(The information on this page was excerpted from a publication prepared as part of the club's 60th anniversary celebration, October 18, 1990)
Inquiry into the beginnings of the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club leads initially to New England. A dreamer and planner of Shirley, Massachusetts, Benton McKaye, envisioned a plan to save as much as possible of the vanishing Appalachian wilderness and, at the same time, provide jobs for workers displaced by World War I by establishing throughout the region small, government supported agricultural and light industrial communities, to be connected by a primitive footpath called the Appalachian Trail. The utopian plan was announced in 1921, but only the idea of the footpath caught public attention.
Trail enthusiasts from New York City began work at Bear Mountain in 1922, hoping to use a new bridge under construction across the Hudson River to connect New England trails to one leading to New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Groups met in New England, New York and Washington, D.C., and in 1925 the Appalachian Trail Conference was organized in Washington.
Judge Arthur Perkins, of Hartford, CT, was elected chairman of the conference, and he interested a junior law partner, Myron Avery, a native of Lubec, ME, in the trail. In 1927 Avery was named vice-chairman of the conference and helped organize the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, which became the "mother" of other clubs in ensuing years and by 1931 had completed 260 miles of the A.T. from the Susquehanna to Rockfish Gap. Meanwhile, outdoor enthusiasts in Central Virginia had learned of trail activities in the north and were aware of the proposed A.T. along the nearby Blue Ridge. They included Harold M. Sears, Supervisor of the Natural Bridge National Forest, who wrote an article on the Appalachian Trail for the Lynchburg News of May 19, 1929; his friends, Dr. Ruskin Freer, Professor of Biology at Lynchburg College, and Charles L. DeMott, a civil engineer, both of whom had hiked with members of the PATC; and two members of the Lions Club in Lynchburg, Fred M. Davis, an attorney, and Elmer L. Ayers, a life insurance agent.
In 1930 Davis and Ayres suggested that the Lions Club might sponsor a trail club in Lynchburg, and Freer, also a Lion, contacted Myron Avery, who came with five other PATC officers to speak at a Lions Club meeting on October 2, 1930. That same evening about 50 people met at the YMCA and organized the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club, with the Lions Club as sponsor and Ruskin Freer as the first president. Freer was well known in Lynchburg as an outdoorsman, naturalist, and writer of "The Rambler," a weekly column in the Lynchburg News.
Charles DeMott was elected vice-president, Fred Davis, secretary, C. G. Burton, president of the Lynchburg Hosiery Mill, treasurer, and C. B. Woodhead, William Adams, Culver Batson and Louis Doggette, councilors. Later, Batson was chosen as the first supervisor of trails, a position overlooked initially, and Harold Sears replaced him as councilor. The new club was assigned the Rockfish Gap to Hotel Mons (Peaks of Otter) section of the trail, on which the Forest Service had done considerable work already.
At the first full business meeting four weeks later, 30 members were present to hear President Freer outline the primary aims of the club: to complete the main A.T., build side trails to springs and other points of import, and construct shelters and campsites.
February 8, 1931 -- Party making the trip from Robinson's Gaps to Whites Gap and Buena Vista. Photography by Sam Bremmer. Fourth from the left is Ruskin Freer; fifth, Culver Batson; sixth, Blanche Couesin Hodgkins; seventh Elnora Dulaney Hill; eighth, Richard Bowler; ninth, Miss Hopkins; and tenth, Polly Martin. Kneeling in center front is Lew Brown.
The 1930s were busy years of establishing the club and setting precedents. Prospective members submitted applications and references that went to the Club Council for approval. By the end of 1932, there were 61 members. The fiscal year ended with $2.13 in the treasury; expenses had included such items as telegrams and mimeograph supplies.
Regular hikes and work trips were planned. Because few private cars were available, buses or trucks sometimes were chartered to transport the hikers. A charge of 1 cent per mile, per person was adopted and bus trips were 30 cents. Other than the main highways, there were few paved roads in the early thirties and one of the hike leader's duties was to ascertain, as far as possible, whether the approach road would be passable.
In September, 1931, Trails Supervisor Batson reported that the entire section from Rockfish Gap to Mons had been surveyed, marked and measured, with some signing still to be done. He organized the trail maintainers into ten groups, with 2 to 4 workers in each, and told them to enlist new members as they joined the club.
