Afton: Mountain, Myth, Legend

Crossing Afton Mountain is like crossing the Mississippi, a divide between the east and west of Virginia.

Many routes converge where Afton Mountain cradles Rockfish Gap. Highways and scenic byways intersect at Virginia’s main passage across the Blue Ridge. Interstate 64 and its predecessor, US 250, meet at the top of the gap. The Skyline Drive joins the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost Zero on an overpass above the highways.

Among the 6 million or so people traveling through Rockfish Gap each year are hikers on the Appalachian Trail who share the Parkway bridge with retirees in RVs. Cyclists struggle up the mountain on National Bike Route 76, mapped from Yorktown, Virginia, to Astoria, Oregon. Migrating hawks, butterflies and dragonflies float across the gap on updrafts while CSX trains rumble through the tunnel several hundred feet below.

Driving west on Interstate 64 from Charlottesville, as you head up the mountain, the pastoral beauty of Rockfish Valley unfolds on the left. Motorists heading the other way are tempted to pull over at two irresistible overlooks. On the right, the steep rock face is a cross section of the mountain, its geologic history dissected by dynamite and heavy machinery. At the top of Rockfish Gap, the view is of the vast Shenandoah Valley, with Waynesboro at the foot of the mountain on the right.

The drop-dead gorgeous scenery disappears when clouds blanket the mountain. Fog and ice make for a white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel. VDOT has addressed safety by installing expensive airport runway lights along the 64 roadway to guide motorists. Even so, Afton has been the scene of multi-car accidents that have taken hours to untangle and required school buses to transport the less seriously injured to area hospitals.

The geometry of Rockfish Gap makes it among the windiest places in the United States, according to climatologist Patrick Michaels. “The Blue Ridge has a fairly uniform maximum height (over 3,000 feet) from the James River gap to Front Royal. Rockfish Gap, with an altitude of about 1,900 feet, is one of the few places the prevailing westerly winds can rush through. It’s a small drain, but it’s the largest along the Blue Ridge and it creates some windy places downstream in Albemarle County.”


Afton rises from three counties, Albemarle, Augusta and Nelson, but the greater part of it is in Nelson. It is one of a line of mainly nameless peaks that make up the Blue Ridge, a wall of mountains running northeast to southwest across central Virginia from Roanoke to the Potomac River. These are old mountains, created a few hundred million years ago in the Paleozoic Era. The benign appearance of the weathered chain belies its tumultuous birth.

“What we’re seeing now are the remains of what was once a majestic range, with altitudes probably comparable to the Rockies,” explains Thomas Biggs, an environmental sciences professor at UVA. “Virginia had an amazingly violent history that included several continental collisions, the most recent of which was with North Africa some 300 million years ago. The Blue Ridge, Virginia’s geologic backbone, was the product of an event that moved rocks from Richmond to Afton.”

Long before the folding and faulting that pushed up the Blue Ridge, huge lava flows rose through fissures in the earth’s crust. They formed a layer of volcanic rock, or basalt, that was thousands of feet thick and ran ribbon-like from Lynchburg to Maryland. Heat and pressure metamorphosed the basalt into a greenstone named for Maryland’s Catoctin Mountain.

Blasting the mountain to build Interstate 64 exposed that volcanic component, according to geologist Michael Upchurch. “The distinctive gray-green rock face is Catoctin greenstone. The green color comes from the minerals chlorite and epidote. Many of the roads and highways in this part of Virginia exhibit that green tint because of the use of Catoctin greenstone in the asphalt.” Despite its color, greenstone weathers into a rust red soil because of its high iron content.

Doug Coleman, executive director of The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen, sees more than beautiful scenery when he surveys the world from Rockfish Gap. He sees three of Virginia’s five geologic provinces. “Afton Mountain is on the western edge of the Blue Ridge Geologic Province, identified by underlying rock formations that extend 20 miles east to Charlottesville. On a clear day, you can look east beyond Charlottesville and see the Piedmont Province. Just west is the Valley and Ridge Province. Only the Appalachian Plateau in the southwest corner of the state and the Coastal Plain are too far away to see.”


Game trails trod by buffalo and elk were the first paths across the Blue Ridge, according to Ann Miller, senior research scientist with the Virginia Transportation Research Council. “Animals have a much better feel for the rise than people do. They’ll always find the easiest way up a slope,” Miller explains. Native Americans followed the game routes, and European settlers widened those trails to accommodate wagons. “The 18th-century road over Afton was comparable to a logging road, and wheeled vehicles could use it only part of the year,” Miller continues. “Mud made it impassable.”

