The Virginia Creeper Trail
The Virginia Creeper Trail is a 34-mile bike path that follows the Abingdon branch of the old Norfolk and Western Railway. The railroad, though rather short-lived, transformed the small, rural “frontier” of southwest Virginia into a bustling economic center for raw materials. The trail attracts over 250,000 people each year and is heralded as one of the most scenic bike paths in the nation.
From colonization through the mid-19th century, the landscape of southwest Virginia flourished with old growth forests and wild game, largely unadulterated by the sparse rural population. That is, until iron ore deposits were discovered beneath the mountains in the early 1880s. Prospectors anticipated a major iron boom in the region and precipitately organized companies to run the future mining and transportation operations. Abingdon Coal and Iron was one of those companies. Founded in 1887, the company purchased tracts of land that would eventually become the Virginia Creeper Trail.
However, before any track could be laid down, Abingdon Coal and Iron fell into bankruptcy. The aforementioned iron boom never came to fruition and the company had to abandon its landholdings. The land exchanged hands several times over the next few years until it was purchased in 1898 by Wilton E. Mingea, a developer for the Norfolk and Western (N&W) Railway. Mingea recognized the potential capital held within the region’s vast forests and decided to place stakes in the timber industry. He partnered with brothers John, Will, and Luther Hassinger—proprietors of a nearby lumber mill—and chartered the Virginia-Carolina Railway (V-C RR).
Between 1898 and 1900, over 16 miles of track were primed and placed on Mingea’s properties from Abingdon to Damascus, Virginia. Much of the work was performed by convict laborers, many of whom were African American. The treacherous nature of railroad labor and the hazardous conditions of the land resulted in numerous deaths during the line’s construction. Workers who died on the job were buried in unmarked graves next to the sections of track they tended, though it is unclear how many perished.
The Virginia-Carolina Railway officially opened on February 7, 1900, and experienced immediate financial success. The lucrativeness of the timber industry allowed the line to grow considerably in the years following its launch. By 1915, the original 16-mile track had grown to 75 miles in length, extending all the way to Elkland, North Carolina. Over 100 trestle bridges were constructed to support the tracks, 47 of which can still be crossed on the Creeper Trail today.
During its period of expansion, the railroad earned the nickname “The Virginia Creeper.” While the origin of this distinctive name is unknown, its ascription may be due to the train’s extremely slow speeds through the mountain passes…sometimes as slow as 5 mph! Others speculate that the tortuous layout of the tracks is akin to the appearance of the Virginia Creeper Vine. Whatever the reason, one thing remains certain: it was a slow, meandering journey along the Virginia-Carolina Railway.
In 1919, Mingea was bought out by Norfolk and Western and the V-C RR became its Abingdon branch. Unfortunately for N&W, their timing of purchase couldn’t have been any worse. The rapid deforestation that took place in the years preceding acquisition resulted in a shortage of exploitable raw materials during the 1920s. The timber industry suffered greatly, marked by the closure of the Hassinger Lumber Company in 1928. Norfolk and Western had to increasingly rely on passenger transport to generate what little revenue they could gather.
The Abingdon branch never saw the same prosperity as it did in its first two decades of existence. Weekly rail traffic dwindled from 40 trains in 1920 to only one freighter in the 1960s. Passenger service was suspended in 1962 and cargo trains stopped running in 1977.
Shortly after the branch’s closure, the seventeen-mile stretch of rail bed between Damascus and Abingdon was purchased by respective town governments, while eighteen miles of track running east of Damascus were acquired by the United States Forestry Service (due to state laws, the railroad properties in North Carolina were returned to the original owners and are not included on the current trail). During the 1980s, the USFS and local government entities worked conjointly to construct Virginia Creeper Trail. The project was dedicated as a National Recreational Trail in 1987 and officially opened to the public in 1989.
Needless to say, this trail has been on my bucket list for a while, and I was super excited to try it out! I arrived in Damascus the night prior to my journey (following my hike on Mount Rogers) and stayed over at Woodchuck’s Hostel. After a hearty, home-cooked breakfast, I headed to Sundog Outfitters to catch a shuttle to Whitetop Station, the eastern terminus of the trail. Unsurprisingly, I was the only one on the shuttle in early January—far-removed from the May-October peak season—but I was graced with mostly cloudy skies and 55-degree weather! Perfect conditions for biking!
