Today we're exploring one of the more famous trail towns along the Appalachian Trail, Damascus, Virginia.
First trail days in Damascus in 1986 (Appalachian Trail Conservancy Archives)
Bill Donahue, “Meet the Hardest Partiers on the Appalachian Trail,” Backpacker: Outside Learn, September 25, 2017.
Gene Espy, The Trail Of My Life: The Gene Espy Story, Indigo Publishing, 2008.
Mills Kelly, Virginia's Lost Appalachian Trail, The History Press, 2022.
MILLS KELLY: One of the many things that makes hiking on the Appalachian Trail a unique experience is how many small towns the trail passes through on its way from Georgia to Maine.
[Small town noises]
KELLY: In small towns like Hot Springs, North Carolina or Duncannon, Pennsylvania, the trail runs, (or used to run), right down main street. In these places, hikers can stop into a diner for a cheeseburger, spend the night in a hotel or guest house, send and receive mail, and get to know local folks.
KELLY: Welcome to The Green Tunnel, a podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly and I’m your host.
KELLY: Of all the trail towns along the AT, none is more famous these days than Damascus, Virginia.
KELLY: Since 1986, Damascus has been the home of the annual Trail Days festival. Only a few hundred people attended the first festival. But these days, attendees are joined by many, many thousands of hikers, vendors, and other colorful characters. People come to meet other hikers, to reconnect with old friends, to see the latest gear, and, well, to party.
KELLY: For this little town of fewer than 800 residents, Trail Days is the single biggest event of their year, by any measure. All those visitors give a major boost to the local economy, and because folks have such a good time at the festival, many of them return again at a quieter moment.
KELLY: The town is a lovely place. It sits at the intersection of the AT and the Virginia Creeper Trail and it’s one of the gateways into the Grayson Highlands and the Iron Mountain range, Virginia’s tallest mountains.
KELLY: Of course, Damascus wasn’t always the place we know today. The town has quite a history all its own.
KELLY: Henry Mock, Jr. founded the town in 1821 and as town founders often did, he named the place after himself – Mock’s Mill.
KELLY: Like so many small communities in that part of Southwest Virginia, the economy of Mock’s Mill was based on the most abundant local resource – trees…especially the oak and chestnut trees that carpeted the nearby mountain slopes. Laurel Creek, which runs right through town, powered the sawmill that turned those trees into lumber, and wagons hauled them off to the Holston River, which eventually took them to the Mississippi River and into the wider U.S. economy.
KELLY: For more than 40 years, not much happened in Mock’s Mill other than lumbering. But then in 1886, former Confederate General John Imboden came to town.
KELLY: Imboden was born in Staunton, Virginia in the 1820s. Before the Civil War, he taught at the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind and was later a member of the VA state legislature. A lawyer by trade, Imboden also owned a number of enslaved people in Augusta County. When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, Imboden served first as an artillery commander and later as a cavalry officer in the Confederate Army.
KELLY: He was no tourist when he came to Mock’s Mill in 1886. Imboden arrived with a proposition for the Mock family – he wanted to buy the entire town. After some back and forth, the Mocks agreed to sell to Imboden, who promptly changed the name of the town to Damascus, after the ancient city in modern Syria.
KELLY: Imboden was an entrepreneur. Until his death in 1895, he was a relentless advocate for developing the lumber industry in the region. By 1900, Damascus and its surrounding region were producing more board feet of lumber every year than the entire state of Pennsylvania. All that lumber eventually brought a rail connection from nearby Abingdon, and then the town really began to boom. And by 1920 there were twice as many people living in Damascus as there are today.
KELLY: But all good things eventually come to an end. The lumber industry declined during the Great Depression, the furniture manufacturing industry shifted its base of operations to North Carolina and Michigan, and Damascus began a long, slow decline.
KELLY: At the same time the local lumber industry was fading, the Appalachian Trail arrived in town…and early on hikers discovered just how welcoming the people of Damascus are. And how good the food is.
