Tourism – especially heritage tourism – can be a tough business for some communities. Small towns find their tourism dollars cut, if not eliminated, and spending money to highlight a town’s history might seem like a poor allocation of funds. I would argue the exact opposite, and there are many people who can quote the figures and statistics about the value of heritage tourism and how it benefits local economies. And since I am often one of those tourists (albeit a frugal one, as I always pack my own lunch), I applaud local tourism groups and Main Street organizations that recognize the value of their historic built environment. On a recent trip to Virginia, playing the tourist, I left the interstate (intentionally) to wander through a number of small towns, with my first stop being the town of Clifton Forge.
Clifton Forge is a railroad town, and that was one of the reasons I wanted to stop. I’ve also been long intrigued by the name – although much of the town owes its development to the Chesapeake and Ohio setting up shop in 1890, Euro-American settlement in the area is due to the construction of iron ore furnaces – hence the “forge” in the town’s name. The railroad’s involvement with the town – various lines and companies since the mid-19th century – can’t be overstated.
Since the turn of the 20th century, Clifton Forge’s fortunes intertwined with those of the CSX Railroad. Located on the north side of the Jackson River, the town grew along with the railroad, and on the eve of World War II, was a bustling community of almost 7,000 residents. During the 1920s, as my paternal grandmother traveled to and from Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, to Lynchburg, Virginia, she would switch trains in Clifton Forge. Since the railroad has disappeared from my hometown, I wanted a peek into the route she took back and forth to college.
In the mid-20th century, as the railroad’s profitability contracted, the economy of Clifton Forge suffered, mirroring the depressions that would mire many small towns across America. Ironically, the rebirth of Clifton Forge is credited, in part, to the opening of the C&O Railway Heritage Center in 2008. In the historic commercial district (listed in the National Register of Historic Places), new businesses have opened, and numerous buildings have been renovated. My favorite find within this rejuvenated downtown core was the Historic Masonic Theatre.
The three-story, buff colored brick building is striking – even in the midst of a restoration. Designed by Frye and Chesterman, an architectural firm in Lynchburg, Virginia, the theatre pays homage to the Neoclassical style. Ionic pilasters separate the central bays of the facade, while a heavy cornice with block modillions provides a horizontal presence to the overall verticality of the building.
Quoins, keystones, rope molding, inset panels, and arched openings complete the handsome facade – one of the most magnificent buildings I saw during my exploration of the town. The theatre, constructed in 1905 for $40,000 (can you imagine having such a glorious building erected for that sum today?), served multiple purposes for Clifton Forge.
The third floor was home to the Masonic Lodge, while the performance hall, along with offices, occupied the first and second floors – there was even a furniture warehouse in the basement. The impressive building hosted performers and groups like the Count Basie Orchestra, Gene Autry, and Burl Ives. The Masonic Theatre closed in 1987, reopened in 1990, was donated to the town in 2003, and closed again – for what seemed to be the final act – in 2010. But the Masonic Theatre Preservation Foundation forged ahead (I simply can’t avoid the pun) with plans to transform the building into a “performing arts, entertainment, education, and community facility,” and restoration began in 2015. The grand re-opening of the Masonic Theatre is scheduled for July 1-3, 2016.
Now, I did not know any of this on the afternoon I wandered about Clifton Forge. I was not lucky enough to find the Main Street office to ask about the sights I should not miss while in town, nor did I do my research before I headed east. But luckily…I have lots of experience getting lost in historic areas – and I usually end up finding amazing treasures – like the Historic Masonic Theatre.
Although most people might not be as passionate about historic architecture as I am – there are lots of travelers who enjoy seeing historic buildings and stretching their legs while on a road trip. What I would love to see is for towns with historic districts – both commercial (downtown) and residential districts – to know where they are and be able to direct visitors to those neighborhoods. Not everyone is as adventurous as I am. And though I didn’t take a train to get there, I thought a lot about my grandmother while I strolled about, camera in hand, and I am certain she would have approved of my detour.