History of Fancy Gap

A Special Thanks to Ron Hall for his contribution

The history of Fancy Gap is inextricably linked to roadways since it has long been a major passageway between Western North Carolina and Southwestern Virginia.  The original settlement, reportedly called “Foggy Camp” by the Indians, was actually located a bit further to the west than it is today.

Since Fancy Gap is located on the cool crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the rising warm, moist air from North Carolina is cooled beyond the temperature for the water it contains, it releases its water vapor into the fog that often blankets the area.

1786 - 1850’s

The early roads in the mountains often followed creeks, deer paths and Indian trails.  However, the resulting grades and curves did not facilitate the passage of wagons, so locals began building their own roads with axes and shovels.  Families whose land was crossed by a road were often charged with maintenance of that section.

In the mountains, these “home engineered” roads usually crossed at the lowest spots in the mountains, called “gaps” or sometimes up the gentlest slope, which is called a “spur.”

The Flower Gap Road and the Good Spur Road were two of the earliest in the area, though, in truth, they were closer to trails than roads.  It took farmers with wagons of produce three days to drive to Winston-Salem from Fancy Gap, two days to sell their product and three days to drive home again.    The Good Spur Road, in existence as early as 1786, was too steep for a single team of horses to haul a wagon up the mountain.   The wagon teamsters would gather and wait at the bottom of the mountain for other wagons to come along so they might combine horses to pull their wagons up.  According to local legend, if there was a problem getting up the mountain, a farmer along the way had a team of mules, one whose name was Peter.  The farmer would yell, “Pull, Peter, Pull” and that area was named “Peter Pull.”

Traveling down the mountain wasn’t easy either; usually the rear wheels of the wagons were chained to the wagon bed to serve as a brake or sometimes a log was simply dragged down the mountain behind the wagon.  

Road traffic was relatively heavy in the late 1700’s especially after Daniel Boone reported riches beyond the mountains of “Virginny and Kaintucke” which was some of the impetus for the immigration of North Carolinians to the west.  To accommodate this traffic a man name McEdwards built a large log tavern at the foot of Good Spur Road.  Taverns in those days were used as hotels, as well as places to drink liquor.  McEdwards’ tavern served the public for nearly 100 years.

About 1810, John Morris built a log tavern at the top of Good Spur Road and it was in operation for about 40 years.

Circa 1810 - 1850’s

Ira Blair Coltrane (1815-1894) who was a son of a single mother and later became a self-made engineer and a Colonel in the Confederate Army, was a young teamster of 15 years old, when he helped his grandfather drive loaded wagons up the step incline.  The legend is that he saw a better route up the mountains across the valley and remarked that it would make a “Fancy Road.”  

In 1849 The Tazewell Court House and Fancy Gap Turnpike was begun and was finished in the early 1850’s.  Coltrane, as a contractor, built the road from Fancy Gap to the foot of the mountain, making the dream of his youth a reality.  The original route was not the same as today, as the road crossed the top of the mountain further east than today and where Yankee Creek crosses the highway today, the road turned west and went down the mountain further to the west.

When traffic started flowing on the new roadway, James L. Mitchell built a tavern in Fancy Gap at the top of the mountain about 1855.  It was operated as a hotel and summer resort for many years, but was razed during the building of the Blue Ridge Parkway in the 1930’s.

Circa 1860 – 1920’s
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The Fancy Gap Turnpike was used as a stagecoach route from the South to the Great Lakes.  It was a tortuous and steep 5-hour climb up the mountain.  Horse-drawn coaches would stop halfway up the mountain to let the horses rest.  This area was known as Double Branches, where two streams cascaded across the road.  

In the 1890’s the railroad came as far north as Mount Airy, NC and Virginia farmers would drive their herds of cattle and sheep down Fancy Gap Turnpike to the railroad for shipment to points beyond.  

After the advent of the automobile, Virginia and North Carolina collaborated in building a graveled road from Mount Airy to Fancy Gap and it was completed in 1922. At Double Branches a culvert was placed beneath the road and a tavern and motel were built around the old water place.

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Automobiles and trucks of that era still had great difficulty getting up the mountain and motorists spent time at the Double Branches cooling their automobiles along with themselves. This tavern/motel still sits along Route 52, just south of Fancy Gap.

Even after the road was improved from that of 1928, it was still the nightmare of over-the-road truckers and many songs have been written about its perils.

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In 1928, the road was further leveled and straightened and it was advertised that a car could now negotiate the grade in “high gear.”  However, it would take nearly another half century for the road to evolve in the curvy thoroughfare we have today.

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Devil’s Den

Nearby are the natural caves known as Devil’s Den which were major tourist attractions as far back as the 1890’s when local guides would conduct tours over 600 feet into the mountainside.

The Blue Ridge Parkway

The longest road ever planned in the US began in 1935 at the height of the Great Depression and passed through Fancy Gap.  In the surrounding mountains, the road passed through farms in such remote areas that the owners had never seen an automobile.

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The beautiful cut-stone Parkway bridge built by imported Italian stone masons sits atop the spring that is the beginning of Yankee Creek which flows down the mountain.  It is so named because it was along its banks that two brothers of the Combs family ambushed an encampment of Union Occupation Troops after the Civil War and slaughtered them all.  One of the brothers wore the Yankee uniform jacket to church for years afterward with the bullet hole still in the back of it.

In 1912, the mountains around Fancy Gap were searched by the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency for the fugitives of the Allen family who were involved in the famous courthouse shootout in nearby Hillsville.