Three unique towns to check out in Southwest Virginia
No matter where you roam, you are bound to visit places with an unusual past. Scattered across Southwest Virginia you'll find towns not only built by a certain industry, but towns where that industry is woven into just about every part of life.
The first town on my list is one I called home for many years. While the name looks like something you get as a side with your hamburger, it's actually pronounced “freeze.” The name is a nod to the textile magnate, Col. Francis Henry Fries who built the Washington Mills textile plant and an entire town along the New River at Bartlett Falls. While there are still “company” towns scattered across Appalachia and the rest of the country, you won’t likely find one quite like Fries. Built along a ridge above the scenic New River, the town’s appearance hasn’t changed much since it was built back in the early 1900’s. Sure, the magnificent mill that once towered above the river is gone, but its footprint and the original powerhouse still remain.
Dozens of nearly identical houses line Main Street and the streets above it. The downtown is mainly comprised of one long building which once housed the company store and the historic Colonial Inn. The vestiges of Fries’ company town past remain evident at nearly every corner. One standout from the past is the Fries Recreation Center. This deep brown brick building houses an “above ground” pool with an amazing view of the river, a gymnasium, a duckpin bowling alley and the historic Fries Theater a place you can catch live mountain music throughout the year.
A few decades ago, after the railroad pulled up its tracks, the state of Virginia turned the old rail line into a linear state park called the New River Trail. Today, from where the trail begins in Fries, you can hike, bike or ride a horse for more than 50 miles with nearly half of the route following the river itself.
Just a few miles north of I-81, the town of Saltville sits nestled in a small valley where a river once flowed more than 10,000 years ago. At some point the river backed up creating a lake and a marsh that proved the perfect place for preserving plant and animal remains. Today, you can find some of what’s been unearthed from those prehistoric days at the Museum of the Middle Appalachians. That includes a mastodon skeleton and a wooly mammoth skull.
Abundant salt and minerals in the area attracted wildlife during prehistoric times and later helped supply Confederate forces with vital supplies of salt. In modern times, the salt deposits were the cornerstone of chemical production, mainly by the Olin Company which built homes, stores, and schools making Saltville a company town much like Fries and dozens of coal industry built towns scattered throughout the region. Saltville was also home to one of the deepest gypsum mines in the country.
One of the best places to see Saltville is from the overlook coming in from I-81 at Chilhowee . It gives you a view of where the Battle of Saltville was fought during the Civil War along with what's left of the marshes where salt was extracted for decades.
It may be hard to imagine the importance of the town of Pocahontas as you drive through it today. The town not far from Bluefield, VA/WV bears the name of one of the largest coalfields in the country. At one time thousands of people from all over the world came here to work in the mines. Now only about 400 people remain.
The “downtown” is lined with about half a dozen buildings and facades including the historic Opera House. Brick streets in the area add to its charm and historic feel. However, the most famous spot in town is actually underground. The Pocahontas Exhibition Mine and Museum brings you up close to the famous seam of coal that helped shape the entire region and fuel the nation’s industry. (As of the spring of 2018 the exhibition mine was undergoing renovations and was closed). Another unique spot in Pocahontas is the cemetery where you will find an immense amount of history with graves dating back more than 100 years and many illustrating the influx of immigrants from around the world.
You can add a bonus town to this list by heading out of Pocahontas into West Virginia to the town of Bramwell. This scenic mountain community is known for its large concentration of millionaires at the height of mining in the Pocahontas coalfields. Today, most of the town's stately homes are still there along with a restored depot and a quaint downtown.
For more information on Fries, click here.
For more information on Saltville, click here.
For more information on Pocahontas, click here .