Small bands of Paleoindians likely crossed Rockfish Gap about 10,000 years ago. By the Late Woodland period (900 to 1600 AD), Monacan villages were established in the floodplains of the James and its tributaries between the Blue Ridge and the fall line. Monacan culture was similar to that of the Powhatans, who lived to the east in the coastal plain. The two tribes were frequently at war until a common enemy, the English colonists, made them allies. Contact with the English proved fatal. By 1699, the Monacans had largely disappeared, their numbers reduced by war and disease. A century later the buffalo had also vanished.

Roads were low priority for the first English colonists because Tidewater’s rivers and creeks were their highways. Only as they moved past the fall line into the Piedmont did road building and maintenance become part of the public discourse.

The story was different for the Scots-Irish and Germans who began settling the Shenandoah Valley in the mid-18th century. They came to Virginia by way of Philadelphia, a Quaker city known for its tolerance for religious dissenters, and made their way across Pennsylvania and into the Shenandoah Valley along the Great Wagon Road.

The Scots-Irish were Lowland Scots whose ancestors had migrated to Ulster after the English had put down a rebellion of Irish landowners and seized their property in 1608. Attracted by economic opportunity, the transplanted Presbyterian Scots soon chafed under restrictions put upon them by powerful Anglican bishops. Word of new lands in America and a series of famines inspired a few hundred thousand Ulster Scots to set sail from Belfast in the 18th century.

Old enmities from the British Isles were so ingrained in the Ulster Scots that they carried over into the New World. The Blue Ridge symbolized a cultural as well as geographic dividing line. The English in eastern Virginia had created a plantation economy dependent on the use of slaves. The Scots-Irish, like other Shenandoah Valley settlers, tended to be small farmers who worked their own land. Presbyterians and other dissenting religious groups resented that Virginia’s Anglican churches were tax-supported.

Acknowledging their differences and class animosities, the Scots-Irish referred to themselves and other backcountry settlers as “Cohees” and the English to the east as “Tuckahoes.” The first Scots-Irish settlers crossed Rockfish Gap and settled the eastern flanks of the Blue Ridge before English settlers made their way to the foothills. The Rockfish meeting house, established in 1746, was the first Presbyterian place of worship in the area.

The impetus for a road at Rockfish Gap came from farmers in the Shenandoah Valley eager to establish a trade connection with Richmond. The Blue Ridge was such a formidable obstacle for heavy-laden wagons that it was easier for Valley farmers to haul their cash crops all the way to Philadelphia or Baltimore than to cross the mountains. A road to the capital would also make it easier for frontier dwellers to have a voice in the colony’s politics. The first crude road over Rockfish Gap was cleared in the mid-18th century.

Rockfish Gap saved the Virginia General Assembly in the Revolutionary War. As British forces advanced to Richmond, the legislators and Governor Thomas Jefferson fell back to Charlottesville. General Charles Cornwallis ordered Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton, nicknamed “Bloody Tarleton” for his ruthlessness, to capture the colony’s leaders, but, forewarned, they fled through the gap to Staunton in June, 1781. The Augusta militia guarded the gap to keep the British from entering the Shenandoah Valley. Later that summer, the militia joined the Continental forces that were pushing Cornwallis toward Yorktown and his October surrender.

Terrible road conditions made wayside inns and taverns a welcome respite for travelers. The Rockfish Inn on the western edge of the gap was the only accommodation for miles around when it opened in 1770. It was later expanded and its name changed to the Mountain Top Inn, site of a propitious meeting in 1818 in which the University of Virginia’s location was chosen.

Twenty-four of the Commonwealth’s luminaries were appointed to a commission to decide whether the proposed state university should be in Staunton, Lexington or Charlottesville. Former presidents Jefferson and Madison, President Monroe and Chief Justice John Marshall were among those who voted for Charlottesville, where Jefferson’s Central College was already under construction. To bolster the argument for his hometown, Jefferson produced a list of octogenarian neighbors as proof of the salubrious climate of Albemarle County.


Of all the men who visited Afton, none made a greater mark than Claudius Crozet. Born and educated in France, Crozet was an army officer who came to the U.S. after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. He taught math at West Point for seven years before accepting the position of chief engineer and surveyor for Virginia’s newly established Public Works Department in 1823. Today’s state employees proudly refer to Crozet as the first head of VDOT.

Crozet believed the Commonwealth’s future prosperity lay in building railroads instead of canals. When the General Assembly voted for a canal system, Crozet departed for Louisiana. Asked to return to Virginia in 1837, he was instrumental in the founding of VMI. By 1849, the General Assembly had come around to Crozet’s way of thinking and directed him to build a rail line connecting Albemarle and Augusta Counties.

