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Lexington, Virginia

A Brief History

Indian legend has it that the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley so awed the heavens that each star cast the brightest jewel from its own crown into the valley's limpid waters, there to sparkle and shine ever after in a gesture of celestial benediction.

Thus arose the valley's name: Shenandoah - Clear-Eyed Daughter of the Stars. The Valley was first viewed by English settlers in 1716 by then Virginia Governor Spottswood and a company of explorers, the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe, when they viewed it from the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Scotch-Irish and German immigrants coming from Pennsylvania began to settle the valley in the 1730's and established themselves along a well worn Indian path, known as the Great Wagon Road, that traversed the center of the valley. This road is still traveled today and called Lee Highway, or U.S. Rt. 11.

Benjamin Borden received a royal grant that included what is now Rockbridge County and made portions of this land available to settlers for the establishment of farms. The name of the county was derived from the "Rocky Bridge", an early reference to The Natural Bridge of Virginia, one of the natural wonders of the world.

The City of Lexington, originally known as Gilbert Campbell's Ford, was established as the town of Lexington in the Spring of 1778. The name chosen by the Virginia Legislature for the new county seat was in honor of the first great battle of the Revolutionary War, the battle of Lexington, Massachusetts, which had occurred three years earlier.

Thomas Jefferson, who owned a tract of land in the new county that included the Natural Bridge, is reported to have played a part in naming the county as well as the town.

Lexington, which benefited from its location on the Great Wagon Road and its proximity to the North River (now known as the Maury River), was originally 1,300 feet long and 900 feet wide. It was smaller than what today comprises the city's Central Business District (CBD). Four original interior blocks were created by the intersection of Henry, Washington and Nelson Streets by Randolph, Main and Jefferson Streets. All but one was named after prominent supporters of the nation's struggle for independence.

The City of Lexington was incorporated in 1841 and almost from the beginning its main industry was education. Liberty Hall Academy was established in 1790 just to the west of the town. When George Washington made a sizable gift to the college's endowment, the institution's name was changed to Washington College so as to honor the nation's first president. At the end of the Civil War the presidency of the college was offered to General Robert E. Lee who presided over it for the five years preceding his death. Shortly thereafter the trustees renamed the school Washington & Lee University. Today, it enjoys a reputation as one of the finest coeducational centers of learning in the country. Its enrollment is in excess of 1600 undergraduates and 350 law students.

In 1816 the General Assembly of Virginia established three arsenals for the the housing of arms. One of these was built in Lexington. By the mid 1830's a prominent local attorney and graduate of Washington College, John T. L. Preston, advocated the establishment of a state military school at the arsenal. The Virginia Military Institute enrolled its first cadets in November of 1839 and prospered in the years prior to the Civil War. Among its faculty was Major Thomas J. Jackson, soon to become known as "Stonewall Jackson" and be noted as one of the South's most famous and revered heroes. The rigid military lifestyle of V.M.I. together with its reputation for requiring academic excellence in engineering, the sciences and liberal arts has earned it a national reputation for producing graduates who consistently go on to achievements in both the military and business worlds. 

Lexington began to grow with the arrival of the railroad arrived between 1860 and 1880 as well as with the speculative real estate boom of the 1890's which saw the Lexington Land Company acquire 1,275 acres to the west of the town and along the railroad and river fronts. Lots were marketed in the spring and summer of 1891 but there were few buyers at the time. The stage was set, however, for the expansion which was to take place as the new century arrived.

A modern bridge was constructed over the Maury River in 1935, replacing an old covered bridge that had been there for years and could not handle the increased traffic the growing town was entertaining. The present Rt. 11 going uphill from the city was constructed and the Rt. 11 bypass was completed in 1956 giving drivers the option of going around town rather than through it. Commercial shopping began to be constructed along East Nelson Street in the early 1960's and this area now serves as a second major commercial center within the city limits.

Interstate 81 (I-81) was constructed through the heart of the Shenandoah Valley in the early 1960's as well. Two Lexington exits were provide at that time. This replaced Rt.11 as the main north-south artery connecting various cities and towns in the Valley. It also meant that the valley had become a major conduit for truck and automobile traffic.

Interstate 64 (I-64) leading traffic from I-81, as it passed north of Lexington, to Charleston, West Virginia was completed in 1978. Lexington now finds itself conveniently located at the junction of two interstate highways giving the traveler easy north/south and east/west access.

Today, Lexington serves as the retail, cultural and historic center of Rockbridge County as well as the home of local government and the courts. The addition of major shopping centers both within its boundaries and to its north on U.S. Rt. 11 has changed the character of the retail trade within its CBD. Thanks to the Lexington Visitor Center, Historic Lexington Foundation, Lexington Downtown Development Association and active Chamber of Commerce, Lexington's downtown is a thriving collection of shops and restaurants housed in restored buildings with brick sidewalks and old fashioned lantern street lamps that serve the many visitors and tourists that come here all year long. Because of the style of the city as well as its many historic attractions (such as the Stonewall Jackson House, Lee Chapel, Marshall Museum, historic walking tours, ghost tours, and carriage rides & tours), tourism is challenging education as the city's largest industry.

The entire town is well known for its outstanding architecture, record for historic preservation, friendly people, cleanliness and extremely low crime rate. In short, Lexington is a very unique and special place. But don't take our word for it. Visit us either in person or by clicking onto our photo gallery. Be sure to "click around" the rest of "The Community" to see what else we have to offer. Maybe we'll see you downtown!

Please click here for more detailed data on our beautiful town.

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