Tour 13 -- Fincastle to Buchanan: Southern Gateway to the Shenandoah Valley
A preserved 1800s village, an abandoned canal, and two C&O railroad towns
This tour begins in Fincastle, in the southernmost part of the Shenandoah Valley. It’s about 22 miles north of Roanoke, which makes a good base for a weekend trip. It’s about three and a half hours from Raleigh, NC, or Charleston, WV, and about two and a half hours from Winston-Salem, NC. It’s also an easy side trip from I-81 for those heading north or south on that main highway, worth a stop if you are passing through the area with a couple of hours to spare.
Most historians consider this area of this tour to be the Shenandoah Valley’s southern boundary, even though it is far south of the Shenandoah River watershed. That’s because until the 1880s—when the railroads came along and bypassed it—Fincastle was once the area’s largest and most important city. Today it is a sleepy but attractive little town with well-preserved old churches, homes, and buildings.
Fincastle was the gateway to the west beginning in the 1700s, a stopover on the way to the famed Cumberland Gap. It is where William Clark, of Lewis and Clark expedition fame, picked up supplies on his way to meet Meriwether Lewis in 1803; he also met his future wife here, at a home the tour route passes on the way into town. It is the county seat of Botetourt (pronounced “bot-e-tot”) County, which was formed in 1770 and extended all the way to the Mississippi River.
The town itself—with only 450 residents today—was founded by an Irish immigrant in 1740. It’s a great place to view various styles of American architecture, with structures from the late 1700s to the early 1900s still in use. It has a distinctive “skyline”—five white steeples, one on the courthouse and four on historic old churches. Several buildings have stood on the spot of the current courthouse, with the present building erected in the 1970s. It was designed to look like the 1818 building thought to have been designed by Thomas Jefferson. A brief walking tour is provided in Touring the Shenandoah Valley Backroads; guided walking tours can be scheduled through Historic Fincastle, Inc.
The tour heads north to Covington, stopping to see the picturesque 1857 Humpback Bridge, the oldest of Virginia’s eight remaining covered bridges. Covington grew because the railroad came through here in 1867, putting it on a major east-west route. It also has many attractive old homes and buildings from various time periods. The recently restored 1908 Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Depot makes for an interesting stop, with changing exhibits of local history.
The next stop is Clifton Forge, which also grew because of the railroad. By the 1920s, more than 100 trains a day roared into town (there is still an Amtrak station here, on the Cardinal line, connecting New York City and Chicago). It is the headquarters of the Chesapeake and Ohio Historical Society and the home of the C&O Railway Heritage Center, an attractive, friendly museum that tells the story of one of America’s favorite railroads—its trademark was the sleepy Chessie kitten. Outside the museum are restored rail cars and a replica steam train that offers rides on a track around the museum.
The tour passes the last lock of the James River and Kanawha Canal near Eagle Rock and ends in Buchanan, on U.S. 11, the Valley Pike, near I-81. The canal reached its end point in Buchanan, though it was meant to go all the way to Ohio. The town prospered from the 1850s until a flood destroyed the canal in 1877. By then, the railroads had taken away most of the canal business anyway.
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