Buchanan Town History

Celebrating two hundred years of history


 From its earliest development, the Town of Buchanan, Virginia was a principal crossing of the James River via the “Great Valley Road” and other regional transportation networks. As an early transportation-oriented community, the Town included taverns and ordinares, stables, blacksmith shops, wagon and carriage makers, general merchandise stores to service travelers, teamsters, and producers of goods being sent to external markets from the region.

Transportation routes and changes in modes of transportation have had primary influence on Buchanan’s history. People settled in Buchanan because of the Town’s location at a major intersection of transportation routes. Commercial and manufacturing enterprises located there because of the Town’s advantageous location for transport of raw materials, goods and products. Changes in means of transportation shaped the Town’s periods of growth in commerce and manufacturing.

A bateau like those which transported goods to and from Buchanan in the early 1800’s.

Since the 1740’s the area now encompassed by the Town of Buchanan has always been distinguished as the point of intersection between two principal transportation corridors: the great northeast-southwest overland route west of the Blue Ridge Mountains between Pennsylvania and the old Upland south; and the James River, the principal river system of central Virginia that provides and east-west route for transport of goods from Mountain and Valley Region, through the Piedmont, to the Tidewater and Chesapeake Bay.

In the 1740’s the earliest trace of the Great Road from Philadelphia to western Virginia first crossed the James River at Looney’s Ferry, whose approximate location is marked with an historic highway marker along route 11 west of downtown. Frontier colonial leader and land speculator James Patton obtained lands at the Great Valley Road crossing of the  James River in the mid-1740’s. His heirs the Buchanans, Boyds and Andersons acquired title to those lands and settled there over the next three decades. William Anderson laid out the town of Pattonsburg on the north side of the James River in 1788 while James Boyd who married John Buchanan’s daughter Margaret, laid out the Town of Buchanan on the south bank of the James River in 1811. The Town of Buchanan was named in honor of John Buchanan who held the original title to the land. Plats of Buchanan in 1811 and Pattonsburg in 1818 established a grid of streets and enumerated lots that conform in large part with the current tax maps.

The Wilson Warehouse was completed in 1839 and is in use today as the Wilson Warehouse/Community House. This historic structure is open for tours by appointment, public meetings and receptions.

Water transport on the James River was improved from Buchanan to Tidewater by 1807 and the two towns became centers for processing agricultural products from southwestern Virginia for transport to Richmond and the Chesapeake. The Virginia General Assembly in 1819 acted to establish warehouses for inspection of tobacco and flour in both towns. River traffic increased in the 1830’s with internal improvements that brought a better road system to Buchanan from western Virginia. By the mid-1830’s internal improvements resulted in completion of the Cumberland Gap Turnpike from the Kentucky border to central Botetourt County.

By the 1840’s Buchanan’s buildings included the John S. Wilson Warehouse, store and residence, the Botetourt Hotel and the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches, the Douthat  House, the Zimmerman House all brick structures which still stand today. By 1851 the James River and Kanawha Canal was completed from Richmond to Buchanan. At this time the two towns experienced a boom in commercial and artisan activity during the decade before the Civil War.

During the Civil War Buchanan served as an important Confederate supply depot for shipment of agricultural produce and pig iron to Richmond via the James River and Kanawha Canal. Federal General David Hunter marched through Pattonsburg and Buchanan on June 13, 1864 on his ill-fated raid of Lynchburg. After the Civil War commerce and manufacturing declined in Buchanan and Pattonsburg.

Numbers of town merchants and artisans fell sharply as canal traffic on the James River from Buchanan to Lynchburg was eclipsed by rail traffic from Salem to Lynchburg. Steel rail transportation came to the towns of Buchanan and Pattonsburg in the early 1880’s, the time when Buchanan incorporated Pattonsburg into its Town limits.  Industrial growth and revival of commerce followed completion of the Norfolk and Western and the Chesapeake and Ohio lines through town because the new railroads hauled heavy freight to distant markets faster and at a lower cost than earlier wagons and canal boats.

The Continental Can Company and the Virginia Can Company established significant manufacturing operations in Buchanan after 1903. The Virginia Can Company employed at least 38 employees in 1906 and in 1910 owned buildings valued at $16,000 on a Norfolk and Western track siding just east of the original Town limits.

By 1920 railroad employees far outnumbered self-employed artisans. By World War I industrial manufacturing had replaced pre-Civil War patterns of production by skilled craftsmen. Industrial employment in Buchanan increased between 1920 and 1940 with limestone and bone product operations employing over 400 workers, many of whom commuted to town by automobile on newly improved hard surface roads.

On the eve of World War II, Buchanan’s population had grown to 870 inhabitants and Land Books for the Town recorded 70 more lots with buildings than in 1910. Industrial employment continued to provide for Buchanan residents during and after World War II. Hafleigh and Co. converted to military production during the war and sold out to Groendyke Manufacturing Co. in 1965, an operation that by 1980 employed 125 workers in the manufacture of silicone and rubber products. The James River Limestone Company employed 125 workers in 1980. Buchanan’s textile industry employed between 130 and 200 workers from the 1950’s through the 1970’s.

Since 1960 truck traffic on Interstate 81, the latest upgrade of the great overland route west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, shipped precut and finished garments to and from Buchanan.

An early 1900’s view showing the Buchanan Theatre with a two story porch on the front where the current ticket booth stands.

Following recent annexations, Buchanan’s population has grown to over 1,233 inhabitants.

Today, after decades of physical and economic decline, the Town of Buchanan has become a leader within the area for economic development within the context of Historic Preservation. This contemporary practice of development uses historic preservation as a catalyst for rebirth, promoting quality growth which respects the community’s traditional land use development patterns. In addition to restored buildings and new businesses the Town hosts a full Calendar of Events throughout the year.

With more than fifteen years of concentrated downtown revitalization activities following the “Main Street Principles,” and 6.5 million dollars of private sector investment, downtown has once again become host to a variety of businesses and residences proudly representing the community’s dreams and aspirations. Since its inception, the Town’s downtown revitalization efforts have earned the community many awards including “Best Downtown Initiative Award” from Valley Conservation Council, “Good Neighbor Award” for leadership in historic preservation from Roanoke Valley Preservation Foundation, Tree City USA designation, Urban Forestry Award from the Mountain Castle District Virginia Soil & Water Conservation District, and, “Best Community Event” by readers of the Roanoke Times Botetourt View.

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