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With a growing roster of nationally
recognized sites and events, the small town of Luray is getting big-time
When outdoor enthusiasts Howard and
Andy Thompson hiked to a peak in the Massanutten Mountains one weekend in
1997, they looked down at the valley below. The young Northern Virginia
couple stood speechlesss. The land was lush, sparsely populated, peaceful.
It was Luray. And at that moment, the Thompsons decided this town in the
central Shenandoah Valley was the place they eventually would live. By
1998, they had purchased a home for their weekend use on the outskirts of
Luray, and in 2003 they moved forever from the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
Today, the Thompsons own and operate
Evergreen Outfitters, a busy shop in downtown Luray that specializes in
high-end hiking and camping gear.
in 1833, the Page County Courthouse is on Virginia's Historic
“The pace of life here and in the
entire Shenandoah Valley is so much more in step with Andy’s and my
overall ‘laid-back’ style,” says Thompson. “But at the same time,
Luray has made fantastic progress since we first visited more than a
decade ago. It’s changing, adding wonderful amenities.”
Evergreen Outfitters joins a growing
list of new businesses in town that cater to visitors and locals who
pursue an active but balanced lifestyle. It’s a surprisingly comfortable
pairing of the old and new, the fast and slow, the rural charm and
ON THE FRONT BURNER
Luray Mayor Ralph Dean knows the
feeling. He’s been Luray’s top official for 27 years and has guided
the town through many changes.
27 years, Mayor Ralph Dean has ld Luray through major changes. He
says, "It's only getting better."
For instance, the town currently is
busy with five major development initiatives, including an $850,000
overhaul of several sidewalks and streets to spiff up the downtown
buildingscape; a $7-million upgrade of the sewer system; and safety
improvements to the water filtration plant that carry a $4.5-million price
Luray also is in the early stages of
renovating the town’s historic train depot, thanks to a transportation
enhancement grant. When complete, the quaint depot built in 1908 will
house the county’s Chamber of Commerce, the Visitors’ Center, and a
museum of local artifacts.
But perhaps the most visible ongoing
project is the fourth phase of construction of the Luray Hawksbill
Greenway, a four-mile walking and bike path that attracts all ages. It’s
an obvious source of pride for the community. The beautiful trail meanders
past butterfly gardens, colorful murals (some painted by local youth), and
native flora and fauna. It even encircles a cattle pasture, whose bovine
residents randomly glance up to watch passersby.
As the Greenway crosses Main Street
into the center of town, it follows the flow of the Hawksbill Creek, a
narrow waterway that’s noteworthy in its own right. On the night of
August 9, 1956, the famous train photographer O. Winston Link set up his
equipment along Route 340 in southern Luray to wait for the perfect shot
of a Norfolk & Western locomotive crossing the Hawksbill while locals
splashed in the water below. He was documenting the final days of steam
operations on the N&W Railway (www.linkmuseum.org). Prints of the
well-known photo, called “Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole,” and one
other shot orchestrated by Link in Luray hang in the town’s Visitors’
$35 ONCE, $35 TWICE,
antiques business is booming. One local boutique shares quarters
with a toy train shop.
Luray was founded in 1812 when the
General Assembly designated 10 acres of land spanning from the Hawksbill
Creek to Court Street as the town of Luray. A group of local relatives was
named trustees of the property, and lots were quickly auctioned for prices
ranging from $35 to $140 apiece. All of these original deeds were dated
September 14, 1812.
Mayor Dean admits there’s an ongoing
debate about the origins of the town’s name. One school of thought says
Luray takes its moniker from Lorraine, France, the homeplace of the
parents of W.S. Mayre, one of the town’s founders. Another group
believes it’s a wordplay on the name of Lewis Ramey, a local blacksmith
and early property owner who was nicknamed Lu Ray. And a third group
swears Luray came from the Native American word for crooked waters,
“Lorrain,” in reference to the Hawksbill Creek’s semi-circular
bending as it meets the south fork of the Shenandoah River.
“Personally, I think it was named
after Lewis Ramey, the blacksmith,” Dean adds his two cents.
“There’s a mural of Ramey, painted in the 1930s, inside the Luray Post
Office. So I’m convinced.”
Luray Hawksbill Greenway attracts all ages. The four-mile walking
and bike path is a showplace for native flora and fauna.
With a population of nearly 5,000, the
county seat of Page County is nestled between the Blue Ridge and the
Massanutten mountains. The area probably is identified most easily with
the Luray Caverns, a nationally recognized tourist attraction that has
welcomed millions of visitors over the years. (Get the inside scoop on
this and other Virginia caves in this month’s cover story on page 18.)
