Rockbridge County was formed in 1778 and named after the Natural Bridge of Virginia, a natural historic wonder located in the southern part of the County. Two-thirds of the County's 607 square miles came from Botetourt County to the south and the remainder from Augusta County to the north.
Prior to European settlement, the general Rockbridge region was a stretch of rolling hills and well-watered bottom lands, used by Native Americans from Canada to Georgia as a migratory route and hunting grounds. The Native Americans utilized a well-defined network of migratory and game trails throughout the area. The large trails were worn deeply into the earth and were often wide enough to accommodate a wagon; in fact, many of the Native American paths were later adopted by pioneers as they pushed westward. The major north-south Native American migratory route traversed the center of the Valley and was called the "Indian Road" by early settlers. In later years, it was known as the "Pennsylvania Road," or the "Great Road." The Native Americans' major east-west migratory route originated in Ohio, crossed North Mountain into the Kerrs Creek Valley, and passed eastward into the Piedmont and Tidewater. Pioneers also used this path, calling it the Midland Trail. Lexington was later established near the crossroads of the Great Road and the Midland Trail. Many of the County's existing secondary roads were once Native American thoroughfares.
German explorer John Lederer discovered the Valley of Virginia in 1670. In 1716, the Royal Governor of the Virginia Colony, Sir Alexander Spotswood, penetrated the Valley at Swift Run Gap in Rockingham County and claimed the entire area west of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Mississippi River for King George I. However, the first permanent European/American settlers did not reach the Rockbridge area until the 1730's.
The inducement to settle the Rockbridge/Augusta area was provided in 1736, when Benjamin Borden received a Crown Grant of 100,000 acres with the stipulation that he would settle a hundred families there. Scotch-Irish and German pioneers soon migrated south along the Indian Road from Pennsylvania to settle in the area. Ulstermen such as Ephraim McDowell, his son John and his son-in-law, James Greenlee, led the way. Others soon followed, but it took six years to establish the hundred cabinsteads required for Borden to claim his grant.
The discovery of local iron deposits gave Rockbridge its first significant industry. The iron industry flourished in Rockbridge County for nearly a century, but gradually declined with changing technology and the discovery of high grade sand-like ores near the Great Lakes.
THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
The turn of the century ushered in an era of steady growth, development, and comparative prosperity. There were better roads, better markets, better homes, and more churches, but there was little change in lifestyle. With the arrival of the mechanical sawmill and the development of better methods of making brick came a half century of significant construction in the area.
Additionally, 1800’s farmers were able to produce more grain than could be consumed locally. As a result, several farmers developed distilleries as a way of making the grains transportable, and in general agriculture became more lucrative.
Among the road improvements which occurred during this time were the development of the Lexington-Covington Turnpike and the Brownsburg-Middlebrook Pike. There was even a "plank road" constructed in the southern part of the County. Though the planking soon rotted away, the road retains the name to this day.
Despite improvements to the road system, considerable pressure was building, particularly from the iron industry, for improved river travel in the County. Prior to the 1800’s, bateaux (wooden, flat-bottomed river boats) provided the primary means of river transportation. During the reign of the bateaux, boat building was a significant business at several sites in the County. Cedar Grove, near the headwaters of the North (Maury) River, was one of Rockbridge County’s major shipping terminals. Locally produced or mined products were loaded and floated downstream to destinations such as Richmond. However, it was nearly impossible to return to the County by way of bateaux, which were usually disposed of at Richmond as firewood.
The coming of canals to Rockbridge County signaled the end of bateaux travel and the beginning of the packet boat era. By 1850, the James River and Kanawha Canal were completed through Balcony Falls on the James River, near the County’s eastern border. Shortly thereafter, the North River Navigation Company was formed. Progressing from Glasgow to Lexington, the canal was built in sections, arriving at East Lexington in 1852. In all, there were six canal dams on the James and North (Maury) Rivers. In addition, there were 5 locks on the James within the limits of Rockbridge County, and 15 on the North (Maury) River. The first packet boat to reach Lexington arrived November 15, 1860, just prior to the American Civil War
Rockbridge County is steeped in Civil War history, with numerous skirmishes fought within its boundaries. In June of 1864, Union Major General David Hunter burned and shell the Virginia Military Institute in retaliation for the VMI Cadets’ participation in a confederate victory in New Market, 80 miles to the north. Rockbridge had previously sent VMI instructor Stonewall Jackson off to war and in 1863, sadly buried the Confederate hero in the Lexington cemetery which today bears his name. After the war, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was welcomed to the presidency of Washington College. Lee is buried in the Chapel of Washington and Lee University. The legacy of both Lee and Jackson continues to generate interest for the Lexington/Rockbridge tourist industry.
