A couple of interesting historical sites are easy to visit near Wytheville, Virginia. You’ll see Shot Tower as you drive by on the interstate, and the other, Foster Falls, is close by and provides a great place to enjoy the New River.
To access the New River Trail at Foster Falls, take exit 24 off Interstate 77, then drive north on US 52 for about 1.5 miles. You’ll see Shot Tower State Park on the left and the road to Foster Falls on the right.
So what’s that odd-looking tower along Interstate 77, on the edge of the New River? It’s the Jackson Ferry Shot Tower, a 75-foot-tall structure that was completed in 1807. The Shot Tower was used to manufacture shot (pellets) for firearms. A fire at the top of the tower melted lead, which was mixed with arsenic. Drips of the mixture were then dropped through the top of the tower into a tub of water at the bottom of a shaft. As it fell, the drops formed perfect spheres and started to cool. When they hit the water, they finished cooling without being deformed.
The Shot Tower is an interesting piece of history, but it’s not very exciting to visit. There’s a huge parking lot here, and when I visited, it was completely empty. Of course, I was visiting late in the day, on a dreary afternoon. Even so, I was pretty amazed that you have to pay several dollars to park here when the only thing to do is to look at the tower and then move on. So that’s what I did — without parking.
Foster Falls: New River Trail State Park
I did, however, end up paying to park anyhow, at New River Trail State Park, nearby. I thought this dreary evening might be a good time to photograph Foster Falls, so I went ahead and paid the admission fee and walked around for a bit.
Foster Falls is just one stop on the linear New River Trail, which follows the river along an old railroad bed. That explains the Foster Falls depot (now a visitor center, which was closed while I was there)…
… and the old semaphore train signals.
The most impressive sight at Foster Falls is the old Foster Falls Hotel. It was built in 1887 and used first as a boarding house for workers in the coal industry, and later as a school for girls and an orphanage. It’s been vacant ever since 1962, which seems like quite a waste. But, at least it appears to have been well-maintained.
There are a few other interesting things to see in the park, like this Norfolk and Western caboose…
… and this old iron furnace. It was once part of a much larger manufacturing complex. From around 1880 to 1916, iron ore was transported over the river by “dinky” rail (as the name suggests, a smaller version of a steam locomotive, using narrow-gauge tracks), then processed at this furnace. A flood in 1916 took out the rail bridge and caused operations to cease.
A few other old buildings are also scattered around the property. But what about the falls at Foster Falls?
Well, there it is. Foster Falls is just some very small rapids in the New River…
… and it’s very difficult to get to a good spot to see most of it. After walking around for a while, trying to find a good photo spot, I decided to call it quits for the day.
The next morning, I would drive down to Hillsville, for the town’s gigantic Labor Day flea market (you can see some of it in the Drivelapse video, below). It was very rainy that morning, but I did my best to make the rounds. Then, I left, and started on the long drive north, back towards Pittsburgh, to fly out the following day.
Here’s a look at the drive from Big Walker Mountain to New River Trail State Park…
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… and the drive around Hillsville, Virginia, the following day:
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The Bottom Line
I wasn’t very excited about my visit to Foster Falls, but that might be because the falls itself was not very exciting. Maybe it also had something to do with the grey weather, or that I was coming to the end of my vacation and was tired. If you’re looking for a place to relax by the New River, or you want to bike down the New River Trail, this is a great place to go.