Appalachian Trail Histories

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The Catawba Sanatorium near Glenvar, Virginia, was one of several tuberculosis sanatoria established by the Commonwealth of Virginia in the first decade of the 20th century. Until the invention of Streptomycin, the only known treatment for tuberculosis was fresh air, sunshine, and a healthy diet. Patients were sent to sanatoria like the Catawba Sanatorium to stay until their symptoms abated.

The old route of the Appalachian Trail passed close to the Sanatorium from 1932-1952, and hikers could access the trail by taking a bus to the grounds of the Sanatorium and then backtracking to the county road that the trail used to get between Mason Cove and Glenvar, Virginia.

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From 1932-1952, the Appalachian Trail followed an entirely different route between Roanoke and Damascus, Virginia from the one it uses today. The Guide to the Paths of Blue Ridge (1941 edition) details each section of that hike from Route 11 just northwest of Roanoke, down through Floyd, Patrick, Carroll, Grayson, and Washington Counties in great detail.

This section of the Guide describes the route of the trail between Mason Cove and Glenvar, the point at which the old Appalachian Trail route deviated substantially from the current route. Several of the landmarks mentioned either no longer exist (Bradshaw Post Office) or are substantially different -- Catawba Sanatorium is now Catawba Hospital -- and the "dirt road passable by automobile" is now county road 622, a paved road.

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From 1932-1952, the Appalachian Trail followed an entirely different route between Roanoke and Damascus, Virginia from the one it uses today. TheĀ Guide to the Paths of Blue Ridge (1941 edition) details each section of that hike from Route 11 just northwest of Roanoke, down through Floyd, Patrick, Carroll, Grayson, and Washington Counties in great detail.

This first section of the guide describes the by now well-known route across Tinker and Catawba Mountains, the location of McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs, and the route that the trail took once it reached Highway 311 near Mason Cove.

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Hikers along the Appalachian Trail today can count on some sort of shelter approximately every 8-10 miles along their route. Construction of this chain of shelters began in the 1930s, but was not completed until after the Second World War. The original route of the Appalachian Trail in Southwestern Virginia included only one such shelter -- the Rocky Knob build by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937, pictured here. Except for this shelter, hikers along the original route had to camp either in tents or in the ruins of old barns or farm houses along the way. When Earl Shaffer passed through during his first ever thru hike of the AT in 1948, he wrote:
"I finally stumbled into Rocky Knob by starlight and found the shelter was of stone, open on three sides and with a cold wind howling through. I gathered some snags for fireplace wood and a sackful of leaves to cushion the stone floor. The temperature must have been around freezing."

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Hikers along the Appalachian Trail today can count on some sort of shelter approximately every 8-10 miles along their route. Construction of this chain of shelters began in the 1930s, but was not completed until after the Second World War. The original route of the Appalachian Trail in Southwestern Virginia included only one such shelter on Rocky Knob in Floyd County. Hikers along the original route had to camp either in tents or in the ruins of old barns or farm houses along the way.

The Cherry Tree Shelter, pictured here, was constructed right around the time that the AT moved away from its original route along Iron Mountain to the present route that passes through the Grayson Highlands. Some hikers who still followed the old route of the trail into the late 1950s reported staying at this shelter -- the only one west of the New River along the old trail route.

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The old route of the Appalachian Trail in Southwestern Virginia crossed Smith Mountain in northeastern Floyd County. This image shows the view of Cahas Knob in Franklin County to the east of the trail and is taken on the summit of Smith Mountain.

The photograph is one of dozens taken by ATC Chairman Myron Avery during an inspection tour of the trail in Southwestern Virginia in 1932, a tour he made with Shirley Cole, the county agent in Floyd County and the person tasked with overseeing the trail in this part of the state.

