Visiting Big Stone Gap

A Day Away By Mike Steely

Just over two hours northeast of Knoxville is a special small town loaded with history, scenery and myth. Big Stone Gap, Virginia, is in Wise County and near the Virginia-Kentucky state line and at the foot of a gap in the Cumberland Mountain range.

Visited by early explorers Thomas Walker and Christopher Gist in 1750, several forts were built in the area after 1774 and the noted and feared Cherokee Chief Bob Benge was killed nearby in his last raid on white settlements in East Tennessee and Western Virginia.

I recall my wife and I visiting Big Stone Gap several years ago when I was invited to speak there at the Southwest Virginia Museum about the legend of John Swift’s silver mine. The building was a mansion built by Rufus Ayers, Virginia’s Attorney General. The last owner donated the old rock home to the state in 1946 and the building now holds a collection of items and information about the history and development of the area.

The town was a center of area coal mining and has an interactive kiosk of life back then. Once called “Mineral City” the town was promoted as the “New Pittsburgh of the South.”

Big Stone Gap was also the home of author John Fox Jr. and Wise County houses Virginia’s two largest state prisons. The Fox home is available for small tours. Downtown offers a vintage gas station, the movie set of the “Big Stone Gap” film and a visitor center with a display of movie items from the “Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” which is also presented as a live play in the community each year since 1964 in June through August. Adriana Trigiani, who wrote “Big Stone Gap,” also wrote “Big Cherry Holler” and “Milk Glass Moon.”

There’s a good website for the visitor center and you can call (276) 523-2303 for more information.

The June Tolliver House and Folk Art Center is listed on the National Historic Landmark Register and features antiques and paintings donated by local artists, plus a gift shop.

Big Stone Gap’s Historic District contains several other architecturally significant buildings. The Slemp Federal Building, Christ Episcopal Church, Terrace Park Girl Scout Cabin and Tri-State Coach Bus Terminal are all within walking distance.

You could make a day trip to Big Stone Gap by taking Broadway/Maynardville Highway north to Cumberland Gap via Highway 25E and then east on Highway 58 through the valley past Wilderness Road State Park and Jonesville, Va. If you continue on Highway 58 you’ll take a left turn in Duffield to Highway 23 and follow that to Big Stone Gap.

At the intersection in Duffield, you could follow Highway 23 south a bit and visit Virginia’s Natural Tunnel State Park. Or you could visit the tunnel on your way back to Knoxville via Highway 23 to Kingsport, Tn. and return to Knoxville along Highway 11W through Rogersville, Bean Station and Rutledge.

You can find more information about Wise County on the internet or call (276) 395-0349.

Sometimes just having a day away from home or business is refreshing and informational, especially if you take a friend or family member.