhat squared off) over the building and 19-cent hamburgers. With his #2 restaurant on Lynn Garden Drive, in 1958 he added the giant fiberglass hamburger man, and the fiberglass has been with Pal’s ever since. The original menu was much like McDonald’s also, except for an item called the Sauceburger, kind of a barbeque-like sauce covered hamburger. Another early favorite was the Chipped Ham, a sliced ham sandwich with mayo, lettuce and pickles. Slow to spread, he didn’t reach Johnson City until 1990, opening a restaurant with new fiberglass giant food décor on the outside. We’ll drive by some of those tomorrow. Today it’s a successful though small chain of 20 restaurants concentrated in Tennessee and southern Virginia. Let’s stop at the #2 location in Kingsport, as it’s right on US-23, and order some items from the old menu tonight. The giant is still standing too, offering his giant hamburger.
There seem to be a lot of older motels here, many not in the best of shape. I’m getting used to that as we travel on ROADTRIP-'62 ™ , but it makes is hard to find a place and I have to cheat and stay at newer motels too many nights. Maybe after dinner I’ll go back out to Warriors Path State Park to relax by the lake.
All photos by the author and Copyright © 2012 - Milne Enterprises, Inc., except as noted.
All other content Copyright © 2012 - Milne Enterprises, Inc.