The scenic Highlands Region, nestled between the Shenandoah Valley and the eastern front of the Allegheny Plateau, is mountainous, thickly forested, and, not surprisingly, only sparsely developed. The George Washington and Jefferson national forests occupy a significant amount of the region's mountain acreage, which is managed principally for recreation and commercial forestry. To the European settlers who first entered the area in the mid-eighteenth century, the region must have seemed a vast and untamed wilderness. Most of the region features steep ridges and narrow valleys unsuitable for large-scale agricultural production.
By the early nineteenth century some relatively open, well-watered valleys in the region had been developed into large plantations. The income they generated was often sufficient to build high-quality houses of wood, brick, or stone. A system of local and regional turnpikes and toll roads encouraged the development of villages that offered transportation-oriented services to outlying rural residents and travelers. By 1800, stagecoach services brought visitors to the thermal and mineral springs that were being developed into spa resorts. Warm Springs, for example, is host to several therapeutic bathhouses fed by the thermal springs from which the village's name is derived. The early settlement and development of the Warm Springs area led to the creation in 1790 of Bath County, the region's oldest county. Eventually the demands of settlers in areas of the western backcountry led the Virginia General Assembly to create the counties of Alleghany (1822), Highland (1847), and Craig (1851).
The architecture of these early settlements was usually traditional in form, drawing upon precedents established in the Valley and Piedmont areas of Virginia. Courthouses adopted the tripartite form of a pedimented main block with flanking lower wings; churches were simple brick or frame gable-front boxes and minimally detailed; and one- and two-story gabled houses of frame or brick adopted the hall-parlor or center-passage plan. Builders rather than academically trained architects were responsible for most of the region's architectural character. They consulted pattern books and builders' guides for such details as porches, doorways, staircases, and woodwork both inside and outside. But they also invented details and patterns that became popular in the mid-nineteenth century, notably wooden porch supports that feature patterned cutouts. This detail is found on houses as well as hotels and cottages at area spring resorts.
The dominant product of the region's nineteenth-century valley farms was livestock. But entrepreneurs found such mineral deposits as iron ore, which, when fueled by charcoal from the surrounding forests, produced a high-quality pig iron. Sometimes local forges further refined the iron before it was shipped to markets beyond the region. The mineral wealth in the mountains led to the development in the nineteenth century of the James River and Kanawha Canal. Designed to ease the movement of heavily laden barges through the rivers that flowed from the mountains to mercantile and shipping centers east of the Fall Line, the canal was partially completed by the time of the Civil War. However, the canal was essentially abandoned with the development of the Richmond and Alleghany Railroad, a short-lived precursor to the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Railroad.
In the late nineteenth century, the railroad became the first reliable means to provide an east-west crossing of the Allegheny Front. By assuring relatively low shipping costs, it encouraged the development of large-scale iron manufacturing facilities in the communities of Longdale Furnace and Low Moor (Alleghany County). The C&O also developed regional rail facilities at Clifton Forge. Like many corporations established during this era in the near wilderness of the Appalachian Mountains, the C&O (and its subsidiary development companies) took a paternalistic approach toward the community. In Clifton Forge the company provided much of the capital needed to develop the neighborhoods, business district, and social institutions in order to attract and keep employees.
The 1880s and 1890s were decades of rapid development in much of Virginia, and the Highlands Region was not immune to the speculative fever. Growth-oriented communities vied for the attentions of industries, using the lures of large acreage, easy rail access, and ample water-generated electrical power. Architects both far and near designed many of the feature buildings in the towns. Northern architects, who often had connections with Yankee financiers backing most boomtown development, were commissioned to design principal buildings. These included Yarnell and Goforth of Philadelphia and Alfred O. Elzner of Cincinnatti. Among the Virginia firms active in the region were Frye and Chesterman, T. J. Collins and Son, and Eubank and Caldwell. Real estate speculation sometimes succeeded as it did in Covington, home of the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company (now Westvaco; AL13) and dozens of other industries. At other times the boom turned to bust, as in New Castle when an expected railroad spur line from the C&O trunk line was not built and the anticipated economic development never came.
In addition to agriculture and industry, the region's natural springs, forested mountains, and cool mountain climate continue to attract summertime visitors. The Homestead (BA14) at Hot Springs is the most extensive resort in the region, but smaller resorts such as Craig Healing Springs (CG11) also flourished. The mountain streams, often stocked with trout on national forest lands, attract sport fishing enthusiasts, and hunting and hiking remain popular outdoor recreational activities in the region.
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