From left to right:
first, Charles DeMott;
second, Al Wills;
third, Boyd Claytor;
and fifth, Fred Davis
In the fall of 1932 the NBATC assumed responsibility for the 18 miles of trail from Mons to Villamont, making its total 105 miles. The following year club members built a wood and tarpaper shelter at Marble Spring, which was twice destroyed (once by bears, then by vandals) and rebuilt. It was reported that Doris Mathews and Louis Doggette mixed the concrete for the foundation of the first shelter with their bare feet.
In 1933 the NBATC rented a cabin at Rocky Row Run from the U.S. Forest Service for $25 a year. Named Camp Sebowisha, it served as club headquarters and the center for many hikes and good times until the mid 1940s when the need for repairs to the cabin became excessive. It was in 1933 also that the Natural Bridge National Forest became part of the expanded George Washington National Forest; two years later the George Washington land south of the James River was assigned to the Thomas Jefferson National Forest.
During the '30s, the metal markers used to blaze the trail were standardized in size and the club purchased a measuring wheel. While hiking and trail maintenance were the club's primary activities, the hikers enjoyed swimming, especially at Blue Hole near Camp Sebowisha, and very popular square dance evenings as well.
Haynie Kabler, the earliest NBATC member active in 1990, tells of a hike led by club President DeMott which passed a mountain church on the way to Rocky Mountain. Although most of the hikers were unaware of this, DeMott had agreed to teach an adult Sunday lesson at the church, and the pastor was waiting at the door to greet them. DeMott and the other men in the group entered the church and took part in the class, but most of the women hikers, wearing their knickers, jodhpurs or father's old trousers, were reluctant to be compared with the church women in their Sunday best and remained outside. Mrs. DeMott, it is said, never favored the women's liberation and always hiked in a skirt
The entire Appalachian Trail, from Maine to Georgia, was completed in 1937, but the following year saw the beginning of construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which would obliterate much of the club's section of the trail. Relocation of the trail became the major focus of club work trips for the next 13 years. In 1938 also, both the National Park and the U.S. Forest Services agreed to promote the Appalachian Trail concept and to protect the trail in its entirety. Except for the Parkway, no new parallel paved roads would be permitted within a mile of the trail, and a system of shelters and campsites was authorized.
These commitments formalized the federal government's recognition of the A.T. as a National Asset. The lack of suitable shelters along its trail section remained a concern of the NBATC, however, until the Forest Service began a shelter program in 1959 and built 12 shelters in the next three years.
Surveying and planning in cooperation with the Park and Forest Services began on sections of the trail both north and south of the James River, and the City of Lynchburg approved A.T. right of way through the Pedlar River watershed. Work on relocation of the trail progressed steadily for a time, but U.S. entry into World War II brought great change. Club members went into the armed services and war related jobs; tires and gasoline were in short supply; and Forest Service manpower was reduced. Most hikes had to be worked out using bus or train transportation; the club made a number of trips to Snowden by Greyhound Bus, which offered a convenient schedule and a fare of 89 cents.
T he end of the war brought renewed activity; committees were reactivated and trail section overseers were appointed for each of 19 sections maintained by the NBATC. May of 1946 was designated as "Trail Marking Month." In 1948, Ruskin Freer greeted Earl Shaffer, of York, PA, at the Peaks of Otter. Shaffer was the first official A.T. through hiker.
In the 1950s the University of Virginia Outing Club and two small trail clubs in the Rockfish and Scottsville areas began helping to maintain the trail between the Tye River and Reed's Gap. The Old Dominion and Tidewater Appalachian Trail Clubs later absorbed the two smaller clubs and in 1973 took responsibility for that section.
While new members were being added during the post-war period, the club still needed more active workers, and placed several advertisements in the classified section of the Friday newspaper, announcing weekend hikes. On November 3rd, 1951, a "Silver Nail" ceremony was held atop The Priest, a 4056 foot peak in the Pedlar District of the George Washington National Forest, marking the second completion of the entire Appalachian Trail with the final link from Three Ridges to The Priest. The relocation necessitated by the construction of the Parkway had been finished.
A group of women from the Randolph Macon Woman's College and Sweet Briar College communities proved their strength of spirit and body during the 1950s and 60s. Male membership had dropped to about 30 percent of the club and the women provided leadership and did all of the trail work. From 1951, when Dorothy Crandall (Bliss) was elected president, to 1968, all the NBATC presidents except one were women. Hester Hastings, the current club member holding one of the longest continuous memberships, became so involved in trail maintenance that Myron Avery nicknamed her "Paul Bunyan." Evelyn Casner and Laura Bliss used their jeeps many times to transport trail maintainers to work sites.
