Editor’s Note: This is part of a continuing series of stories called “Find Your Park,” where we will highlight local, state and federal parks within this region of North Carolina and nearby Virginia communities.
Spanning four counties and the city of Galax, the New River Trail State Park is a 57-mile linear park that affords an abundance of activities for outdoor lovers of all kinds.
While the New River Trail itself is a 57.7-mile odyssey that follows an abandoned railroad right-of-way, the park parallels the scenic and historic New River for 39 miles. Offering everything from hiking to biking to guided horse tours, tubing, fishing, canoeing and kayaking, it’s easy to see why the Southwest Virginia outdoor paradise draws an average of almost one million visitors per year. Behind just First Landing at Virginia Beach and Pocahontas in Richmond, the New River Trail State Park draws the third most visitors of any state park in Virginia.
“It’s kind of unique. Foster Falls usually brings in 20 to 25 percent of the traffic flow and I think that is what brings them, use of the New River,” said Sam Sweeney, New River Trail State Park Manger. “So many people float in the river and fish in the river, whether it’s on boats or canoes or bank fishing. There are so many different activities for different times of the year. There are also campsites on the edge of the river and a lot of people like that.”
The New River Trail itself covers territory from the Virginia counties of Carroll, Grayson, Wythe and Pulaski as well as the City of Galax and the towns of Pulaski and Fries. Its gentle slope is a major drawing card for visitors of all ages to hike, bike and ride horseback. A livery at Foster Falls offers rentals of all kinds, including bikes, tubing and kayaks.
Wildlife is also in abundance in the area, including an active Bald Eagles’ nest near Foster Falls. The majestic birds have been spotted near the area of the Fries Junction most recently. Sweeney told of a staff member making his rounds in the picnic area one morning when he experienced the view of a lifetime.
“He was working there near the bank and one of those eagles came down below the falls, picked up a fish and turned around and took it back to the nest,” Sweeney said. “He said it was one of those truly unique moments to be able to witness something like that.”
The Foster Falls area of the park features guided horseback trips, canoe and bike rentals, boat launches, gift shops and a horse arena. There are access points to the trail at Allisonia, Chestnut Yard, Cliffview, Dannelly Park near Galax (which also features a popular playground for children), Draper, Dora Junction (near Pulaski), Foster Falls, Fries, Galax, Gambetta, Hiwassee and Ivanhoe. Horse trailer parking is available at Allisonia, Austinville, Cliffview, Dora Junction, Draper, Fries, Ivanhoe and the Mark E. Hufeisen Horse Complex near Foster Falls arena.
The historic Foster Falls and the Shot Tower are two of the most popular destinations in the New River Trail State Park. The town of Foster Falls was once a part of the booming iron industry that dominated the economy of the New River Valley during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The major factor behind the development of the town was an iron furnace built in 1880 by the Foster Falls Mining and Manufacturing Co., which shipped pig iron by rail to major manufacturing centers in St. Louis, Baltimore and Cincinnati.
In modern times, the Methodist church, a post office, several homes and a group of deserted buildings along the river are all that remains of the past bustling community.
Local miner and business owner Thomas Jackson took about seven years to build the Shot Tower, which was completed in 1807. At the historic tower, one of just three in the United States, and perhaps the only in the world with its unique design, shot of varying size would be molded, sorted and shipped down river where it would be sold to hunters, traders, and merchants.
At 75 feet high, the tower looks more like a fortress than a factory. Beneath the base, a lower shaft from the tower floor drops 75 feet to the river level. A restored interior winding wooden staircase leads to the tower’s top room where there was a large kettle heated by a furnace. The lead was melted and then poured through different sized sieves, producing shot of varying sizes. Historians believe that either slave labor or a pulley system was used to move the lead to the top of the stairs.
The hot lead fell 150 feet to a large kettle of water at the bottom. The long fall was thought necessary to properly mold the round shot and the kettle of water served as a cushion. The kettle was reached through an access tunnel near the river, which provided a constant supply of water for the kettle. The cooled shot would then be sorted and put on the market.
Today, measures are being taken at New River Trail State Park to bring back part of the once-bustling community. Sweeney said a project is under way to bring back the historic hotel near Foster Falls. Built alongside the Norfolk and Western rail line in the late 1880s, the Foster Falls Hotel was an imposing two-and-a-half story brick building used as a hotel, commissary, post office and boarding house for employees of the Foster Falls Mining and Manufacturing community. It later was converted to a girls’ industrial school before The Abingdon Presbytery converted it to an orphanage in 1938 for boys and girls. By the early 1960s, the aging buildings were in serious disrepair and the home was relocated to new facilities near Wytheville.
“We have money in the building bonds that were approved last year that we hope to start construction in 2017 at the old orphanage,” Sweeney said. “We have been having meetings with different people from Richmond and other field offices to see what will work financially. We are talking about having as much banquet space as we can. It was an old hotel not catered to today’s events, but we have plans to have an area for breakfast in the morning and we are trying to expand it and have other rooms for other services. We have already stabilized the exterior, put on a new roof, windows and doors. We are looking at how to use the facility for public use and hoping to start the construction process in 2017.”