NEW RIVER GORGE
New River Symposium 1984
PLANNING OF THE EARLY TOWNS IN THE NEW RIVER VALLEY, VIRGINIA
Myron K. Bircher
Landscape Architecture Program
College Of Architecture and Urban Studies
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
An interest of mine is the provision for and the
development of public open spaces in towns and cities. These spaces may
include parks, school sites, courthouse grounds, cemeteries, public
monuments and institutional sites. A particular interest is the village
green or village common so characteristic of the early New England
towns. The Common in Boston is a well known example of an early public
open space that remains today. Commons and greens exist today in dozens
of New England towns and cities. Wherever large numbers of New
Englanders settled; across Ohio, into Illinois and up into Wisconsin,
common areas can be found today.
Common land was limited almost entirely to England
and Wales. Scotland, Ireland and the northern European countries did not
have the practice of common land. English common law recognized dozens
of "rights in common." Among these rights were the "common of pasture"
(right to grazing livestock), "common, of estovers" (right to cut wood
for building and fuel for the cutter's own use, but not for sale),
"common in the soil" (right to take sand and stone for the diggers own use)
and the "common of piscary" (right to fish in a freshwater pond). 
Many of these rights were transported to and
incorporated into the New England town structure in the early
seventeenth century. As settlers began moving into southwestern
Virginia, towns were established in the New River Valley to meet the
needs of the growing population. With this brief background, several
towns in the New River Valley were researched to determine if common
land had become a part of these early towns. In a word, the answer to
this research is, "no". A majority of the early settlers in western and
southwestern Virginia immigrated from Scotland, Ireland and Germany.
Common land had not been a part of their culture therefore, such land
was not provided in the early towns in western Virginia and in the New
Upon discovering common land was not provided, my
attention turned to investigating other forms of public open spaces. The
results of this research proved to be more fruitful. Public open space
was provided in several towns in a number of ways; school sites, parks
and courthouse grounds. Also, where it was possible to do so, the
relationships between the topography and the town plan was studied. The
towns researched were Blacksburg, Christiansburg, Fries, Mount Airy,
Newbern, New River, Pulaski, Radford, Triggsville, and Wytheville.
BLACKSBURG - 1798
Blacksburg dates from 1798 when William Black and his
wife Jane gave 38/ 3/4 acres + 20 poles for the town. In his petition to
the state legislature, Black stated he had "a piece of ground, in a
healthy climate, a fertile neighborhood, with excellent springs thereon,
agreeably and well situated for a small town. . . " 
On August 4, 1798 the land was deeded to the trustees of the town. The town consisted
of 16 blocks with each block containing four almost one half acre lots
(eight by nine poles). Lot 40 was assigned to the Methodists who
immediately built a small log church. There is no evidence of any of the
lots being left open. The land slopes gently to the southwest and is
quite suited to the gridiron street pattern. This pattern and street
names remain today except Rope Street is now Draper Road.
Newbern,  the first seat of Pulaski County
government, dates from March 3, 1810 when 29 lots were laid off "for the
purpose of erecting a town to be called and known by the name of
Newbern."  Each lot contained .48 acres (6 by 13 poles). The town had
one street, the Great Road, running along the top of a ridge and one
cross street. Near one end of the cross street was a spring which
supplied the residents with water. The area between the end of the
street and the spring was called the previledged way thus suggesting a
common area reserved for the Newbern residents. With the tanyard
located so the prevailing summer breezes would carry the odor away from
town, suggests Adam Hance (the founder) was concerned about the comfort
of the inhabitants. This street layout fits the topography very well.
Triggsville was similar in plan to Newbern although
slightly bigger. Established December 6, 1809 for the purpose of
domestic manufacturing, Triggsville, having to compete with Newbern
never flourished and developed. Triggsville contained 40 lots each 50
acre (8 x 10 poles), two streets, two cross streets and a 57' wide
common. The community spring was located on the common. Triggsville is
the only New River Valley town researched to use the word "common."
Located on nearly flat river bottom land, the topography was ideally
suited to the street pattern.
The three plans just discussed were typical of the
town layouts in the New River Valley of the period. Street pattern and
lot sizes were nearly identical and each worked with the topography.
