The great F.T. Valley road controversy of 1920

Route 16, shown in the center of this 1922 State Highway Commission map, didn’t become Route 231 until 1953. The proposed Milams Gap crossing would have headed northwest from Criglersville to Stanley. Courtesy Library of Congress.

You’d be hard pressed to beat the events of 1919-1920: The Treaty of Versailles signed, ending World War I; the League of Nations formed; the U.S. Senate rejecting both the treaty and the league; President Woodrow Wilson in the White House with a stroke and many thinking the country was being run by his wife; Prohibition becoming law; women winning the right to vote; anarchists hurling bombs; the “Red Scare” of Bolsheviks and Communism; the recession of 1918-1919; and 21 people drowning when two million gallons of molasses flooded Boston.

Locally, though, the big story was roads. Virginia had been fiddling with its highway system since Jan. 31, 1918, when the General Assembly set up a point-to-point route system to qualify for federal-aid funding first authorized in 1916. It started with a numbered list of roads linking Virginia’s principal towns and cities. No. 1 on the list became Route 1: Washington to Richmond to North Carolina.
No. 16 on the list became Route 16 — from Orange through Madison, Stanley and Luray to New Market. The path over the Blue Ridge was at Milam’s Gap, part of the Old Blue Ridge Turnpike, an area close to Big Meadows in the later-developed Shenandoah National Park.

But by early 1920, a rumor in Page County was spreading that Route 16 would go by way of F.T. Valley Road and Sperryville. The Blue Ridge would be crossed instead at Thornton’s Gap, not at Milam’s Gap. Folks in Stanley were absolutely livid. If the rumor was true, Stanley would have no tourism, no new trade, no hard-surfaced road paid for by state and federal funding. And the prestige of being part of the Virginia’s new highway system, and possibly part of a national road system, would be lost forever.

As the controversy burgeoned in 1920, Page County saw two of its towns pitted against each other: Stanley versus Luray.

A Stanley adherent said that an F.T. Valley Road “from Criglersville to Sperryville will have to be constructed over a very broken country, which every one who travels or has traveled states it’s just up and down hill, some of them being almost impassable . . .”

Other Stanley folks “called attention to the fact that the change was due to influences east of the Ridge . . . that the change seemed to be attended with mystery and secrecy.” Fighting back, Luray’s Board of Trade claimed, “There is no more fertile land in Virginia than down the F.T. Valley to Peola Mills and Criglersville.”

In reality, Luray had a lot going for it (Luray Caverns, nearby Skyland, links to Washington, D.C., and Front Royal, trade with Rappahannock County). Stanley had zilch.

It all boiled down to this: Should the Blue Ridge be crossed at Milam’s Gap to Stanley as legally proposed by the Virginia General Assembly in 1918, or crossed at Thornton’s Gap to Luray as proposed by “mysterious and secret forces?”

In January 1920, two delegations from Page County traveled by train to Richmond. One was the Milam’s Gap group of about 20. The other was the Thornton’s Gap group of 48. Each carried competing petitions of some 1,000 names apiece.

Two road committees of the General Assembly listened and “it was voted unanimously to describe the route in the amended bill as by Madison, Luray, and New Market, leaving the location of the Blue Ridge crossing an open question to be finally decided by the State Highway Commission after an examination of the rival routes.” The State Highway Commission had only come into being on Nov. 1, 1919, and already it was being swamped with special interest groups wanting route adjustments. Ultimately, its decisions were to be based on what would “best serve the interests of the State.”

The five members of the State Highway Commission examined the two rival routes on Tuesday, May 11, 1920, with two members traveling by automobile from Sperryville over Thornton’s Gap to Luray. The other three members traveled by horseback over the Milam’s Gap route to Stanley and on to Luray. At Luray, all five conferred with the advocates for each route, but they said nothing about the results of their examination.

Now, one member of the State Highway Commission who rode over Milam’s Gap was Wade H. Massie of Rappahannock County. Massie, as a member of the State Highway Commission, would survive political storms for more than two decades, from November 1919 to February 1941. Earlier, in 1918, he had been president of the prestigious Virginia Good Roads Association, and then in early 1919 worked on the five-member Governor’s Advisory Board on Road Construction.

Was Wade H. Massie part of the “mysterious and secret forces” operating east of the Blue Ridge? Not likely. The route of the Old Blue Ridge Turnpike over Milam’s Gap had always been somewhat controversial. Even back in 1835, a bill in the General Assembly “to provide for the construction of a road across the Blue Ridge at Milam’s gap” was defeated, 49-48. The road was only completed in 1853, and during the Civil War it was ruined by heavy military use.

During the Civil War, Jedediah Hotchkiss, General Robert E. Lee’s map maker, described the turnpike as “. . . the crookedest road I have ever seen.” Would the Milam’s Gap route in 1920 “best serve the interests of the State?”

Madison County didn’t think so. In 1919, many in Madison were unhappy with the state of their roads, wanting action, and Route 16 running from Orange to Madison to Criglersville to Sperryville was seen as the most expeditious route in a time of tight money. Forget about Stanley.

The route was finally decided at a meeting of the State Highway Commission on Saturday morning, Dec. 3, 1921, when it recommended: “Eliminate the word ‘Stanley’ and substitute therefor ‘Sperryville,’ as this will eliminate a very difficult and expensive crossing of the Blue Ridge at Milam’s Gap, an also give a direct connection with the Lee Highway at Sperryville.”

The next General Assembly approved the recommendation. Sperryville, not Stanley, appeared on the state highway map. And F.T. Valley lucked out, coming along for the ride.

Don Audette
About Don Audette 22 Articles
Don Audette has a place in Sperryville, is a longtime member of the Rappahannock Lions and writes about local history in his "Yesterdays" column for the Rappahannock News.