A number of other great men emerged from the Rockbridge scene in its early history: Cyrus McCormick, Sam Houston, "Bigfoot" Wallace, and James E. A. Gibbs are included on this list. The invention of the reaper by McCormick introduced mechanization to agriculture and revolutionized farming.
By 1873, competition for rail service was fierce, but it wasn’t until 1881 that rail service actually arrived in Lexington. Packet boats on the canal and stagecoaches on improving highways brought patrons to Rockbridge vacation spots at the developing Natural Bridge and at Rockbridge Alum Springs, a burgeoning resort in the latter nineteenth century. The resort at Rockbridge Alum Springs has since been transformed to a private youth ministry and Natural Bridge continues to operate as a resort destination. .
The North (Maury) River Canal continued to be the economic lifeline of the County until the arrival of the first trains in 1881. The railroad rapidly replaced the canals, which fell into disrepair in a very short period of time. Ruined dams, overgrown locks, and empty sections of the canal bed remain as landmarks of this vanished era. The railroads helped trigger a great land boom in 1889, during which land speculators made fortunes.
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
The advent of twentieth century technology, especially the automobile, would remove Rockbridge from a century of comparative isolation with little change in occupations and customs. With the gas buggy came better highways and bridges, easier access to markets, more visitors, and far greater intra-county travel.
Glasgow and Goshen incorporated as towns, and Lexington and Buena Vista became independent cities of the second class. In the early 1930’s, a growing textile industry brought more than two thousand jobs to the area, offering an employment alternative to the farming tradition. Thus, farming became increasingly a part-time occupation. The size of operating farm units grew as grazing increased and grain production dwindled. Sheep began to rival cattle on the pasture land, and mechanization became the key to success.
Two World Wars with the Great Depression between were brief interruptions in a period of relative prosperity. In the County, trucking took over much of the business of the railroads, which had closed primarily due to irreparable railway damage from flooding. By the mid-1960’s, Lexington's train station had become a bus station.
By the 1970’s, one-third of the County's land was agricultural. Two-thirds was forested, including parts of the Jefferson and George Washington National Forests and the Blue Ridge Parkway. In 1972, the Lexington Department of Tourism was established and in 1975, the Visitor’s Center opened in Lexington. The Center was established to promote tourism throughout the County and Cities and continues to do so to this day. Also in the late seventies, the County adopted its first zoning and comprehensive plans. These plans allow County officials to manage growth and development.
Interstates 64 and 81, which bisect the County and parallel the Old Midland Trail (Route 60) and the Valley Pike (Route 11), gave rise to new developments. Raphine, Fairfield, and Lexington developed businesses for the refueling and repair of tractor trailers and overnight accommodations for travelers. The Natural Bridge Industrial Park was developed and three large industrial businesses built their facilities within the park. Despite modern developments, there are still many areas of the County which have preserved the beauty of yesteryear. Brownsburg and Collierstown, as well as many other communities, provide the history buff with interesting and unique structures and historic sites to explore.
Intergovernmental cooperation between Lexington and the County brought about the establishment of a joint court system, extension service, water, sewer, fire and rescue and recreation services. In 1992, the Rockbridge County High School was opened to serve students from Lexington and the County. Buena Vista maintained a separate school system.
THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
The start of the twenty-first century continued to be a period of growth for the County. New and expanded businesses fostered an increase in residential development. The overall County population saw a 4.87% growth and many seniors retired to the area.
Since weathering the economic downturn which began in 2008, the County has seen an increase in new business and commercial development. In 2011, Heatex America purchased the last industrial lot in the Natural Bridge Industrial Park, marking the first major industrial development in the County in several years. The Devils Backbone Brewing Company opened its manufacturing and bottling plant in Rockbridge County in 2012, with over a $4.5 million investment. Also in 2012, Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute began expansions. In 2013, the County, in cooperation with the Cities of Lexington and Buena Vista, W&L University and the federal government, completed a 10 million dollar broadband infrastructure project, extending fiber optic service to many areas which had been previously underserved. Currently, Rockbridge County is poised to take advantage of opportunities in the areas of commercial and industrial development, agricultural advances and tourism.