My friend Bryce (of the wonderful website Hiking Upward) asked me the other day about one of my favorite spots on the Appalachian Trail - the old tractor seats on top of Bear Den Mountain a few miles north of Interstate 64.
I had always wondered who put them there, and put out the word to my hiking buddies and soon got the answer via the trails supervisor for Shenandoah National Park's Southern District. He told us that the tractor seats are up there because the family that owned this property used to have picnics and cookouts and bonfires up on the top of Bear Den Mountain, particularly to watch the fireworks on July fourth. As the family patriarch got older, the family brought bench seats and the tractor seats to the mountaintop so the family could enjoy the views while seated. The bench seats are no longer there, though they were observed there as recently as 1988.
|The mysterious tractor seats. Thanks to Bryce Allison for the photo.
The family that owned the property was identified as the Bocock family, and were major shareholders in Royal Orchard. Eventually, they sold their property on Bears Den Mountain to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which operates the land as National Park Service land separate from Shenandoah National Park.
This is part of an interesting history of this part of the mountains. Take a look at the bottom end of this map of Shenandoah National Park. Park Map. You will notice that SNP hardly exists for the southernmost few miles of the Skyline Drive. All of the land in here was part of a large landholding called Royal Orchard.
The orchard grew a type of apple called the Albemarle Pippin that was presented to Queen Victoria in 1838. According to legend, the queen loved "Albemarle Pippins" so much that for decades thereafter they were allowed to enter the British Isles duty-free, and they were a large export for Virginia during much of the 19th Century. The orchard became known as Royal Orchard.
Albemarle Pippins are still available locally, but do not really ripen until November. They may, however sell out as early as mid-October locally. Here is some information on the apple's history.
In 1903 Frederic W. Scott of Richmond purchased the 388-acre Royal Orchard for $3,900. Scott was a founder of the Scott and Stringfellow Brokerage firm, and perhaps most famously in Charlottesville, is the namesake for the UVA football stadium, as a result of a 1930 donation of $300,000 towards the stadium's construction. The Scotts continued to add to their land holdings, eventually enlarging the property to nearly 4,000 acres. This was the family's summer home, when they weren't living in their Richmond mansion.
At the same time, the Scotts constructed a mansion that looks like a castle that still stands on Scott Mountain just north of Interstate 64. You can see the castle from the interstate if you look real carefully at the exact right time. I think it is only visible for about 30 seconds of driving. (Photo of the Scott Mansion from behind, showing Humpback Mountain.) The property received some notoriety recently when workers killed a rabid black bear that attacked them, only a short distance from the A.T.
Around the same time that Scott was getting his name etched on UVA's football stadium, the U.S. Government was acquiring lands that would eventually comprise Shenandoah National Park. If you remember from watching the Ken Burns series, national parks in the East are generally newer than those in the West. The Feds didn't put eastern parks together using land that was already public, as it did in the west. It also did not construct a park from a wealthy philanthropist's land donation, such as Rockefeller donations that became Acadia and Grand Teton National Parks.
The land was instead bought by the Commonwealth of Virginia and then transferred to the National Park Service. Virginia's interest was in creating a park that would encourage tourism spending. These land purchases were generally from small landowners who lived as mountain folk, and many felt they were not given the true value of their holdings.
The original plan was to have Shenandoah National Park end at Jarman Gap; the Skyline Drive would dead end here. The final southern boundary of Shenandoah National Park as accepted in deeds transferred by the Commonwealth of Virginia to the Department of the Interior in December, 1935, stopped at Jarman Gap.
However, in August, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited CCC camps in Shenandoah National Park and approved the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway to connect the Skyline Drive with the proposed Great Smoky Mountains National Park over 400 miles to the south. This meant that the federal government would take responsibility for obtaining the remainder of the park south of Jarman Gap.
The feds negotiated with the Scott family and eventually reached an agreement where the Drive would not use the ridge top heading south of Jarman Gap. Instead, the Drive was moved to the west side of Scott Mountain (the Scotts called this "the back side"), away from the Castle. The Scotts gave an easement covering 400 feet on either side of the roadway, all the way to Rockfish Gap.
|Topo map showing the position of the AT relative to the Scott Mansion.
Note that it is on the other side of the ridge top from the mansion.
Note the ribbon of land comprising Shenandoah National Park (orange next to the Skyline Drive).
So, the fact that Queen Victoria really liked some apples given to her in 1838 meant that the land where those apples were grown was too valuable to purchase for Shenandoah National Park 100 years later. This explains why the park abruptly becomes a tiny ribbon south of Jarman Gap.
But the story doesn't totally stop there. It is important now to note that the Park Service is now statutorily prohibited from acquiring additional land for Shenandoah National Park by direct purchase or condemnation. (Source.) So what do they do with the Appalachian Trail over this section? There isn't enough room to put it next to the Skyline Drive.
The AT north of Rockfish Gap is on National Park Service (NPS) land, but it is part of the NPS's Appalachian Trail corridor, and not part of Shenandoah National Park. The land that includes the summit of Bear Den Mountain and Little Calf Mountain was owned by the Scott/Bacock families (one of Scott's daughters married a Richmond attorney named Bocock, as is recounted in this memoir: Never Ask Permission). The Bococks sold portions to the National Park Service, bur retained rights to use of the land on horseback. This explains the zig-zag stiles at the A.T.'s road crossing at Beagle Gap. It is important to note that none of the land was obtained by eminent domain.
Those tractor seats stay on top of Bear Den Mountain because they pre-date public ownership of the land. They stay, even though they don't really overlook anything anymore - the trees have grown up around the summit so views are limited now. But I am glad they are there, and never pass up the chance to sit on them a spell when I am walking by. Check them out next time you are in the area - it is a delightful short walk from Beagle Gap!
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