During the 1960s, club membership continued to increase and weekly hikes were scheduled and listed in regularly published bulletins. The Evelyn Casner Memorial Award was established, to be awarded to the trail club member hiking the greatest number of miles on scheduled hikes each year. Mary Guenther (Butterworth) was the first recipient, with a total of 106 miles to her credit in 1966.
Passage of the National Trails System Act in 1968 added to the protection of the trail and later agreements established the roles of the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the ATC and its member clubs in developing and maintaining the trail.
Hiking in late August, 1969, Alfred Bishop was descending the north side of The Priest when suddenly the trail ended. It had been destroyed by Hurricane Camille, and once again an extra measure of trail work was required. Trail maintenance continued to have high priority, along with regularly scheduled hikes, during the 70s and 80s, and new equipment purchases added to the work crews' efficiency. Club membership reached 100 in 1978.
T oday the NBATC maintains 88 miles of the Appalachian Trail, from the road crossing at Rt. 56 (Tye River) south to Blackhorse Gap. For this purpose the trail has been divided into 28 sections of varying lengths and a section leader assigned to each one. Many through hikers comment how well the trail is maintained.
The club's shelter program has had its ups and downs in recent years. After the James River Face Wilderness Area was established in 1976, the Marble Spring shelter in that area was removed, and later taken by helicopter to Cove Mountain, near Bearwallow Gap. The new Seeley-Woodworth shelter, named as a memorial to two long-time club members and trail workers, Harold Seeley and Jack Woodworth, was built near Twin Springs (south of Fish Hatchery Rd.) in 1984, and in 1986 the Cow Camp Gap shelter was built 1/4 mile east of the A.T. at the gap between Bald Knob and Cold Mountain. The shelter formerly serving that section, at Wiggin Springs, was moved to an area south of Roanoke.
The most recent major construction project is a new footbridge over Matts Creek, located in front of the Matts Creek shelter. Although this shelter lies within the James River Face Wilderness, it was decided not to remove it. Because no power tools could be used in the wilderness area, construction of the bridge, which is 2 1/2miles from the nearest road, was difficult. A plaque on the bridge bears the name of Henry Lanum, honoring him for his years of dedicated work as the NBATC's supervisor of trails.
Hikers who have not walked the trail in recent years may be surprised by the number of relocations that have occurred. They include a few hundred yards along the ridge on Cove Mountain, to avoid a view of the rock quarry; a section on Bluff Mountain, because of trail erosion; the trail going up Bald Knob, to remove the trail from a Forest Service road; Elk Pond Mountain area, Greasy Springs to Twin Springs, to remove trail from a Forest Service road and provide a new trail to the Seeley-Woodworth shelter; and Tar Jacket Ridge, to facilitate maintenance and provide excellent views.
In recent years club leaders have continued to work closely with Forest Service and Park Service officials, helping with the preparation of management plans for all three organizations to use as guides for jointly managing the A.T., and they have contributed to the preparation of a management plan for protecting and controlling the use of the James River Face and Thunder Ridge Wilderness Areas.
In 1987 the NBATC was instrumental in the selection of Lynchburg College as the site for the 26th annual meeting of the Appalachian Trail Conference, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the trail. Working with hikers from seven other clubs in Virginia, NBATC members, with Ed Page as coordinator, helped organize a variety of events for the conference. Active in the Conference throughout the years, club members have taken to the field many times to gather data for new editions of the Appalachian Trail Guide for Central and Southern Virginia.
Two new awards have been established to encourage participation of club members in NBATC activities. The 88-Miler award is given to each hiker who has hiked the entire 88 miles of the trail from Rt. 56 to Black Horse Gap on club sponsored trips, and the "Hiking Spree" program offers an NBATC hiking stick, appropriately marked, to each club member who participates in at least ten scheduled hikes in any one year.
Eight members of the NBATC have earned special recognition as members of that elite group of individuals who have hiked the entire 2134 miles of the A.T.
While NBATC activities and leadership have grown and undergone many changes over its 60 years, the club's goals have retained their focus on the vision of Benton MacKaye: the development and maintenance of a primitive footpath called the Appalachian Trail and preservation of as much as possible of the Appalachian wilderness for present and future generations to enjoy.
Dedication of new Matts Creek Bridge, September 9, 1990