By Mike Steely
Powell Valley is located just south of Cumberland Mountain stretching from Wise County, Va., all the way into Eastern Tennessee along the Powell River. The name “Powell” comes from long-hunter Ambrose Powell, a member of Dr. Thomas Walker’s exploration of our region. His name was found carved into a tree.
The extension of Powell Valley between LaFollette and Harrogate, Tn. is a scenic and interesting day trip with many old places along the way and the heights of the mountain to the north and the river to the south.
You can loop the drive by taking I-75 to Caryville, past Cove Lake State Park, and through LaFollette heading east. Just stay on Highway 63 and you’ll pass some historic mountain gaps to the north. Other than Highway 25 West and 25 East there’s no road across the mountain between LaFollette and Harrogate, just the unbroken and majestic Cumberland Mountain.
Lots happened during settlement and in the Civil War atop that mountain including skirmishes at Big Creek Gap (now LaFollette), Woodson’s Gap and Rogers Gap near Speedwell.
Heading east you’ll pass through the little communities of Fincastle and Well Springs. At Speedwell you’ll find a few stores, a post office, large farms and lots of history. Where the name comes from is a guess but probably it was for Speedwell, Virginia.
Powell Valley has an elementary school, a post office, churches, a volunteer fire department, and a convenience store. Highway 63 has been designated as the General Carl W. Stiner Highway after the Campbell County native.
If you’ll turn south you can drive Old Highway 63 and basically travel along the old pioneer route. Along the road you’ll find the Kincaid-Russell House, built by John Kincaid in 1840 for his brother William Harrison Kincaid. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places. The Kincaid family were wealthy settlers, slave holders, and Confederate supporters.
Still along the old route you’ll come to Academy Road. If you turn right you’ll eventually come to a very notable structure, Speedwell Academy. The ancient schoolhouse was donated by a Pennsylvanian, George Shutter, who donated 114 acres and supplied the funds and the slave labor to build the school. Originally a log structure the building was bricked when clay from a nearby creekbed was shaped in handmade molds and fired on the site. Some of the bricks have paw prints, apparently from dogs who walked through the molds. With a foundation of limestone the building has exposed hand-hewn beams running the full length of the structure.
Male students at the school worked on the Shutter farm. Church services were held on the second floor and the school building became a makeshift center of the rural community. Eventually Claiborne County acquired the school and it closed in 1970. The Academy was abandoned and much of it destroyed by vandals.
Today a non-profit organization maintains and restores the building.
During the Civil War the Confederates occupied the school with area commander General Felix Zollicoffer residing there occasionally. The grounds around the school were known as “Campground Bluff.”
Back on the newer Highway 63 heading east you’ll pass Carr’s Chapel, Arthur and Town Creek. Town Creek was so named because, in early settlement, a Native American settlement was found along the creek.
Eventually you will arrive in Harrogate, home of Lincoln Memorial University, and near the town of Cumberland Gap. A venture into the historic little town is worthwhile as is a trip atop the mountain there to overlook both Kentucky and Tennessee. If you continue through Powell Valley into Virginia on Highway 63 you’ll eventually come to Martin’s Station, built on the edge of Indian Territory and destroyed by the Chickamauga Cherokee.
But if you’ll turn right in Harrogate and follow Highway 25W on your way back home you’ll pass through Tazewell, New Tazewell, and Maynardville.
A day away, especially with family, makes for a great get-away from home. If you take such a trip you should stop occasionally, see the sites, and enjoy your outing.