Crozet’s plan called for a series of four tunnels, three through the foothills on the eastern approach to the Blue Ridge and the fourth through Afton. The Afton tunnel was the most ambitious project. At 4,281 feet, it was the world’s longest tunnel. It remained in operation from 1858 until 1944 when a new tunnel was constructed to accommodate larger trains.

Gene Whitesell, a Roanoke landscape architect and Staunton native, has been captivated with Crozet’s engineering masterpiece ever since exploring it as a teenager. “You can still see the drill bits broken off in the rock walls,” he says. “For six years, three shifts worked around the clock to dig this. The miners had only hand drills, chisels, pick axes and black powder to excavate solid rock. Their progress was only a couple of feet a day. Crozet had to deal with feuding groups of Irish miners, a cholera outbreak and a constantly dangerous and unhealthy work environment.”

Tunneling started from both sides of the mountain, Whitesell continues. “When they ‘holed through’ on Christmas Day, 1856, they found the alignment of the two tunnels was only half-an-inch off, cementing Crozet’s reputation as one of the greatest engineers in the world. It took two more years to lay the track and brick the walls. The first train rolled through in April, 1858.”

The village of Afton, located near the east end of the tunnel and a few hundred feet below Rockfish Gap, was established in 1859 with a railroad depot and a post office. Local tradition has it that Crozet suggested the name to railroad officials. The likely inspiration was a stream, named Little Afton after the Scottish river, in nearby Brooksville where Crozet had his headquarters. In local usage, the name of the village was eventually extended to include the mountain.


Within three years after Virginia Central trains began serving the area, the Civil War put visions of prosperity on hold. The railroad had enormous strategic importance to both sides. The Confederates used it to carry food and other supplies from the Shenandoah Valley to Richmond and transport troops. The Union forces wanted to destroy it.

Stonewall Jackson, in his Valley Campaign in the spring of 1862, used his 16,000 troops to keep the four-times-larger Union forces frustrated and off balance, only attacking when the odds were heavily in his favor. Col. Keith Gibson, director of the VMI Museum system, says Jackson explained his tactics in a conversation with a fellow officer early in the war: “Always mystify, mislead and surprise the enemy.”

Jackson signaled every intention of abandoning the Shenandoah Valley in early May and moving his army to defend Richmond. He ordered his army to cross the Blue Ridge at Brown’s Gap, about 20 miles north of Afton. Surprising even his own men, Jackson had a train waiting at the Mechum’s River depot to shuttle part of his forces through Crozet’s tunnel and back to Staunton. The remainder of his army marched to Afton to board the returning train while the heavy artillery recrossed the Blue Ridge at Rockfish Gap.

“A week later, on May 8, Jackson defeated a Union command under General Robert Milroy at McDowell,” Gibson concludes. “Jackson scribbled a note to Richmond: ‘God blessed our arms with victory.’”

By the end of hostilities, the Virginia Central was bankrupt, with only a few miles of usable track. Needing capital to rebuild, railway officials approached Collis P. Huntington, a California entrepreneur heavily involved in building the Central Pacific portion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Huntington financed extending the Virginia Central to the Ohio River, but his company went into receivership before he could connect the Virginia line to his western railroads. In 1888, the company was reorganized with new money and a new name. Melville E. Ingalls was named president of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway just about the time the West Virginia coalfields opened. The resuscitated railroad ushered in Afton’s heyday.

Orchards on Afton Mountain generated considerable business for the railroad. There were dozens of apple and peach orchards sited to take advantage of thermal belts, a felicitous phenomenon related to topography and other factors that results in a longer growing season. On clear, calm nights, cold air flows down from the top of the mountain and pools in low-lying areas. A thermal belt is generally warmer than higher or lower elevations on the same slope because the cold air drains off into frost pockets.

“An old map showing where orchards were located would show the thermal belt on Afton,” explains Bruce Hayden, former chair of UVA’s environmental sciences department. “Thomas Jefferson knew about thermal belts. That’s probably why he picked the spot where he built Monticello. The growing season there is more like Norfolk than Charlottesville, about a month longer.”

No fruit growing on Afton attained the fame enjoyed by the Albemarle pippin. Thomas Jefferson prized the flavor and aroma of the squatty green apple. In 1837, Andrew Stephenson, an Albemarle native and the U.S. ambassador to England, presented a basket of Albemarle pippins to Queen Victoria. The monarch was so taken with the fruit that she exempted Virginia apples from import duties.

