Clann Mhór


Mountain Top Inn, the Railroad, and the Irish

Mountain  Top Inn has been part of the history of the Rockfish Gap for over two hundred years.  Most anyone from this area has heard it discussed as the place Jefferson and his colleagues met to decide on the location of the University of Virginia.

The Mountain Top Inn was located just below the crest of Rockfish Gap, with the Staunton-James River Turnpike crossing directly in front of the Inn.  This served as the horse and wagon route going both directions across the mountain.  During the eight years of construction of the Blue Ridge Tunnel it would have also been the route of any railroad workers going between the East and West Portal work sites.  Wagons loaded with supplies for the tunnel passed by the Inn regularly.  With the need for supplies and the fact that hundreds of Irish lived near the tunnel, the turnpike would have been heavily traveled in the 1850s.

Land records for the “Mountain Top Tract” date back as early as 1793, and in 1803 and again in 1805, Hugh Paul declared the value of a tavern on a Mutual Assurance policy.  He stated the presence of two buildings used as a tavern with a smoke house and stables nearby.

Photo courtesy of Waynesboro Library

Library of Virginia, courtesy of Tom Elliot

Clann Mhor has been interested in how the Mountain Top Inn, also known as the Rockfish Tavern, Mountain Top Tavern, and Mountain Top Hotel, might relate to the railroad and the Irish living near the inn and tunnel.  The first problem was establishing where Mountain Top Inn was located.  A fire on September 21, 1903 started from a terra cotta pipe in the rear of the hotel and spread quickly, destroying the Inn.   When I-64 was built in the 1960s, any evidence of the Inn would have been destroyed.  Any maps that illustrated the location were of no help in accurately placing the inn.  Local people mentioned various locations, but there was still no proof.

Finally, photographs were located showing the Inn before it burned in 1902.  These photographs were taken in 1895 when Eugene Massie was owner or proprietor of the Inn. We were able to take the photo shown below and stand at the site to compare the mountaintops and ridges in the background, and determine as closely as possible the actual location of the Mountain Top Inn.  In this later photo the Inn would have been near two of the now derelict buildings that were part of a motel built much later.

Photo courtesy of Waynesboro Library

Google Earth image

Old postcard of Rockfish Gap

A second image revealed a train on the tracks just before it reached the Blue Ridge Tunnel.  The tracks would have been visible from the Mountain Top Inn.

Additional research has verified that a plank chapel was erected at Mountain Top to serve the Irish community working on the railroad.  An article in the Staunton Spectator as well as the history of St. Francis Catholic Church, Staunton, Virginia, substantiates this.  This information indicates that a community of Irish was living nearby.

   Photo courtesy of Waynesboro Library

   Library of Virginia, Richmond Dispatch, 1894

At various times both Claudius Crozet and Denis Shanahan (Engineer on the Blue Ridge Railroad) boarded at the Mountain Top Inn.  In 1849, Crozet and a survey crew were in the process of choosing the route for the railroad to cross the mountain.  Below are receipts for Crozet’s expenses at Mountain Top Inn.

Thadeus Leake served as the postmaster at Mountain Top in 1852 and William C. Lipscomb served from 1853 until his death in 1856.  Irish railroad workers and families would have used this post office during this time period.  Several ads from The Pilot (a newspaper for locating missing Irish family members) listed “Mountain Top” as their place of residence.

Library of Virginia

By the fall of 1850 there was much activity at the Mountain Top.  Kelly and Larguey, the contractors for the main tunnel, had established a store near the tunnel.  They were purchasing groceries, provisions, clothing, crockery, and lumber for shanties.  A stable was located near the tunnel and purchases of carts, horses, and harnesses were charged to the railroad.  Some of the provisions were loaded on a wagon at William Withrow’s store in Waynesboro and traveled to the tunnel by way of the turnpike.  Delivery wagons loaded with these materials and supplies traveled from across the state and came up the mountain passing right in front of the Mountain Top Inn.

Down the west side of the mountain, the roadway was turned to go under the new railroad embankment with a new stone viaduct.  While John Kelly and Claudius Crozet were in dispute over this work, a separate contract was awarded to George Farrow, of Brooksville, to build this stone viaduct.  Records indicated that he exhausted one nearby stone quarry and had to haul limestone along the turnpike from a more distant quarry.  Remnants of this viaduct are still visible today.

Remnants of viaduct where the railroad traveled under the turnpike.                                 ©Rhonda Roebuck

With the Staunton-James River Turnpike directly in front of Mountain Top Inn, stagecoaches moving across the mountain would have stopped and stayed here often.  Later as train service moved through the new tunnel below, much of the traffic would have by-passed the Inn.  As late as 1882 an ad for the Inn suggested that visitors disembark from the train at “Dublin”.  We can only assume this name of the railroad flag-stop was derived from the area near the West Portal of the Tunnel that housed many of the Irish who had worked on the railroad for over eight years.

Any guest sitting on the front porch of the Mountain Top Inn in the 1850s could witness what would become an important part of the history of transportation in Virginia.

         Photo showing the Turnpike passing in front of Mountain Top Inn.            Photo courtesy of Waynesboro Library

In researching Mountain Top Inn, it should be noted that the land records indicate that the “Mountain Top Tract” sold many times.  This land has been sold outright, as a payment on a debt, and auctioned at a courthouse.  We have tried to be as accurate as possible here.

C & O Directory, 1881-1882