Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Riding the Turnpike in Sewell Valley

The James River and Kanawha Turnpike
crossing Little Sewell Mountain.

    If you do much investigation into the history of western Greenbrier County in West Virginia, you will read that U.S. Route 60 follows the historic James River and Kanawha Turnpike.  Well, that's true for the most part.    As U.S. Route 60 (now known as the Midland Trail) was constructed, it generally followed the path of the old turnpike road, swallowing up the historic road in contemporary highways accommodating faster and safer travel. In Greenbrier County, however, the James River and Kanawha Turnpike deviates from Route 60 at Meadow Bluff and runs across Little Sewell Mountain to Rainelle.  I had the good fortune to grow up in a house in old Sewell Valley right along the original turnpike.  We had no idea of its story. 
     Early in the history of the Commonwealth of Virginia, people recognized the need for a means to transport goods, people, and mail from the remote mountain region beyond the Blue Ridge to the Tidewater area.  This need led to the design and construction of a series of roads, including the James River and Kanawha Turnpike which ran from Richmond, Virginia, to the Kanawha River area, where Charleston is now located. 
        White men settled the Greenbrier Valley beginning in the mid-1700s, but little is recorded of the western end of the county other than that Stephen Sewell hunted there.  We occasionally dug up arrowheads in our garden, so Indians also hunted there.  Population in western Greenbrier was sparse until the arrival of the Raine brothers.  John Raine and his brother, T. W. Raine, appeared in 1903 when they purchased land on Meadow River from which they planned to supply timber for a new lumber mill.  Before the Raine brothers ever cut the first log from their newly purchased property, the community of farms along the James River and Kanawha Turnpike was known as Sewell Valley, named for Stephen Sewell. 
      The town of Rainelle was established on April 25, 1913, somewhat of a late development, considering that the James River and Kanawha Turnpike was completed through Sewell Valley in 1826.  The turnpike was the main highway and provided for the movement of passengers and mail between Lewisburg and the Kanawha Valley.    
      Stage coach service along the Turnpike began in 1827 with a stage line operated by the Caldwell-Surbaugh stage company, which ran from Lewisburg to Charleston.  J. T. Peters and H. B. Carden in The History of Fayette County, West Virginia list the “famous” stage stand owners, and among those listed are Harrison Hickman in Little Sewell Valley, Addison Frazier in Sewell Valley, and Thomas Henning at Meadow Bluff.  Stage coaches ran on the Turnpike until 1873 when railroads replaced them. 
      Twentieth century developments necessitated changes in highway construction to accommodate automobiles.  The road from Rainelle to Sam Black Church was by-passed when the Midland Trail diverged to Charmco and Rupert.  The turnpike became County Route 60/32, now paved, but mostly a one-lane road where good manners and driving safety dictate that you pull to the berm when you meet on-coming traffic.
     A tour book produced by the Midland Trail Association in 1916 describes the road as running from Meadow Bluff and over Little Sewell Mountain, the original course of the old Turnpike.  By 1926 when Percival Reniers and Ashton Reniers wrote The Midland Trail Tour in West Virginia, the Midland Trail had deviated to follow the present Route 60.  They write, “At Sam Black Church the Turnpike runs straight ahead over Little Sewell Mountain while the modern route bears right, down the easy grade of the Old Wilderness Road along Meadow River.” 
     The Midland Trail had begun its modern incarnation, while the direct route over Little Sewell Mountain was historically preserved in its rural, peaceful nature, used mostly by the residents of the mountain and valleys between Rainelle and Sam Black Church.  Today the area along the old turnpike route remains much the same as it did in its early days.
      In Rainelle the original turnpike, which is clearly marked with a street sign on Main Street, veers to the right in a fork of the road in what used to be called East Rainelle.  The old turnpike route runs over Little Sewell Mountain to Sam Black Church and reconnects with Route 60 near Interstate 64.  The road loops and bends past small farms and scenic mountain views where life includes everyday references to local history. 
      A few years ago I talked with Bobby Ayers, who at the time lived near Rainelle on the old turnpike.  Near Dennis, where a post office had been located, he had found a watering trough used during “old” days on the Turnpike, as stated on the homemade sign someone long ago posted over the trough.  Unless Bobby had told me about the trough, I would never have noticed it hiding under a clump of overgrown brush.
     There is a lot of history hiding in just 10 miles of turnpike.  The grave sites of the famous Greenbrier Ghost and her mother are located at Soule Chapel United Methodist Church, just off the Turnpike.   The Greenbrier Ghost appeared to her mother to tell how the Ghost's husband had murdered her.  The investigation of the untimely death of Zona Shue on Little Sewell Mountain convicted her husband of murder. 
Highway marker which tells the story
of the Greenbrier Ghost.