But “the town where the caverns meet the sky” has even more to offer.
Luray boasts such historic sites as
the White House and White House Bridge just west of downtown along Highway
211. An integral part of Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign, the bridge
was burned before dawn on June 2, 1862, within hours of Union soldiers’
attempt to use the route to thwart Jackson’s plan to escape to nearby
Front Royal. Locals say the event marks the beginning of General
Jackson’s two-week span of victories throughout the Shenandoah Valley.
Another not-to-miss site is the
Massanutten School, a one-room, cabin-style structure used from 1875 to
1937 to educate area youth. The school was restored and moved from its
original site to a more-accessible location in Luray’s Inn Lawn Park.
Sixteen original double desks are inside, as well as a 100-year-old iron
stove and a Civil War flag pole.
One of Luray’s most celebrated
historic stops is Calendine. Built in 1840, the simple but picturesque
home once adjoined a general store and stagecoach shop. The William Barbee
family purchased the house and set up an art studio there. Local lore
reports that Barbee, an acclaimed sculptor, was commissioned to complete
the frieze on the U.S. Capitol’s west wing. However, when the Civil War
began, he ceased his work and never completed the project.
Perhaps even more significant is
Barbee’s son, Herbert, also a sculptor, who studied art abroad but used
his local studio to sculpt Luray’s Confederate Heroes Monument, a statue
of a lone Confederate soldier standing at the crest of a hill overlooking
Luray’s downtown. It was unveiled in 1898 as a tribute to the area’s
fallen Confederate soldiers.
NATURE AND NURTURE
According to Mayor Dean, more than 300
acres of Luray is park land. That suits Karen Riddle just fine. She’s
the director of the Luray-Page County Chamber of Commerce, and she
believes most visitors find their way to Luray looking for outdoor
activities mixed with small-town charm.
“I think many visitors really want
to take advantage of our natural environment, from the national park to
the river to the forest,” she says. “And at the same time they want a
chance to relax at a slower pace.”
More than 200 cabins, from rustic to
luxurious, are available to rent in the area, in answer to the growing
demand for pastoral getaways. (“Several of us have tossed around the
idea of pursuing the title ‘The Cabin Capital of the State’ for
Luray,” laughs Riddle.)
recently renovated Mimslyn Inn is a showstopper. The elegant
mansion with two restaurants and a spa already is drawing national
For those who want something less
back-to-nature than a cabin, the recently renovated Mimslyn Inn is a
jaw-dropper. This elegant mansion with grand Corinthian columns, a wide,
welcoming porch, a spa, and seven acres of terraced gardens and lawns
stands on a hill on the west end of town. It’s already earning national
kudos as a must-visit luxury resort.
“There’s really something for
everyone,” Riddle explains. “Couples can hike the Shenandoah National
Park or canoe the Shenandoah River, then end up back in town for dinner at
a local restaurant, a movie at the downtown theater, or take in a Luray
Wranglers Valley League Baseball game. Seniors can enjoy a play or concert
at the BB&T Center for the Performing Arts and then head to the new
Speakeasy Tavern at the Mimslyn Inn. And families can spend the day
swimming at Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park or rent bikes from a local
outfitter and then head to the Luray Reptile Zoo.”
According to Riddle, most visitors
hail from the East Coast. She sees an increasing number of “snowbirds”
—retirees taking a break as they travel to and from Florida along
Interstates 81 and 95 — and a booming business for family reunions,
given Luray’s central location along the coast.
“We’re energized by all the
visitors who come,” she says with a smile. “In Luray, we’re still
very proud of our heritage and our country appeal, but we’re also moving
As with many areas across the state,
the downturn in the economy has slowed projects in Luray. According to
Mayor Dean, several housing developments slated for approximately 100
acres on the edge of town have been put on hold.
But that’s okay for now. “You
don’t want to grow too fast, anyway,” he adds, grinning. For
the last decade in Luray, businesses and individuals have focused on
improving the aesthetics of the town through renovating and applying
simple elbow grease. In the next decade? “We’re
only getting better,” promises Dean, as he looks forward to his
well-deserved retirement this summer. After nearly three decades in
office, he says he rarely gets a phone call with a complaint. “More
people may move to or visit Luray as the economy improves, and that’s
just fine. I’ve always believed that if you treat the people right,
they’ll treat the town right.”