The farm on Afton Mountain that supplied the queen’s favored fruit capitalized on its new cachet by changing its name to Royal Orchard. Afton depot shipped staggering quantities of apples from dozens of orchards. Virginia apples lost their privileged status in the 1930s when British import duties were imposed and apple production declined.


Afton was a popular resort in the latter part of the 19th century. The Mountain Top Inn had rooms and guest cottages for 130 guests, who could enjoy a spring-fed lake and views from the gap. Other visitors seeking respite from the summer heat stayed in the village of Afton at the Afton House resort. James Robert Goodloe built the inn in 1869 and operated it until 1925. Amenities included two dining rooms, a ballroom, tennis courts and horseback riding. The original Afton House burned in 1963, and a smaller new building was erected on the site. Using the same name, it operates as a bed and breakfast.

Many Richmonders loved to spend the summer on Afton, but two built palatial homes. In 1903, a Richmond couple purchased Royal Orchard for $3,900. Frederic Scott, a Petersburg native, was a founder of the Scott and Stringfellow brokerage firm. Scott and his wife Elizabeth vacationed at the existing farmhouse until 1911, when they started construction of an imposing stone mansion appropriate to a Scottish laird.

“My grandfather worked on building the castle at Royal Orchard in a time when men were lining up for work,” says Bud Carter, a third-generation Afton native who operated Carter’s Fruit Stand on US 250 near the top of the mountain. “The Scotts would come on the railroad, and a Pierce Arrow would pick them up at the depot. My grandfather would stay up there four or five days at a time, working as a stone mason and a carpenter. Sometimes Mrs. Scott would ask my aunt Nellie Carter, who’s now 92, to stay at the castle and play with her children.”

Over the years, the Scotts bought additional acreage to ensure the privacy of their family retreat. They donated land for the Skyline Drive to make sure it would run on the other side of the mountain and out of view. Scott descendants, more than 150 of them, continue to enjoy their mountain property.

Just seven years after the Scotts purchased Royal Orchard, friends from Richmond purchased acreage on the other side of Rockfish Gap. Major James Dooley and his wife Sallie chose the architectural firm of Millan and Baskerville to design Swannanoa, a lavish Italianate villa that was completed in 1913.

“Like other wealthy families at the time, the Dooleys relocated to their summer place from May to October,” explains Dale Wheary, director of historical collections and programs at Maymont, the Dooleys’ Richmond estate, now open to the public year round as a museum and park. “Mrs. Dooley was very interested in horticulture, and—how appropriate—the 10-foot-high stained glass window commissioned from Tiffany Studios depicts her in classical garb, standing in a beautiful Italian garden similar to her garden at Swannanoa. It’s one of Tiffany’s masterpieces. Like Maymont, Swannanoa represents Gilded Age opulence.”

Sallie Dooley died in 1925 at her beloved mountain home, three years after her husband’s death. The Dooleys had no children, and Swannanoa was left to Major Dooley’s sisters, who soon realized they did not have the wherewithal to take care of the 52-room mansion. They sold the property to a group of Richmond businessmen who, with terrible timing, converted it into a country club development in 1929. Even though the group sold a couple of hundred lots, the project folded a few years into the Depression, and Swannanoa reverted to the sisters.

Charlottesville businessman Alfred T. Dulaney Sr. was a partner in Skyline Swannanoa Inc., a Charlottesville development company formed in the 1940s to purchase the mansion and 800 acres. As World War II drew to a close, there was huge pent-up demand for automobiles and a desire for automobile travel. What made the Swannanoa property so attractive to the investors was its ideal site for tourist accommodations at the intersection of US 250 and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

In 1948, Dulaney leased the long-vacant mansion to a couple with big dreams. Walter and Lao Russell were looking for a suitable location to display his sculptures and a headquarters for the world cultural center and the home-study university they planned to found. The Russells and their successors operated Swannanoa as a shrine to their art and philosophy for 49 years. A detailed biography of Lao Russell, Remembered for Love, offers firsthand insight into the Russells’ colorful years at Swannanoa. It is written by J.B. Yount III, Waynesboro city attorney and chairman of the board of the University of Science and Philosophy founded by Lao.

Phil Dulaney, grandson of Alfred T. Dulaney Sr., has been steward of the mountaintop palace since 1972. He was a college student when his father died and the responsibility for the property fell to him. “It seems like all my life I’ve been buying back the lots sold for the country club project,” he says. Today he has dreams of opening Swannanoa as an inn and conference center. He has spent several million dollars replacing the roof and portions of the marble façade. The house and its history enchant him. “Mrs. Dooley’s ghost inhabits the third floor,” he says with a smile. “I try to stay on her good side.”

