Swift Run Gap
Swift Run Gap is a wind gap in the Blue Ridge
Mountains located in the U.S. state of Virginia
At an elevation of 2,365 feet, it is
the site of the mountain crossing of U.S. Highway 33 between the
Piedmont region on the eastern side and the Shenandoah Valley (or
Great Valley of Virginia) to the west.
Generally following the mountain ridge tops, the bucolic
Skyline Drive, which is part of
Shenandoah National Park, has an entry point
at Swift Run Gap, and the Appalachian Trail also passes through
nearby. The mountain ridge forms the border between Greene County
and Rockingham County. Swift Run Gap lies
along a drainage divide between southeast-flowing streams in the
James River watershed and northwest-flowing streams that drain to
the Shenandoah River system.
The bedrock beneath Swift Run
Gap is 1.05 billion year old granitic rocks of the Blue
Ridge basement complex. The type location for the Swift Run
Formation, a Neoproterozoic metasedimentary unit, is approximately
1.5 miles east of the gap. A steeply dipping,
northwest-striking transverse fault cuts through Swift Run Gap,
and differential erosion of the fractured bedrock along this fault
may be responsible for the development of a gap at this location.
Swift Run Gap is a
long-used and historic crossing in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
In 1716, Royal Governor Alexander Spotswood of the Virginia
Colony, with 62 other men and 74 horses, led a real estate
speculation expedition up the Rapidan River valley during westward
exploration of the interior of Virginia. The party reached the top
of the Blue Ridge at Swift Run Gap on September 5, 1716. Upon
descending into a portion of the Shenandoah Valley on the east
side of Massanutten Mountain, they reached a point near the
current town of Elkton, where they celebrated their arrival on the
banks of the Shenandoah River with multiple volleys and special
toasts of brandy and claret to the King and the Governor, naming a
peak for each.
After the journey, Spotswood gave each member of the expedition a
pin made of gold and shaped like a horseshoe on which he had
inscribed the words in Latin "Sic jurat transcendere montes",
which translates in English to "Thus he swears to cross the
mountains." The members of Governor Spotswood's expedition soon
became popularly known as the "Knights of the Golden Horseshoe." A
historical plaque and pyramid-shaped stone mark their historic
crossing of 1716.
The Swift Run Gap Turnpike, a privately owned toll road, was first
completed through Swift Run Gap in the early 19th century. In the
1840s, plans for the Louisa Railroad (renamed the Virginia Central
Railroad in 1850) originally anticipated crossing the Blue Ridge
at Swift Run Gap to reach Harrisonburg, but projected construction
costs after surveying were prohibitive.
This was primarily due to the steepness of the terrain on the
eastern slope. Addressing the dilemma, Claudius Crozet, the
legendary Chief Engineer of the Virginia Board of Public Works,
determined that a system of tunnels at Rockfish Gap, about 30
miles to the south, would be more feasible. Despite later
technological advances, no railroad crossing was ever attempted at
Swift Run Gap.
Today the two-lane U.S. Route 33 at the lower elevations follows a
small creek named Swift Run west from Stanardsville, but then
about halfway up, requires multiple horseshoe curves on the steep
grades of the eastern slope, as it ascends an increasingly winding
pathway to reach Swift Run Gap.
Crozet was also first commandant of the new Virginia Military
Institute (VMI), where one of the young instructors during his
tenure was Thomas Jonathan Jackson, later to become well-known by
his nickname of Stonewall Jackson. Jackson's intimate knowledge of
this and other crossings of the Blue Ridge facilitated his
tactics, and enabled him to intimidate Union leaders such as
General George B. McClellan into being less aggressive with their
own plans of advancement in the first years of the American Civil
War (1861–1865). Jackson and his famous "foot cavalry" used Swift
Run Gap (among others) to shift his troops rapidly from the
Shenandoah Valley theatre to the Piedmont, which allowed him to
appear unexpectedly before Union forces on several occasions.