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Joan Vannorsdall stands on Pine Street overlooking the Town of Clifton Forge and the railyards that wind their way through the Alleghany Highlands.
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The C&O Heritage Center
The C&O Heritage Center, from the A Street Bridge in Clifton Forge, is framed by the hills and valleys of the Alleghany Highlands in the background.
Twenty-three years after she left a small dying town – at least in part to be able to write a novel based on that town – a former Roanoker has gone back to Clifton Forge to begin anew . . . again.
This is a story about going home again, and of the place that drew me back. It’s also a story about learning to tell a story. Mine, and that of a small mountain town that didn’t give up. Our stories – Clifton Forge’s and mine – are tangled together like wild berry vines . . . thorns, fruit, and all.
“Never go back to live in a town you lived in before. Things change, and you’ll be disappointed,” my mother told me.
But three months after retiring from full-time teaching in the Roanoke Valley, I did just that. I put my Raleigh Court house on the market, put a contract on a mountainside house in Clifton Forge that overlooked the trainyards and the Jackson River, and moved back to the town I’d left 23 years earlier.
If I had five dollars for every time a Roanoke friend said, slowly, “You’re moving where?” I would be able to pay off my mortgage.
You can’t go home again? Thomas Wolfe wrote a whole novel about it, called it, in fact, “You Can’t Go Home Again.”
Or can you? For now, let the question float, and listen to the story.
Once upon a time, Clifton Forge was rich. First it was the iron mines: the Alleghany Highlands were known as the Iron Capital of Virginia. In 1827, Colonel John Jordan and his partner John Irvine built the first hot blast furnace in the South, naming it after their wives: The Lucy Selina. Fueled by charcoal from endless forests and fed with vast deposits of iron ore near Iron Gate, the Lucy Selina Furnace produced iron that was shipped all over the world. Alleghany iron, it was called.
Listen to the names of the iron furnaces that followed: the Dolly Ann, Roaring Run, the Princess, the Jane, the Low Moor. And the Clifton Forge, tucked under the towering Rainbow Rock on the banks of the Jackson River.
Alleghany iron was used to build the first two ironclad battleships, the Merrimac and the Monitor. The March, 1861 battle was declared a draw when neither ship could be destroyed. (Civil War trivia: A year later, Confederate troops blew up the Merrimac to keep it from Union control.)
Maybe the destruction of the Merrimac served as foreshadowing of the downfall of the Alleghany iron dynasty. Colonel Jordan’s son and partner Edwin hung himself in the wake of the Confederate surrender, in despair over the loss of slave labor and the ruin of the South. And the Great Lakes iron ore – more accessible and easily shipped on ore tankers – brought an end to the Iron Age in Alleghany County.
But the railroads were coming with fierce progress, and Clifton Forge was poised for a second wave of prosperity.