Of the two motels built more than half-a-century ago, the Howard Johnson’s is slated for demolition and the Holiday Inn has been renamed the Inn at Afton. The Inn at Afton is an exceptional vantage for watching hawks, according Brenda Tekin and Gordy Adamski, coordinators of the Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch. From Friday, August 12, to Sunday, November 20, volunteers on the 29th annual count will be on the lookout for the 16 species of raptors that migrate through Rockfish Gap. Their total for last fall was 7,000 hawks, with some days a zero and others with hundreds of soaring birds. Birdwatchers are also treated to migrating butterflies and dragonflies. Volunteers are always needed and are paired with experienced birders.

Rockfish Gap is one of four major hawk monitoring stations along the Blue Ridge in Virginia, according to Jeff Trollinger of Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “The prevailing winds make the Blue Ridge an ideal migration route for raptors. With northwest winds, after a front moves through, or southeast winds, before a front moves through, the winds hit the Blue Ridge perpendicularly, creating lift. The hawks use this updraft and glide along the lift zone, saving energy by not having to flap their wings as much.”

Until Interstate 64 was completed at the end of 1972, birds had a much easier time crossing the Blue Ridge than automobiles did. Jack Scruby, who grew up in the Greenwood section of Albemarle County, enjoys old stories of Afton roads. “Our Kentucky relatives would always arrive with ashen faces,” she says, still delighting in the memory of how frightening they found the hairpin turns. “In the old days, cars had to back up the mountain to keep from stalling out. Cars were better for our family trips, but I remember we always had a geyser erupting from the radiator and had to stop at the service station near the Afton House hotel.”

Afton was a dividing line even in the 1950s, according to Albemarle historian Phil James. “My earliest memories are of lying in the backseat of my family’s ’58 Desoto, looking at the stars and listening to WCKY in Cincinnati as we drove over 250 to visit relatives in the Valley. I was already a thousand miles away, because we didn’t cross the mountain that much.”


Afton is changing, and nothing demonstrates that more than the vineyards flourishing in the same microclimates that favored the orchards of an earlier day. Dedicated winemakers are helping make Central Virginia known to oenophiles worldwide. They draw appreciative crowds at wine festivals and attract increasing numbers of wine lovers to their tasting rooms.

When Veritas Vineyard & Winery owners Andrew and Patricia Hodson bought their Afton farm in 1998 and began planting vines, they were fulfilling a dream. The first year they made wine was 2001, and they won a Virginia Gold Cup for their Cabernet Franc. Andrew, a retired neurologist, sees a parallel between his old and new professions. “You have to be slightly obsessive to grow grapes.”

Afton’s topography, with its numerous microclimates, presents interesting challenges, including selecting the best variety of grape for each location. “Our success is due to having the right plants in the right place, but it takes years to understand the terroir. We’re still learning,” Andrew says.


Afton is a fitting site for Virginia Department of Transportation’s monument to honor VDOT employees killed on the job. Don Askew, the former Deputy Commissioner of VDOT, explains the choice: “We chose the second overlook on eastbound Interstate 64 because it is somewhat in the center of Virginia, on a main highway, and there’s a beautiful view where we have a right-of-way.” Dedicated last September, the monument was built with contributions from VDOT employees, families and friends.

While the first overlook was planned, the second was the fortuitous result of a calamity. Askew explains, “Heavy rains from a tropical storm triggered a huge rockslide during the construction of I-64. A million yards of material had to be removed from the roadway. VDOT engineers put it on the side of the road for an expanded overlook.”

Crozet’s Blue Ridge Tunnel is in for a new role if hikers, cyclists and history buffs get their dream. Nelson County is in negotiations with CSX, successor to the old C&O railroad and owner of the nearly mile-long tunnel. The county hopes to make the tunnel part of a proposed pedestrian and bike trail. Landscape architect Gene Whitesell’s firm, Whitesell Group, is in charge of planning and design. Federal funding for the project has been approved with a TEA-21 grant (Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century).

No one is more excited than Ron Enders, a member of the Nelson Bicycling Alliance. “The tunnel in conjunction with all the bike trails being developed in the counties of Nelson, Albemarle and Augusta will create an emerald necklace, a circular trail of maybe 180 miles. We’ll have a bike route that will be a cyclist’s dream ride, comparable even to the world-famous Cape Breton trail in Nova Scotia.”

Opening the tunnel will bring a new connection between the Shenandoah Valley, the Piedmont and the coast, enthuses Dan Mahon, Albemarle’s Greenways planner and supervisor. “Visitors will marvel at the tunnel and at how landscape can be almost insurmountable.” Fitting words for a new path through an old mountain.

See the timeline: History of Afton Mountain

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