New River Symposium 1984
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Myron K. Bircher
Associate Professor
Landscape Architecture Program
College Of Architecture and Urban Studies
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Blacksburg, Virginia

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). [1]

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 River Valley.

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 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. . . " [2] 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.

town map

NEWBERN — 1810

Newbern, [3] 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." [4] 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.

town map


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.

town map

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 were identified.


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." [5] 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.

town map


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.

town map

PULASKI — 1888

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.

town map

RADFORD — 1888

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.

town map

FRIES — 1940

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." [6] 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.

town map

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.

town map

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. 33.


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., 1980.

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, pp. 15-24.

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 Narrows.

Michael, Rudolph D. "A Brief History of the Blacksburg Area" Monograph; Special Collections, Newman Library, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia, 1953.

Montgomery County Courthouse, Christiansburg, Virginia. Blacksburg: Deed Book C, p. 163 and map. Deed Book 98, p. 313.

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., not dated.

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, Inc., 1975.

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Last Updated: 08-Jul-2009