Public space was not provided. Mount Airy, a town in Wythe County that
never developed, had a public square but no mention was made of its
intended use. The next several plans represent towns of a later time
period; 1880s, when several different types of open spaces
An 1839 map of Wytheville shows a plan similar to
Triggsville, but very much larger. The first open space noted for
Wytheville, a 1-3/4 acre graveyard, appears on this plan. By 1877, the
town had more than doubled in area. The town map for that year showed a
stream running through town, the Catholic church, the 1839 graveyard
and, although not within the town limits, "The South West Virginia
Agricultural Society's Fair Grounds."  Six years later the town map
showed the county courthouse, two schools, three churches, two
cemeteries and a park containing a spring and a chalybeate fountain.
This is the first notation of a park to be
found in any of the New River Valley towns
researched. Wytheville was fortunate to have a public open space near
the center of town; one block from the courthouse. Today, a church
occupies much of the former park site. Most of the stream has been
culverted, however, in a few areas it is still flowing free. By this
time the railroad had arrived in Wytheville. Its influence can be seen
in the way the street pattern has been changed to reflect the depot and
the railroad tracks.
Known originally as Hans Meadow, the seat of
Montgomery County became Christiansburg in 1792. A map of the town from
the early 1800's shows the courthouse in the central square, streams and
springs, the old academy with trees on the site. This is the only early
town plan found that shows trees on a specific site.
By 1883 the town plan included the courthouse on a
corner of the square, two churches, a cemetery, a public school and the
female college. It is interesting to compare the size of the sites in
Christiansburg with those in Wytheville of the same year. The larger
sites suggests a recognization for future growth and/or a desire to
provide a setting for the building. The most recent courthouse, opened
in 1980, still occupies this site although is set farther back from the
square. A public open space has been provided where the previous courthouse
stood. Small public spaces have been developed in each of the
remaining three quadrants, however, each space is cut off by streets
and parking thereby making them undesirable to use. Monuments to local
heros, wars and historical events are located in these spaces but
overgrown shrubbery makes viewing them difficult.
The map of Pulaski in 1888 showed several large
woodlots wrapping around the developed part of the town. These woodlots
appear where the topography was too steep and difficult to develop at
that time. Two streets run north, their location dictated by the hills
on either side. A large cemetery occupies one of the hills. The only
identified public open space is the courthouse site. Land owned by the
Norfolk and Western railroad along Peak Creek provided private open
space. In 1884 the railroad built the Maple Shade Inn for travelers
passing through Pulaski and for visitors from the deep South and eastern
Virginia to vacation in the mountains. The inn stood on a huge lawn
shaded by stately maples. Here the guests enjoyed such outdoor
activities as tennis, croquet, horseback riding and carriage rides.
Whether the townspeople had access to the recreation opportunities at
the Inn is unclear. In 1963 the Inn was razed for a shopping center and
other parcels of railroad land were given to the town of Pulaski for a
park. Here the railroad had more of an impact on the economic life of
the town than on the physical form of the town.
In 1888 a new town named Radford was planned to be
built across a deep ravine from the town of Central. There is no
evidence that any public open space had been provided. All the land
along the New River was allocated to industry and manufacturing. On the
original map the ravine was delineated in a manner usually reserved for
parkland, however, this land was not designated for this purpose. Today
the land is a Radford park as is much of the land along the New River.
The land in the residential area is steep and hilly, however, the street
pattern does not reflect the topography. The street pattern is a flat
land solution. Central is now a part of the city and is often referred
to as east Radford.
In April 1901 construction began on a 39' high dam
across the New River for the purpose of generating power for a proposed
cotton mill. With the construction of the mill, Fries, a cotton mill
town on the New River, was built to house the workers. Small houses were
built row upon row on narrow lots on the hillside above the river and
the mill. An elementary school was constructed at the same time as the
houses. Early in the history of the town a community center as built
which soon became the hub of the social and recreational life of the
town. The railroad depot also served as a social magnet. A long time
resident stated that in 1903 . . . everyone went to the depot to watch
the trains come in."  The 1940 map shows a cemetery and a ball field.
At present the town is developing a walk along the river in the vicinity
of the park and the cemetery. The early town was developed on the
flatter land along the New River. As the need for housing grew,
development climbed higher up the hills causing the street pattern to
become more irregular.