The shuttle ride from Damascus to Whitetop took about 30 minutes and I arrived at the station shortly after 10 a.m. Whitetop Station (near Mile Marker 33) is the highest point on the trail, situated 3576 feet above sea level, and it’s pretty much an easy downhill ride through Damascus. It should also be noted that the eighteen-mile trip to Damascus lacks cell service, so make sure your bike is fully functional and that you’ve taken all safety precautions because you’re pretty much isolated out there.
Between Mile Markers 31 and 32, I passed an area known as The Offset—a discrepancy in the state boundary line between Virginia and Tennessee. The original boundary line followed the 36 degree 30 minute parallel and was surveyed in 1749 by Peter Jefferson, father of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s survey terminated at present-day Laurel Creek but was continued further west by Dr. Thomas Walker in 1779. Walker’s survey, however, started a couple miles northeast of Jefferson’s endpoint. The error wasn’t acknowledged until the survey party reached the Tennessee River, nearly 274 miles away from their start point. This mistake ignited a series of legal battles between Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky, regarding state boundaries and taxation privileges for over a century. Today, a small portion of eastern Tennessee bumps up into southern Virginia as a result of these disputes. For more information on this controversial surveying error and to learn quite literally how the states got their shapes, click the link at the top of the paragraph!
At Mile Marker 30, I reached Green Cove, the only original train station left on the Creeper Trail. The building was constructed in 1914 and also served as the small town’s post office, telegraph office, and general store. From Green Cove to Damascus, there really isn’t much else to note about the trail…just vast wilderness and a couple of very small towns (which are really a few houses just clustered together). This stretch of trail is incredibly peaceful and serene. I was completely isolated for a good thirteen miles, left to my thoughts along the Laurel Creek and its beautiful landscape.
Shortly before noon, I passed Mile Marker 17 and entered the town of Damascus. Damascus’s history can be traced back to the 1760s when pioneer Henry Mock and his family settled in the area. Mock constructed a sawmill and gristmill along Laurel Creek and the settlement was named Mock’s Mill. In 1886, the town was renamed Damascus (after the ancient affluent city) when John D. Imboden acquired the mills from the Mock family. Damascus thrived off of the lumber boom during the early 1900s and became a major center for wood processing and production. One report from the National Lumber Magazine in 1912 claimed Washington County, VA, produced more timber than the entire state of Pennsylvania! Most of the county’s raw materials were channeled through Damascus. The economic boom only lasted about 20 years before the forests were depleted. The mills closed soon thereafter and much of the town was desolate by the mid-20th century. Today, the town’s economy has been revitalized by the construction of recreational trails, such as the Virginia Creeper Trail and Appalachian Trail. In fact, Damascus is nicknamed “Trail Town, USA,” since it is the crossroads of six major recreational trails. Every May, the town celebrates Trail Days—a large festival that attracts tens of thousands of outdoor enthusiasts from across the nation.
I decided to grab a quick snack at Sundog Outfitters and was out pedaling again by 12:15 p.m. The last 16-mile stretch of trail between Damascus and Abingdon is relatively flat, ascending only 300 feet in altitude. One important thing to point out about this section of the Virginia Creeper is that much of the land is privately owned. The trail meanders its way through a few active cattle ranches and you will encounter numerous cattle gates on the path between Mile Markers 5 and 12. These gates are meant to keep the cows safe and confined to their owner’s property if they escape their pastures. You are allowed to go through them, just make sure that they close behind you.
At Mile Marker 9, I reached Alvarado Station, located near the confluence of the south and middle forks of the Holston River. Originally called Barron’s Depot, Alvarado was community for railroad workers, fit with a church, general store, and post office. At Mile Marker 6, I reached Trestle No. 7. This bridge originally constructed in the 1890s, spanned 636 feet, and towered 46 feet above the farmland below. Unfortunately, in April 2011, this colossal original railway structure was destroyed by a tornado. The new trestle that stands today took three years to build, spans 454 feet, and stands 30 feet high.
Not before long, I reached Abingdon, the western terminus of the Virginia Creeper Trail. I was greeted by Locomotive #433, one of only two Class M steam engines left in existence. These machines were the locomotive of choice in the early days of the railroad. However, as technologies improved, they were replaced by heavier, diesel-fueled engines and relegated to rail yard work. When steam operations ended on the branch in 1957, all of the Class M’s were scrapped except for #433, which was transferred to Bristol Station and retired the following year.
