It was a little over 40 years ago when I first began hearing about the New River -- not the one down near Camp LeJeune on Carolina's coastline, but the one up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. It caught my attention because U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin -- not widely known as an environmentalist in those days -- was talking about what a shame it would be to lose that old waterway for a hydroelectric project that would inundate one of the oldest river valleys on Earth. I was a green-as-grass Washington correspondent for the Landmark Newspapers -- Norfolk, Roanoke and Greensboro -- and covered the dad-gummedest fight you ever saw in Congress over Appalachian Power Co.'s plan to dam the New near Mouth of Wilson and drown one of the most gorgeous rivers in America.
I won't rehash that fight, but suffice it to say it took an alliance of Republicans and Democrats -- that's right, that's how it sometimes worked in the mid-1970s -- to adopt legislation putting the New River in the Wild and Scenic Rivers system and thus make it off-limits to damming and flooding. There was Republican NC Gov. Jim Holshouser and Democratic Sen. Sam Ervin and Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and Republican Congressman Wilmer "Vinegar Bend" Mizell and later Democratic Congressman Steve Neal working side by side to keep that river open and flowing. They won, in what was an amazing set of circumstances that culminated in a huge victory for environmentalists when President Gerald Ford signed the final papers.
A few weeks ago I was cycling with friends along the bike path that runs alongside the New River in Grayson County, VA -- well downstream of the old proposed dam site, and was once again astonished at the beauty of this rugged old river -- wide and slow in places, then rough and wild in others with big jagged boulders primed and waiting to tear up canoes and kayaks just a few hundred yards downstream. We biked along the path of the old Norfolk & Western Railway, where trains ran for nearly a century alongside the river from the vicinity of Galax on to Pulaski. The late bluegrass musician Jim Marshall -- who died in a funeral home just a few weeks ago -- wrote about this in his song "The Old New River Train Won't be Coming Back."
That New River bike path is part of the New River Trail State Park -- running for some 57 miles though that area of the Blue Ridge as the river makes its way north to West Virginia and into the Kanawha and the Ohio and then to the Mississippi down to the Gulf of Mexico.
Joe Tennis, in his fascinating book Virginia Rail Trails: Crossing the Commonwealth, reveals some of the details of that old railroad. He wrote about how the work began in 1882 and eventually "pulsed like a main vein through these Virginia villages, where mining -- and dining on the legendary catfish of the New River -- was a way of life. Mile after mile, the railroad followed the river's course on a shelf, just above the floodplain."
So it is today as you leave the town of Fries, Virginia, on the New, for a leisurely bike ride heading north -- down the river, interestingly enough, on that shelf just above the river and its banks. It's a lovely way to break back in on biking. It had been decades since I biked regularly, and everything about biking has changed, it seems to me. The first day Kerry Hilton and I went about 5 miles -- hardly enough to warm up for veteran bikers, but it was enough for these old legs and hindquarters. The next day we put in about 12 miles -- and when two rockets passed us on the old railroad bed that now serves as a hiking/biking/horseback riding trail, Kerry informed me they were not FA-18 jets, but our friends Lee Chicester and Jack Russell, racing along toward Pulaski as they trained for a 400-mile expedition up in the Northeast.
I never got anywhere near Pulaski, but then again my goals were much less ambitious than theirs. This seemed appropriate for a railway that was never quite finished. Tennis relates how the New River Plateau Railway Company "had ambitions to keep going," with plans to cross the Blue Ridge Mountains and "take a dive" on down into Mt. Airy in Surry County, N.C. By the early 1890s, Tennis writes, the New Rive Plateau Railway had become part of the Norfolk and Western (now the Norfolk Southern) and got as far as Galax. This line was part of the planned North Carolina Branch. The state line is not far south of Galax, which the line reached in 1904, "But there, the North Carolina Branch would stop -- still a few miles short of the North Carolina border."
The branch line to Fries -- pronounced locally as Freeze in the winter and Frys in the summer -- ran well into the 1980s, when the property was donated by the railroad to the Commonwealth of Virginia. It then was turned into the New River Tail State Park, and has a bit of everything -- trestles and bridges to traverse, tunnels to zip through and such historical oddities as the Shot Tower, visible from the highway just off I-77. The 75-foot tall tower was built of limestone by Thomas Jackson in 1807, Tennis wrote. "In the tower's top room, melted lead was poured through various sizes of sieves. That hot lead then fell 150 feet through a shaft to a large kettle of water, which acted as a cushion. Jackson reached his finished shot by an access tunnel near the river. The shot was sold on site to hunters, traders and merchants or sometimes shipped downriver by bateaux."
In coming years I plan to see more of the old New River's sights and sites. I expect I'll start once again in Fries or maybe nearby Galax, and enjoy that gentle ride down the river, heading north. And when I stop I'll lift a glass to all those who in the 1970s saw in the New River a place of unparalleled beauty and rugged splendor, and voted to keep it like it is.