Brief History of Damascus, Virginia

Damascus is beautifully situated in the rugged, rustic mountainous region of southwest Virginia. Natives, tourists, and newcomers have long been attracted to the lovely and diverse natural areas in and around the town. Scenic views of the mountains, a recovering and maturing forest, and an abundance of unspoiled natural streams all meld harmoniously with the built environment to create a unique sense of place and a shared need to belong and care about both community and the natural world.

Historians have recorded that the earliest known inhabitants to roam the area were the Cherokee and the Shawnee, fierce enemies who contested rights to the area as late as 1768.

Daniel Boone opened the area to European settlement when he blazed a trail, in 1759, from east Tennessee through the Iron Mountain water gap into what is now Damascus and Abingdon and on to Kentucky. One of the early settlers, Henry Mock, was following this trail on his way to Kentucky with his family. The family was so impressed with the beauty of the area where the Laurel and Beaverdam Creeks converged that they decided to stay, buy land, build a home, and build a grist mill and sawmill – both powered by the flow of Laurel Creek. The first name given to the community was Mock’s Mill.

The name of the community changed to Damascus in 1886 when Confederate Brigadier General John D. Imboden purchased downtown Mock’s Mill from Henry A. Mock, Jr and drew up a map and plans for sale of lots. Imboden, one of Lee’s chief officers in the War Between the States, had become a land and development speculator following the war. After failed enterprises at Big Stone Gap, he came to Mock’s Mill with a dream of building a steel city on the site. He believed that under the millions of board feet of virgin timber that covered the nearby mountains were rich and unlimited deposits of iron ore. He selected this site as the very best in the United States for a modern ‘Damascus,’ destined to become as famous as its ancient namesake in Asia.

The iron deposits turned out to be on the surface only – the assays too low – and the dream was doomed, but the surface timber was another story. With an eye on millions to be made from virgin oak, chestnut, pine and poplar, Northern capital rushed into the Damascus area.

The mountains were denuded of their forest cover. Railroads, both narrow gauge and standard gauge were constructed to transport logs and lumber to local and distant destinations. The National Lumber Magazine reported in 1912 that Washington County, Virginia was producing more lumber than the entire state of Pennsylvania. Most of this was from the Damascus area.

The lumber boom lasted 25 short years. The creation of the United States Forest Service to conserve and restore forest resources resulted in federal acquisition of much of the land around Damascus.

In the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps brought many young men to a camp just across the Beaver Dam Creek by the Tennessee line. Besides building roads and working forest fires, they constructed pavilions and recreational trails for the nearby park known as Back Bone Rock. During World War II the population was 1600 people, many of whom were employed in the dye plant, the pesticide plant, the hosiery mills and Lincoln Industries mill where logs were converted to veneer or plywood. Young men volunteered or were drafted to serve in most of the far-flung theatres of the war.

By the 1990s tourism became the major industry with the establishment of bicycle shops and shuttle services making it easy for people all over the country and the world to bring their families and coast downhill along the most beautiful rail-trail in the world.

Today, the spirit of trailblazing and the sense of community responsibility continue in the town. Damascus is known both as Trail Town, USA and the friendliest town on the Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, the Virginia Creeper National Recreation Trail, the Transcontinental Bicycle Trail, the Iron Mountain Trail, and the Daniel Boone Trail all intersect in Damascus. While the town does have other diverse interests, the natural world and the legacy of trail blazing still influence the course of the future.

Excerpted and adapted from “A History of Damascus” by Louise Fortune Hall

Revised December 22, 2015 emdg

The Smith children play on Laurel Avenue. Photo taken approximately 1914

Selected Excerpts from ‘The Friendliest Town on the Trail’

Excerpt from chapter on Appalachian Trail:

In the early’20’s forester Benton MacKaye, a Harvard graduate envisioned a trail exclusively for hiking, stretching from New England to the deep South along the ridge crests of the Appalachian Mountains…(his) idea had not been one of a “thru-trail”…In his work as a regional planner, he was witnessing what he believed was harm in the rapid mechanization and urbanization of his day…

Excerpt from chapter on the VA Creeper Trail:

Developed on an abandoned Norfolk and Western Railway line, our local rails-to-trails system, referred to as “The Creeper,” was converted in 1984 and dedicated by Congress as a National Recreation Trail in 1987.  Following the route known as the ” Abingdon Branch,” its elevation from Abingdon at 2,040 feet stretches over nearly thirty-four miles to its highest point of 3,576 feet at Whitetop Station…

Excerpt from Chapter 8 – “Shuttle Launching”:

No, there has never been a flight into space from Damascus, but back in the early ’09s Damascus developed a shuttle business that put the town back on the map.  After the VCT [Virginia Creeper Trail] was officially established as a rails-to-trails system in 1984, its new life was just beginning.

Information on the full book, outlining historical figures, events, and interesting facts about Damascus, written by Bunny Medeiros, can be found at the following link: Friendliest Town on the Trail