      A few miles from Soule Chapel is the Dietz Farm which was occupied by both Union and Confederate troops at different times.  The National Register Bulletin describes the Dietz farm house as being used as a hospital during the Civil War with graves of unidentified soldiers located nearby on the farm.  Soldiers from both sides followed the James River and Kanawha Turnpike through Sewell Valley as they repeatedly marched between Lewisburg and the Kanawha valley.  Some people are surprised when I tell them that my friends and I played "Civil War" when we were children.  We divided up into Union and Confederate forces and went for it.  I wish I had known then how many Union and Confederate soldiers had actually marched on the road just yards from our houses.  Unfortunately our local history was not taught in schools at the time, and we had no idea that where we lived was a major thoroughfare for troop movements.    
      After the turnpike improved travel through the mountains to Charleston in the early nineteenth century, more and more people moved to the area, built homes, and established farms along the road, creating a sense of community.  Post offices opened at Meadow Bluff, Little Sewell Mountain, Dennis, and Sewell Valley.
      By 1889 Sewell Valley possessed a school house and a new Baptist church.   According to the minutes of the first meeting to organize Sewell Valley Baptist Church, the gathering took place at the Sewell Valley Schoolhouse, located on the Osborne farm.  The original Sewell Valley Baptist Church was constructed in 1889 and was used until 1962, when a new church was built and the older one torn down.  The site of the old frame building is now the church cemetery.     
Bible school held at Sewell Valley Baptist Church
in the second building which was
erected in 1962.
     In a manuscript written in 1954, Herbert Harr notes that in 1910 there were not enough children to have a school in Rainelle, so the children attended a one-room school east of town called the Sewell Valley School.  This school was used at least until 1912, but in 1911 the Meadow Bluff District Board of Education provided a school for 30 students in a room over a store in East Rainelle.  Progress was moving away from Sewell Valley and toward the company town that was growing up around the Meadow River Lumber Company. 
The Osborne house as it appeared in the 1920s.  The
road is the Turnpike.  Picture from
K. C. Farren.
Land near the school and the church was part of the Osborne farm where a post office was located from 1909 until 1924.  The Osborne house was a landmark for decades and sat directly across from the intersection with the road that is now Airport Road.   The last of the Osborne family to live in the house was Freda Osborne Critchley, aunt of K.C. Farren, who told me, “I remember spending nights in the old house.  The beds had feather ticks, and every room, upstairs and downstairs, had a fireplace.”  K. C. has much of the furniture from the old house including a desk and a secretary that was used to sort mail when the house was a post office.  The family also had swords that were used during the Civil War.  I was enchanted with that house when I was a girl, and my dad, who knew Freda Osborne, took me by to visit one day, but my memories of the inside of the house are vague. I wanted to see those swords that my dad had told me about, but I don't think they were brought out on that day.  
     In 1947 the Osbornes sub-divided the farm into building lots, creating what is still known as the Osborne Addition, a residential suburb of Rainelle.  The road that had once provided a rocky trip on a stage coach from Lewisburg to Charleston and made mail delivery possible to remote farms, was now the “hard road” to the families in the comfortable bungalow-style homes situated off the turnpike on smaller dirt and red dog roads. K. C. said that documents from the creation of the subdivision show that the right of way for the old turnpike road is 60 feet, which could accommodate a much wider road than what exists now. 
     As homes continued to pop up in the Osborne Addition, Denzil and Audrey Simms opened a small store at the corner where Oak Street now connects with the turnpike.  In the 1960s Squire Haynes developed a grass landing strip on top of Little Sewell Mountain that accommodated small aircraft, and he eventually opened a restaurant at the airport that served meals to flyers from all parts of the United States.
The building along the Turnpike
where Denzil and Audrey
Simms had a store. 
     In the 1950s one of the lots near the Osborne house was used to build a skating rink.  The skating rink was open on Friday and Saturday, and the cost of skating was 75 cents.  Music was provided by a juke box, and K. C. and many other young people in Rainelle and the Osborne Addition spent as much time as possible hurtling around the rink, the girls with pom-poms on their skates.  The skating rink was a gathering place for teenagers, not only from Rainelle High School, but from many other Greenbrier County high schools as well.  When K. C. was about 10 years old, the mother of one of his friends took several children skating.  In the car the mom bragged about being a good skater, so the children insisted that she skate with them.  On the first trip around the rink the mom fell and broke both of her arms.  The skating rink was replaced with a bowling alley called Greenbrier Lanes which operated until the 1970s.   
The site of the Osborne house
as it appears today where Airport Road
intersects the turnpike.
       In the mid-1970s after Keith and Freda Osborne Critchley built a new home, the old Osborne house was torn down.  For several years the stone chimneys on each end of the house marked the location, until they, too, were torn down due to safety concerns.  The field where the house sat for so many years is now occupied by mobile homes.  
       Just as the old horse trough with its faded sign leaves only a trace of earlier travelers, the appearance of the James River and Kanawha Turnpike hints at the history evident along its route.  From horses and stagecoaches to Model T automobiles stirring up dust, the short stretch of road changes as each age dictates, yet it has stories to tell of life long ago if you know where to look. 