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Cutting the old route of the Appalachian Trail from the New River to Damascus along Iron Mountain was one of the most difficult tasks faced by the ATC in its early years. This section of the Virginia was not well mapped and ATC leader Myron Avery had to rely on local knowledge of abandoned roads, forest trails, and hunter's trails to find a usable route between the river and Damascus.

This first page of a much longer letter from Avery to C.S. (Clint Jackson), the Unaka National Forest supervisor in this part of the state, offers some insight into those difficulties. Avery was keen on making sure that his trail guides were precisely accurate and in this letter he says that he seems to be missing an entire mile of trail. The rest of the letter offers two different alternatives for making sense of the route and asks Jackson to weigh in on which one is the correct one.

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The old route of the Appalachian Trail in Southwestern Virginia passed several locations said to be places where men who wanted to avoid service in the Confederate Army during the Civil War hid in the mountains. One such location was near Bent Mountain Falls in northern Floyd County and another was just east of Houndshell Gap in Grayson County.

This section of the trail guide from 1940 -- Guide to the Paths of the Blue Ridge -- describes one such location. It also offers insights into the difficulties the Appalachian Trail Conference faced when routing the trail through this part of the state. Early trail scouts had to rely on maps such as the "Lindenkohl chart" mentioned here, because much of this part of the state had not been properly mapped by the U.S. Geological Survey.

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The old route of the Appalachian Trail passed across Comer's Rock in Grayson County, Virginia (elevation 4,035'). At the time there was a U.S. Forest Service fire tower on the summit of Comer's Rock and the area had been part of the Unaka (now Jefferson) National Forest since 1920.

Like many place names along the Appalachian Trail, there is more than one version of why this summit on the Iron Mountain ridge was named "Comer's Rock." One version has it that a Civil War draft-dodger named Comer hid there to avoid his military service in the Confederacy. Another has it that the lookout simply derived its name from the many Comers who lived nearby.

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This letter from Myron Avery to C.S. (Clint) Jackson, May 13, 1932, provides very useful insights into the difficulties the Appalachian Trail Conference had in scouting out a route for the trail west of the New River in the early 1930s. In the letter, Avery describes his efforts to find a route along Iron Mountain in the Houndshell Gap area between Flat Ridge and Sugar Grove. Even with the help of a local resident, Avery struggled to find a route that suited his needs.

The trail guide for this section makes it clear just how difficult the task was, because in the early 1930s, this region was still largely unmapped by the U.S. Geological Survey. Avery was relying on a military map created by Henry Lindenkohl in 1864. Iron Mountain and the surrounding area had been incorporated into the Unaka National Forest (now the Jefferson National Forest) in 1920, and Clint Jackson was the supervisor of the forest between the New River and Damascus, Virginia. In that capacity, he was instrumental in helping Avery find a route for the trail through the Unaka Forest and then helped to maintain the trail in this region for more than a decade.

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The original route of the Appalachian Trail crossed into North Carolina on Fisher's Peak, just south of the Blue Ridge Music Center (built in 1997). This image shows the Peak in the winter of 1932 and demonstrates how different the landscape was in the 1930s, when the Peak was almost entirely free of trees. Today, it is almost entirely wooded.

The trail guide for this section of trail describes the signature feature of the hike across the Peak as the fields of massive rhododendron bushes covering the peak, a feature that helps to explain why the city of Galax (just a dozen miles northwest) held its rhododendron festival there starting in 1931.

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This image shows the view of Smith Mountain from the Appalachian Trail near Bent Mountain in Floyd County, Virginia. The 1940 trail guide describes the views from the summit of Smith Mountain as is section of the trail as:
Summit (3,368 ft.) affords extensive views of Roanoke and Franklin Counties; Buffalo Mtn. visible to the southwest and Peaks of Otter to the northeast. Cahas Knob is prominent on the Skyline.
Much of the original route of the trail in Floyd County was obliterated by the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway in the mid-1930s, but this segment over Smith Mountain remained a part of the trail route -- as trail -- until the relocation of the entire trail in Southwestern Virginia in 1952.

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