GENE ESPY: When I got to Damascus, I went to this drugstore, restaurant-like place. And so I went to the counter and I ordered 10 slices of toast with syrup. And while they were doing that they fixed me a chocolate milkshake.
KELLY: That was the voice of legendary Appalachian Trail thru hiker Gene Espy, describing his first visit to Damascus in the summer of 1951. He was speaking at the Southern Highlands ATC Biennial Meeting in July of 2005. At the time Gene was 78.
KELLY: In 1951, Gene became the second person to hike the AT from one end to the other. When he got to Damascus, he had been on the trail for many weeks and was looking a little worse for wear. But the people of Damascus greeted him like a new friend. And one of the local residents joined him at the counter in that restaurant.
ESPY: This fella came and sit down beside me. He had on dark pants in the white shirt. He asked what I was doing in town. I had my backpack over to one side, see. I told him I was hiking the Appalachian Trail through there.
ESPY: So I told him I was going to go to the post office and I was going to send out some cards.
KELLY: Gene didn’t know that he was talking to one of the most important people in town.
ESPY: Went to the postcard rack and this man turned out to be the police chief, I forgot to tell you that. Anyway, I got ready to leave from the counter and I asked the waitress, I said, “How much do I owe y'all? She said not a thing. The chief said you’re all right.” She said in addition to being police chief, he and she pointed to a woman back behind the counter there, said that’s his wife they run this restaurant.
KELLY: After his free meal, Gene went to the post office to pick up an order he’d placed with L.L. Bean and then wrote some postcards to friends and family back home in Georgia. As he got ready to leave town, the weather didn’t look promising. Once again the police chief came to his rescue.
ESPY: I got my backpack and was all ready to go about an hour before sundown and it looked like it was fixin to have big cloud burst any minute. So I met up with him and he said what I said why don’t I go down to headquarters that night and then get an early start next morning. I said yeah that sounded pretty good looking at all that cloud burst and there weren’t any shelters for miles and miles after I left Damascus. And so I spent a night in jail.
KELLY: These days we’d call what happened to Gene “trail magic.” I’m pretty sure he is the only AT hiker whose first experience with trail magic involved spending the night in the town jail and stringing up a laundry line between the bars of his cell.
KELLY: Fortunately, they let Gene out the next morning and sent him back to the restaurant for one more meal.
ESPY: He gave me a note to give to the lady that opened up that restaurant the next morning and it said give his man what he wants for breakfast. He is okay and just sign his name. And so I went next morning and ate about three orders of ham and eggs and grits. [laughter from audience].
KELLY: Gene might not have been the first Appalachian Trail hiker to experience some trail magic in Damascus, and he certainly wasn’t the last. These days pretty much everywhere you look in town you see signs welcoming hikers and the town bills itself as “Trail Town USA.”
KELLY: And, of course, there is Trail Days…One of the traditions of Trail Days is that thru hikers walk in a parade organized by the year they hiked the trail. For many years, until he was too old to come and take part, Gene led the parade on behalf of the two other hikers who completed thru hikes in 1951. Anyone who remembers watching Gene smile and wave to the crowds can tell you what a treat it was to watch him march past.
KELLY: I had the good fortune to interview Gene in the summer of 2019 and he made a point of telling me what a special place Damascus has in his heart. I think it’s fair to say that the people of Damascus feel the same way about Gene.
KELLY: If you are going to Trail Days in 2023, be sure to stop by The Green Tunnel podcast table at the Damascus Trail Center and say hello. We’d love to meet you and we’ll have some cool swag for our listeners. Keep an eye on our social media all weekend long for live updates throughout Trail Days.
KELLY: The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Today’s episode was produced by me, Mills Kelly. Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske are our executive producers.
KELLY: A special thanks to the Appalachian Trail Museum’s Library which is where we found the recording of Gene Espy that we shared today.
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KELLY: That’s it for today. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you again soon!