Day 5: Thursday, October 8, 2015
Admittedly, not everyone is a fan of cemeteries, but I love to visit beautiful historic ones! After hiking in Shenandoah National Park, we arrived in Lynchburg a little before 5, and drove into town to check it out. There are parts of Lynchburg that seemed pretty run down, but other parts seemed to be pretty nice. But I had someplace in particular on my agenda: I had read in TheHistoryTourist’s blog about the Old City Cemetery, and I convinced Jon to let me go there.
Old City Cemetery was originally established as the public burial ground in 1806, and about 75% of the burials there are African Americans. There are also about 2,200 Confederate Soldiers from 14 different states buried there. They have moved several historic buildings into the cemetery, and you can peek into the windows. During the day, a couple of the buildings are open as museums, but we were there too late for that.
One of the historic buildings is The Station House – an old train station that was in operation nearby between 1898 and 1937. Behind the station they have a couple of rather macabre informational signs – they list all of the people known to have been killed by trains who are buried in the Old City Cemetery! From a historical perspective though, it is a pretty interesting piece of research. To balance out the gore, they also had a list of everyone buried there that was known to have worked for or on the railroad.
There is also the Pest House Museum, which tells the story of Lynchburg’s first hospital – a House of Pestilence, where people with contagious diseases like smallpox, cholera and scarlet fever were treated (and where most of them died). The building itself was originally built in the 1840s, and was the office of Dr. John J. Terrell after the Civil War. Dr. Terrell managed the Pest House during the Civil War – the museum combines the two places– with one half represented as the Pest House and the other as his medical office.
Dr. Terrell was appalled at the conditions that he found at the Pest House, and implemented reforms to reduce contagion and make the men more comfortable. On his watch, he reduced the mortality rate there from 50% to 5%. Not bad for a time with no antibiotics, antivirals or advanced supportive care! Old City Cemetery also has a monument to the 102 Confederate soldiers who died of smallpox during the war.
The history of the cemetery’s role in the treatment of contagious disease didn’t end there though; the cemetery was also the site of a stable that supplied horses for the Civil War. When the stable experienced an epidemic of glanders, a bacterial infection that causes upper respiratory illness in horses and donkeys, doctors began a study of the disease. The epidemic was so out of control that out of 6,875 horses stabled at the site in a 15 month period, only 1,000 were fit enough to make it to the front. Research at the stable identified the cause of the illness and methods to limit transmission to healthy horses (quarantine and not sharing bits or food and water troughs).
Also at the Cemetery are a contemporary chapel and columbarium – built with many reclaimed materials, and a small dovecote (or doocot as they say in Scotland). There is a Mourning Museum too, which explores mourning customs during the 1800s, that we didn’t get a chance to visit. Interestingly, all the buildings had audiospeakers on the outside, and you could push a button to hear about the history of the building. Interesting, but I wonder what the poor ghosts think of all that noise!
I thought The City Cemetery was a worthwhile stop! Jon was less impressed, but hey, he’s just not a cemetery kind of guy… After our visit, we got some sushi at a place near our hotel – Roto Steakhouse and Sushi in Lynchburg. There were a lot of locals there for the cocktails, but we just shared a beer. The restaurant was nothing to look at, but the sushi was good, and we sat at the sushi bar and chatted with the chef while he worked. He seemed really surprised that we had come all the way from Washington! Upon looking later at online reviews, it’s clearly a restaurant that is past its heyday, but our service was good and it was reasonably priced, so I was happy.
Driving Distance for Day 5: 117.8 miles – Big Meadows Lodge – Humpback Rocks Visitor’s Center – Lynchburg, VA
Hotel for the night: La Quinta Inn & Suites Lynchburg at Liberty University – this was hands down the nicest La Quinta we have ever stayed at. It completely reminded me of a Fairfield Inn. The bed was amazing, the room was brand new and beautiful, and the breakfast was great – even the breakfast area had tons of space. The hotel even had an old-fashioned popcorn maker!