The home-made sign above the horse trough near
the old site of the Dennis post office along the Turnpike.


  1. What a wonderful article. I lived on this Turnpike when I was growing up. Thank you Janet for the informative history.

    Diana Martin-Williams

  2. Thank you Janet..enjoyed this and passed it on to many people who used to live here.

  3. Thanks to the gal who sent this to me. The information is correct. Besides a bridle trail along the Meadow River and perhaps a wagon trail to the McCoy and McClung property in Rupert, there were no roads to Rainelle, and of course, there was no Rainelle. My old maps show
    nothing. After the Civil War the boys that fought here went home and told folks about the beautiful land and the trees. Then the Raine brothers appear. That is the time period Rt. 60 was developed. The Smailes boys had the stage coaches on the upper side of the James River and Kanawha Pike. Others did also. One of the stage coach stations in that area was on Stone House Road, turn Left at Crookshanks Building Supply, so I am guessing that is stil following the trail. Mr. Donnally's family had ownership of the place for a very long time. That road could take you to Sewell, which was a farming and coal mining camp and the last stop on train line for many years. The Myles Store at the top of Big Sewell Mountain ran out of flour one cold winter and waited for the delivery of the flour to be delivered at the depot at Sewell. Of course this short story is a mixture of time periods. Loved your story!

    1. I am a Smailes. They ere my grt grt grand family

  4. I am the 4th generation on my mother's side of the Smailes, stage coach drivers from Big Sewell and Hico.

  5. Do you have any info about the history of the stage coach drivers, turnpike, etc?? Do you live near the turnpike? Janet

    1. I know some of it from old stories told to me.

    2. I have many antiques from the family there even an old stage coach trunk chest.

  6. When I first started researching my father's family tree, I found a researcher (who has since passed) who told me about my Thompson ancestors & the tavern that they operated in what is now Rainelle. Robert Thompson ran a stage coach from Lewisburg to Charleston and his wife Ann nee Young operated a tavern. Their graves are at 825 Kanawha Ave in Rainelle. Ann died in 1827 and Robert in 1840. Also my Great-grandfather Willie Smith delivered the mail for Dennis at the turn of the 20th century, I have a photo of him with his bags of mail and his white house. I just recently bought a book on the history of Rainelle, and never realized that Rainelle is only about 100 yrs old.

    1. I own the old farm which the Dennis Post Office operated from and know of a good bit of the history and stories. I can be reached via email at westvabobby@gmail.com

    2. I own the old farm that Dennis Post Office operated from. I know a good bit of the history and stories of how the mail came and went. It started out as a buffalo trail that people traversed and then sparsely settled.

    3. I would love to see that picture of your grandfather with his mail bags.

  7. Joanne L. Watson, I've been looking into Robert Thompson and Ann Young Thompson. The house on this property was recently torn down, and I'm looking into preserving this cemetery. According to Find-a-grave, there were other graves at this site whose headstones were removed. Do you know the identity of the other people buried there?