- Associated Press - Saturday, January 30, 2016

MORGAN’S FORD, Va. (AP) - It is a rarity from Virginia’s annals.

In the 1790s, a settlement of free blacks - former slaves on plantations along the Shenandoah River - existed just across the stream on the south bank.

They stayed there for generations, according to census records, despite a law banishing freed slaves from the commonwealth. Some even owned property, ignoring another of Virginia’s bans.

“This is such a unique African-American community,” said Maral Kalbian, who came across its existence while documenting the history of Warren County’s first Rural Historic District in Rockland.

“This is one of the most powerful things I’ve worked on,” she added.

It is a unique African-American community because it existed for almost 100 years during such a hostile era, she explained.

Called Leed’s Town or Smoke Town, it sits south of the Shenandoah River, at the mouth of Manassas Run, and can even be found dotted on antique maps and from aerial surveys.

And, Kalbian said, the site is about to be destroyed, thanks to a planned road project by the Virginia Department of Transportation.

A single-lane, low-water bridge at Morgan’s Ford, just south of the Clarke County line, is in rough shape. Much of its surface is gone; ragged sections are proliferating; and there are no railings.

Now, the Warren County Board of Supervisors is supporting VDOT’s plan to raise the bridge 8 feet above the river and widen it to accommodate two lanes. To do this, the roads approaching the bridge on each side will have to be raised, as well.

In the process, the site where some believe Smoke Town once stood would be destroyed, before any archaeological study can be done, Kalbian said.

“We don’t know much about a late 18th-century, free black community,” Kalbian said. The chance to fill in that historical blank could be gone forever.

Under the National Historic Preservation Act, a special review had to be done for the road project. Kalbian was working on the nomination for the Rockland Rural Historic District at that time.

Her information on Smoke Town and the old maps were offered to the agencies doing that review, according to Dan Holmes, director of state policy for the Piedmont Environmental Council, which joined the process after consultations with neighbors.

VDOT determined, however, that the site of Smoke Town was actually farther from the river, south of the intersection with Howellsville Road, which was built in 1940, Kalbian said.

Therefore, no investigation was deemed necessary for the area, where Kalbian and others believe the settlement was.

The fact that the information was shared, and apparently ignored, “is one of the more concerning issues of this project,” Holmes said.

“Saying it is somewhere else, or just saying it louder, doesn’t make it true,” Holmes added. He said the path of the old road, where the old maps pinpoint Smoke Town to have been, is still visible from the air.

Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources accepted Kalbian’s research in passing the nomination for the Rockland Rural Historic District, Holmes added. “They concurred with her findings.”

Barbara Frank, who lives at Mount Zion - one of the oldest standing homes in the historic district - worked with a citizens group, “Preserve Morgan’s Ford Consulting Group,” to try and persuade VDOT against moving forward with the road project.

The Clarke County Board of Supervisors also expressed concern about the higher, wider bridge to the state Secretary of Transportation Aubrey L. Layne Jr.

Milldale Road, on the north side of the low-water bridge, leads to Red Gate Road in Clarke.

The land along Red Gate is agricultural and the majority of the properties are under a permanent conservation easement, according to Michael Hobert, who was chairman of the Clarke County Board of Supervisors, in a letter from October 2014.

Red Gate is too narrow for a center line, Hobert noted, has no shoulders and is often used by farm vehicles, equestrians and bicyclists.

Widening the bridge and straightening its approaches could promote more drivers to use Clarke’s rural roads as cut-throughs north, east and west, according to Hobert.

Holmes said the Piedmont Environmental Council offered an alternative design for the replacement bridge, which, it felt, would preserve the site of Smoke Town and also the rural character of the area.

Frank said the south end of the bridge features a gravel parking area, where local residents can reach the river for recreation, but that will be lost if VDOT raises the bridge and cuts off access to the banks.

Bruce Penner, regional program manager for cultural resources for VDOT, counters those statements.

Since the process started in 2011, Penner said VDOT’s consulting architectural historians researched both banks of the Shenandoah, north and south of Morgan’s Ford.

They conducted a systematic search within the area along Morgan’s Ford Road to a point south of its intersection with Howellsville Road, Penner said.

That involves hand-digging test holes 15 inches in diameter every 75 feet, he said, down to subsoil.

“They didn’t recover any artifacts,” Penner said.

The consultants also pored over old maps and aerial photos, Penner said. Some of those showed structures to the west of Morgan’s Ford Road, he said.

Although the road on the north bank makes a fairly tight right turn as it approaches the current bridge, Penner said the project would keep the existing path.

The land on the south bank is owned by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, which means that VDOT will be able to adjust the angle into the new bridge slightly to the east on that side.

Penner said Manassas Run is eating into the current roadway on the west side and moving the right of way will help alleviate the problem.

“The boat launch will stay,” he added, but the access point to the current graveled area will be moved farther away from the bridge “for safety and sight distance.”

The project has been advertised for bid, Penner said, and dirt could be moved by spring.

However, Kalbian, Frank and Holmes can’t fathom the rush to possibly destroy what might be a historic treasure trove of black history.

“I don’t understand why VDOT doesn’t deem this worthy of being re-evaluated,” Kalbian said.

Moving earth to build up the roadway or widen the road itself, “would damage any potential clues as to what was actually here,” she said.

___

Information from: The Winchester Star, http://www.winchesterstar.com

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