It’s a short walk from the trail terminus to the town’s historic district, and there is definitely no shortage of history to be learned in Abingdon! The land surrounding Abingdon was originally chartered to Dr. Thomas Walker (same guy from the Offset mishap) and the town that formed on his land was named Wolf Hills. According to legend, the name was given in the 1760s when Daniel Boone and his hunting party were attacked by a pack of wolves in the hills surrounding the small settlement.
In 1774, Captain Joseph Black, a resident of the growing frontier community, erected a small fort to protect the town’s citizens from Indian attacks. And not a moment too soon. In 1776, several hundred Cherokee Indians, led by Chief Dragging Canoe, went on the warpath against the settlers. Gruesome warfare ensued in the frontiers of Virginia and North Carolina. All settler properties were burned and all captives scalped and executed.
In July 1776, a detachment of Indians descended upon Wolf Hills. Their impending arrival prompted the nearly 400 settlers of Wolf Hills to seek refuge within the walls of Black’s Fort. Stronger fortifications were constructed by the townspeople before the small band of Indians sieged the town. Those who ventured out of Black’s Fort risked being harassed, ambushed, or even killed by the Indians. This hostile environment persisted for nearly two weeks until Dragging Canoe and his army were defeated by colonists at the Battle of Long Island Flats (near present-day Kingsport, TN). The small Indian force withdrew from Wolf Hills and peace was once again restored to the community, though occasional Indian attacks continued through the 1790s.
When Washington County was formed in January 1777, Black’s Fort was designated as the county’s first courthouse. One year later, the name Wolf Hills was changed to Abingdon. Joseph Black later served in the Virginia Militia and fought against the British at the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780. He moved Tennessee after the Revolution and was a delegate to the state’s First Constitutional Convention.
Abingdon has an intriguing Civil War history as well. In December 1864, Union General George Stoneman and 5,700 horse artillerists were given orders to destroy all the railroads and industrial foundries from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Saltville, Virginia. On the night of December 14, 1864, Stoneman’s army arrived in Abingdon and destroyed the town’s newspaper print and train depot. When the army departed the following morning, one man lingered behind—Captain James B. Wyatt of the 13th Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry, a former resident of Abingdon. Wyatt set fire to the county courthouse in an effort to fulfill a vendetta he had against an unnamed judge. While relishing in the destruction, Wyatt was spotted by two Confederate cavalrymen, who gave chase to the egregious officer. Wyatt tried to flee down a nearby street, but when he reared his horse, the steed slipped and fell on top of him, crushing Wyatt to death.
It took me a little under four hours to complete my 34-mile journey. The trail was absolutely gorgeous and I had the pleasure of having it all to myself for about 90% of my trek, though I’m sure that wouldn’t be the case during peak season. There are, however, a couple of criticisms I’d like to point out. First, the trail is incredibly rough during the first eight-or-so miles. Large rocks and divots are strewn across the path, making conditions rather hazardous for bikers not watching their speed. Now, this section of the trail is maintained by the USFS, so the government shutdown at the time may have prevented proper upkeep. Another criticism—and this is purely based on personal preference—is that the Virginia Creeper presents itself as more of a nature trail than a historic trail. The vast majority of markers on the trail profile the region’s wildlife and geology. Very few of them presented anything of historic value. I definitely had to conduct more extensive research than usual to provide historical perspectives in this post. One final critique is the lack of amenities and cell service along the trail (I didn’t really mind this “problem” but I’m sure others would). If you’re the type of person who needs to be on their phone constantly or desires points of interest every few miles, then you’ll have a tough time navigating this trail. Despite these minor inconveniences, my time on the trail was nothing short of fantastic! The solitude and serenity of the Virginia countryside is certainly its biggest draw, and there’s no wonder why the Virginia Creeper Trail is rated as one of the most picturesque rail-trails in America! Trail Rating: 7.5/10
Check out the links below to learn more about the Virginia Creeper Trail and its history:
Check out this link to see the story about Trestle 7 and pictures of its reconstruction!
Check out these resources found on Google Books:
McGuinn, Doug. Green Gold: The Story of the Hassinger Lumber Company of Konnarock, Virgina. Lulu.com. 2008.
McGuinn, Doug. The "Virginia Creeper": A Novel. Lulu.com. 2018
Davis, Edward, and Edward Morgan. The Virginia Creeper Trail Companion: Nature and History along Southwest Virginia's National Recreational Trail. The Overmountain Press. 1997.
If you want to see the Virginia Creeper Trail as a railroad, check out this archival footage!