Story and photos by Drema J. Morgan
During the mid-1700s, Buchanan, Virginia was the jumping-off point for travelers on both the James River and the north-south Lee Highway. Buchanan was a respite for resting, dining and resupplying provisions for the journey. Rich in history, the town is celebrating 200 years of ebb and flow and, like other small towns, rebuilding and reinventing itself through many economic and social changes. Situated at the intersection of Route 11 and Route 43 and accessible from I-81, the town is close to destinations such as Natural Bridge, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail. Today, Buchanan is at the crossroads of adventure whether exploring the outdoors or exploring the downtown scene. Mark and I took ourselves off to for a day of adventuring.
We found the laid-back atmosphere in downtown inviting to relax and explore at an unhurried pace. Whether you’re interested in history, antiques or art, there is something for everyone. History buffs will find that Buchanan was the western terminus for the James River and Kanawha Canal which George Washington proposed to create a link from the Richmond area to the Ohio River for commerce. It is considered an engineering feat. As part of the Civil War Trail, each spring re-enactors take over the town to retell the story of the triumphs and tragedies of the war during the Buchanan Civil War History Weekend. We hear Spring is particularly gorgeous as the entire town explodes with bursts of color in the trees, yards and public grounds. And this time of year it’s not hard to find rosebushes, lilies, daisies and so much more blooming throughout the town.
We discovered the Swinging Bridge over the James, a favorite attraction to newcomers and townspeople alike. At 366 feet long and 57.5 feet tall it is quite impressive. While the wooden bridge has been redone, the stone piers, original to the bridge, date to 1851 and have seen many wars and floods in its time. At one time it was a toll bridge and pedestrians, horses, mules, oxen or wagons were charged 5 cents each to cross. The bridge’s historical significance contributed to Buchanan’s placement on the National Historic Register as a Historic District.
Shoppers of antiques and art will love the downtown scene, especially “Antique Alley.” The Purgatory Emporium, so named for Purgatory Mountain visible from the shop window, features over 50 dealers of antiques, jewelry, rafts and other nifty collectables. Gallery by the James is an artist co-op which is owned and operated by local artists. They currently feature the work of 15 artists. The Frame Shop and Gallery also features art and a large selection of Civil War Art by Mort Kunstler and John Paul Strain. There are some other hidden treasures around town for you to discover on your own.
While not utilized for commerce in today’s world, the James River is a recreational hot spot. Located on Lowe Street in sight of the James River, Twin River Outfitters rents canoes, kayaks, rafts and river tubes and offers daytrips and canoe camping trips. Here in Buchanan, where the James River winds its way to the Chesapeake Bay, the river is usually about waist deep for adults, but there are some holes that get as deep as 15’. Twin River Outfitters also provides excursions to the Maury River.
Not to be overlooked is the need to refuel after all the shopping. Stepping right out of the 50s and 60s, experience the old fashion soda fountain at The Buchanan Fountain & Grill. Serving up lunch and dinner as well as sweet treats like milk shakes, floats and sundaes, it is an experience that will take you back in time with memorabilia decor and photos of the old cars from recent Cruise Ins. If your preference is a little more substantive, check out the Brink of the James Bistro which serves not only burgers and such, but delectable dishes like grilled salmon and short ribs of beef, just to name a few.
If an overnight adventure is more enticing, there are a few accommodations of interest. One of the most unique is The Buchanan Railcar Inn. A renovated 1934 luxury executive rail car featuring inlaid woods and fine furnishings, it offers spacious bedrooms and has a mini-fridge, microwave and coffee maker. Reservations are required. The James River House offers 5 bedrooms and is great for groups of 6 to 14 all within walking distance of local shops and restaurants. It has a formal living room, dining room and full kitchen for convenience. Other unique cabins and cottages in the surrounding area are available overnight stays.
Some upcoming events to take in are An Evening in Buchanan which will be held on August 14 from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Treat your taste buds to old fashion foods and enjoy the Cruise In car show along Main Street. Caricature artists will immortalize your face and you can even take a carriage ride. On October 3rd, Mountain Magic in Fall will be held featuring Bluegrass Music, country dancing, antiques, Farmer’s Market, food and lots of fun. Take some time to check out this small town off the beaten path.