Located at the confluence of the Jackson River and Smith Creek, and wedged into narrow valleys, Clifton Forge began in the early nineteenth century as a settlement named Williamson. After the Virginia Central Railroad reached here in 1850s, the community began to grow between the tracks and the Jackson River. In 1873 the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Railroad designated Clifton Forge as a terminal on its east-west trunk line and began construction of a rail yard complex that serviced the three primary rail lines in the C&O system that intersected here. In 1884, the town, then named Clifton Forge, was incorporated. The railroad's major investments and the jobs associated with them attracted many workers, resulting in a population growth from 700 to 5,700 between 1884 and 1910. The sounds, smells, and sights of the railroad complex dominated the valleys both day and night and offered the community the prospect of continued growth and prosperity. In 1950, the C&O employed 2,000 workers, but conversion of steam engines to diesel led to the closing of the shops.
The downtown commercial district is located immediately adjacent to the rail yards, and residential areas ascend the surrounding steep hillsides. Although predominantly a white middle-class city, Clifton Forge also has an African American population that developed residential neighborhoods east and south of downtown. Architects of regional and national stature designed many of Clifton Forge's buildings. The Lynchburg-based firm of Edward G. Frye and Aubrey Chesterman, for example, designed at least six in the early twentieth century. In recent years, rediscovery of the community's heritage has spurred revitalization efforts, spearheaded by the C&O Historical Society and the Virginia Main Street Program. Clifton Forge, with its dense urban development juxtaposed against a dramatic natural setting, remains a paradoxical and surprising example of a railroad-era boomtown.
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