Historic Tours & Sites
With power lines buried underground and a dozen buildings dating from the 1700s and 1800s, the business district hasn't changed much in the last 150 years. Civil War heroes grab the spotlight throughout the county, but Native Americans, Scots-Irish and German settlers, and a slew of fascinating inventors all contributed to the rich regional history.
With sunny days and spruced-up sidewalks, summer is an optimal time for a guided tour of Lexington's best historic sites. The Lexington Carriage Company, which kicks off its season in April, leads horse-drawn carriage tours past the Stonewall Jackson House, Washington & Lee University, through historic residential neighborhoods and to the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery.
The Haunting Tales Ghost Tour begins its seasonal run on Memorial Day weekend. Owner and guide Mark Cline, who dons a top hat and carries a lantern for this evening tour, adds a spooky twist to Lexington's history as you walk through downtown. For a self-guided walking tour, pick up a complimentary map at the Lexington Visitor Center. The map includes locations and summaries for 46 different historic stops in downtown Lexington.
Scenic Historic Site
Summer marks the height of the growing season in the Shenandoah Valley – an apropos time to visit McCormick Farm in Raphine. Here, in the 1830s, Cyrus McCormick developed the mechanical reaper, which harvested grain five times more efficiently than farmers using scythes and sickles. His invention revolutionized agricultural practices and introduced the era of modern farming. Visitors can step into McCormick's blacksmith shop as well as a log cabin gristmill. Afterwards, enjoy a picnic lunch by the duck pond.
An honor guard of VMI cadets carried the body of famed 19th century oceanographer and mapmaker Matthew Fontaine Maury through Goshen Pass after his death. Nicknamed The Pathfinder of the Seas, the VMI professor had asked that his remains travel through the gorge when the rhododendrons were in bloom. Today, a memorial commemorates his love for the beautiful pass, which unfurls just beyond the marker. In 2015, USA Today named Goshen Pass one of America's best waterside drives.
On a drive along leafy Route 11, once known as the Great Road, it's easy to envision the mountain men and hardy pioneers traveling south in search of adventure or their own patch of farmland. This historic path, also known as the Great Wagon Road and the Wilderness Road, carried German and Scots-Irish settlers through the Shenandoah Valley toward the Carolinas in the 1700s and 1800s.
What is it about creek side mills that makes you want to slow down, take a long look and appreciate the old days? For a pastoral pause in Rockbridge County, there are three photogenic mills in and around Raphine.
Wade's Mill, built in the mid-1700s, is a working flour mill with a 21ft. waterwheel. Stone-ground flours and pancake mixes are for sale as well as cookware and local crafts. Visitors are welcome to look around the mill. Check the website for details about cooking classes featuring guest chefs and themed dinners.
Up the road at McCormick Farm, where Cyrus McCormick invented the mechanical reaper, you can poke around the 200-year-old gristmill, which sits beside Marl Creek. Downstream, Osceola Mill, which was also owned by the McCormick family, is now home to a B&B and restaurant.
Civil War Sites
In June 1864, Union General David Hunter began his infamous march of destruction through the Shenandoah Valley. His goal? To destroy industrial sites and transportation infrastructure in Staunton, Lynchburg, and Charlottesville. The Civil War Trail races Hunter's route.
On June 10, Hunter's forces skirmished with Confederate cavalrymen near tiny Brownsburg. The Confederates retreated south to Lexington, and Hunter soon followed. The next day, 18,000 Union infantry and artillery forces lined the Maury River across from Jordan's Point, just north of downtown Lexington. An historic marker describes the standoff between 1,500 Confederate soldiers and the imposing Union force.
The rebels retreated, but before heading south they burned the bridge leading into town. The bridge's abutments are still visible today. Hunter shelled the city, and his troops crossed the river in the late afternoon. His men ransacked and burned VMI, and classrooms at Washington College – later renamed Washington & Lee – were pillaged. During the four-day occupation, the Federal troops helped themselves to food and supplies at local homes.
Other Civil War destinations that are prime spots for summer exploring? From downtown Lexington, you can easily stroll to W&L and VMI. With students gone, their striking campuses are quiet places for learning and remembering. General Robert E. Lee's office, preserved as he left it, is a highlight at Lee Chapel & Museum on the front lawn of W&L. A vivid canvas mural in Jackson Memorial Hall at VMI depicts the Battle of New Market. This violent confrontation claimed the lives of ten VMI cadets in 1864.
Historic markers describe key battle sites along the Civil War Trail, which ribbons through Virginia and neighboring states. Civil War Trail sites in Lexington include the visitor center, the Stonewall Jackson House, Lee Chapel, the VMI Museum, Jordan's Point and Jackson's tomb. Beyond the city, you'll also find trail sites in Brownsburg and Natural Bridge.
A marker at Old Courthouse Square, part of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, commemorates the return of Lewis & Clark from their western explorations. Clark stopped in Lexington on his way to Monticello in 1809. As you explore downtown, look down for the Righteous & Rascals of Rockbridge County sidewalk pavers. These flat engraved stones share details about Lexington's most interesting former visitors and residents.