Tour 12 -- Lexington and Natural Bridge
Jefferson’s stone bridge, an old canal, and two historic colleges
Lexington is an attractive and historic college town in the southern part of the Shenandoah Valley. With plenty to see and do, it makes a good weekend (or longer) destination. It is about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Richmond; about three hours from Northern Virginia; and less than four hours from Norfolk or from Raleigh, North Carolina. Lexington was first settled in the 1770s and is the county seat of Rockbridge County, named for its famous bridge—Natural Bridge—once owned by Thomas Jefferson. This tour passes through several 1890s Valley boom towns on the North River Canal, beginning and ending on I-81.
The tour begins in Natural Bridge, a town named for the fascinating geologic formation that was formed here millions of years ago when a cavern collapsed, leaving the harder rocks behind. It really is a bridge—U.S. 11, the Valley Pike, runs on top, though you can’t tell when you are driving over it.
The route continues into Glasgow, near where the North River Canal from Lexington hooked up with the James River and Kanawha Canal, the purpose of which was to connect Richmond with the Ohio River. About 200 miles were built in the 1800s before the canal was abandoned when the railroads came along. Glasgow had high hopes of becoming a major shipping point, until the boom-and-bust-years of the 1890s turned its dreams to dust.
The next stop is Buena Vista, another town created by developers in the late 1800s. A beautiful old resort hotel from that era is now the main building of Southern Virginia University, affiliated with the Latter-Day Saints. Just outside town, on the way to Lexington, is the Ben Salem Wayside, where you can view a well-preserved lock from the North River Canal.
Lexington, which was named after the first battle of the American Revolution, is home to two famous Virginia schools: Virginia Military Academy (VMI) and Washington and Lee University. Touring the Shenandoah Valley Backroads contains a walking tour that includes the historic downtown area as well as these campuses, which sit next to each other.
The grounds of Lee Chapel, on the campus of Washington and Lee, contains the tomb of General Robert E. Lee (who was president of the university after the Civil War) and that of his father, Revolutionary War patriot Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee.
On the grounds of VMI is the VMI Museum, which tells the story of the nation’s first state-sponsored military college. Also on the campus is the George C. Marshall Museum, which honors the 1901 VMI graduate who went on to become a five-star Army general during World War II, U.S. Secretary of State, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his plan to spur economic recovery in Europe after WWII.
Lexington’s historic downtown has many lovely old homes and buildings, including the Stonewall Jackson House, the residence of the famous Civil War general when he taught at VMI before the Civil War. The town has the stylish shops and restaurants one would expect in a college town—including two independent bookstores and a gourmet chocolate shop.
To learn more about the Shenandoah Valley’s history and its scenic backroads, and for detailed driving directions and more in-depth information for the tours on this website, get a copy of Touring the Shenandoah Valley Backroads (2nd ed., 2010; ISBN 978-0-89587-3-866; $19.95) by Andrea Sutcliffe.
It’s available through your favorite bookseller (go to www.indieBound.com to find an independent bookstore near you), at many Shenandoah Valley gift shops and museum stores, or directly from the publisher, John F. Blair www.blairpub.com, 1-800-222-9796.
Original text and photographs for the tour descriptions on this website © 2012 by Andrea Sutcliffe