NEW RIVER Not dated
Of all the towns researched, New River has to be the
most unusual. Probably planned around the 1890's, New River has the
appearance of "just happening." The choatic street
pattern has no relationship to topography, there is no indication of
any public buildings, no industry or sense of organization. It is not
too difficult to see why New River never developed.
The nine towns discussed represent a time period of a
little over one hundred years. Over that time the street pattern did not
change; it remained the gridiron regardless of topography. Most of the
towns, even in the later years, were rather small. As a result most
people lived close to open space, the country, therefore, there probably
was no need for public open space. The park movement in the United
States really did not begin until 1858, the date of Central Park in New
York City. It would have taken many years before the effect of the park
movement to be felt in southwest Virginia. The late 19th century was a
time of great industrial growth and with it came the all-work-no-play
ethic. In small, rural, mountain towns, public open spaces were not
considered essential. It would be many more years before these spaces
would be considered a desirable addition to life and found their way
into the New River towns.
1. Ronald Lee Fleming, On Common Ground
(Harvard: The Harvard Common Press, 1982), p. 8.
2. Michael, Rudolph D., A Brief History of the
Blacksburg Area (1953), p. 3.
3. Map constructed from the original plot drawn by
Mary B. Kegley.
4. Mary B. Kegley, "Newbern," Journal of the Roanoke
Historical Society, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Summer 1970), p. 15.
5. Map of the Town of Wytheville. Virginia. Wythe
County Courthouse. Plat Book 1, Map 2.
6. Avery Bond and Martha Nichols, A History of the
Town of Fries, Virginia (Collinsville Printing Co. Inc., 1976), p.
Bond, Avery & Martha Nichols. A History of the
Town of Fries, Virginia. Collinsville, Virginia: Collinsville Printing
Co. Inc., 1976.
Fleming, Ronald Lee and Lauri A. Halderman. On Common
Ground: Caring for Shared Land from Town Common to Urban
Park. Harvard, Mass.: The Harvard Common Press, 1982.
Hoskins, W.G. and L. Dudley Stamp. The Common Lands
of England and Wales. London: Collins, 1963.
Johnson, David E, A History of Middle New River
Settlements and Contiguous Territory. Huntington, W.Va.: Standard
Printing and Publishing, 1906.
Kegley, F.B., and Mary B. Kegley, Early Adventures on
the Western Waters, Vol. 1. Orange, Virginia: Green Publishing, Inc.,
Kegley, Mary B. Early Adventures on the Western
Waters, Vol. II. Orange, Virginia: Green Publishing, Inc., 1982.
Kegley, Mary B. "The Town of Newbern." Journal of
the Roanoke Historical Society, Summer 1970, Vol. 7, No. 1,
Kent, Arthur M. "Mount Airy." Wythe County
Historical Review, No. 1 July 1971, pp 11-12.
Library of Congress, Geography Map Division;
Washington, D.C. Maps of Wytheville and Pulaski. Maps of towns in the
New River Valley on file but not used; Galax, Hillsville and
Michael, Rudolph D. "A Brief History of the
Blacksburg Area" Monograph; Special Collections, Newman Library,
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg,
Montgomery County Courthouse, Christiansburg,
Virginia. Blacksburg: Deed Book C, p. 163 and map. Deed Book 98, p.
Morris, W.R. Folk Lore, Vol. 4. Fancy Gap Virginia:
Foggy Camp Farm, 1962.
Special Collections, Newman Library; Virginia
Polytechnic Institute and State University. Blacksburg, Virginia.
Map 123 - Grays New Map of Christiansburg - 1880
Map 212 - Pulaski - June 9, 1884
Map 263 - Radford, Virginia - not dated; subsequent
research uncovered 1888 as the date.
Map 273 - New River Land and Improvement Co.,
Radford Land and Improvement Co.: Title Abstracts,
Deeds, etc. July 19, 1888 - July 15, 1898.
Smith, Conway Howard. The Land That Is Pulaski
County. Pulaski, Virginia: Edmonds Printing, Inc., 1981.
Smith, Conway Howard. Colonial Days in the Land That
Became Pulaski County. Pulaski, Virginia: B.D. Smith and Bros. Printers,
Last Updated: 08-Jul-2009