CRAIG COUNTY, Va. – When you pull up and park at Fenwick Mines in Craig County, you might wonder why you came. There are some picnic tables and a few signs pointing to some trails, but at the outset, it doesn’t look like a great place to spend the day.
But remember what they say about judging a book by its cover.
There may be nobody on earth more familiar with Fenwick Mines than Woody Lipps, who visited as a child, then worked for the Forest Service for 35 years, helping to manage the property. Now he’s retired. But it’s clear he still sees the value in the place, which is managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
“The first time I came to Fenwick mines was in the 1960s. I grew up in Southwest Roanoke County and my dad and I used to come up here. There wasn’t much here then. It was called the Fenwick Forest walk. There was a little trail between the side of the road and into the waterfall and that was about it,” Lipps said.
Lipps agreed to give us a tour of the place, beginning with the waterfall, which is worth a trip all by itself.
Park your car and walk less than half a mile on an easy, flat trail, turn a corner, and there it is.
Mill Creek falls about 20 feet over the local sandstone, then forms a shallow pool surrounded by walls that look as if they were carved by stone workers. But Lipps says the space is all-natural.
One of the attractions of Fenwick Mines is that it isn’t crowded.
“I like just everything about it. The trees. The sound of the creek. I just love it,” said Sandy Grubbs, who was out for a 2 to 3-mile walk.
“Nature is a big part of it. I’ve seen salamanders, snakes - used to be beavers haven’t seen those in a long time. Deer of course. Never seen a bear but I know they’re here,” Grubbs said.
Fenwick Mines’ history has all but been erased
But there is more than nature here.
There’s a reason it’s called Fenwick Mines.
The area is green and tree covered. But from the late 1800s to about 1920, it was a thriving town that supported iron mining.
Photos from the Craig County Historical Society document a few of the buildings and people who called Fenwick mines home.
There is a map that shows the size of the town that supported the operations of the Low Moore Iron Company.
“There were hundreds of people. They had a playhouse here - a theater, entertainment. At least one possibly as many as three churches. Neighborhoods, with houses. It was huge. It was a boom town, but it’s all gone now,” Lipps said.
When the mines closed, the company took everything away – and today, there are scarce traces of what once was.
“There is almost no trace left... Even for the archaeologists to find what was here,” Lipps said.
But Fenwick Mines offers plenty to see and do
No trace of the town. But there’s a pond, wetlands, butterflies and wildflowers.
And don’t forget Mill Creek.
Anglers with a deft touch might just entice a native brook trout to take the bait.
“For me, it’s all about just being out here listening to the water, and if you catch one that’s a big bonus,” Lipps said as he rigged his fly rod with a tiny fly made from elk’s hair and designed to imitate an insect called a caddis fly.
We hiked about half a mile through some thick underbrush hoping we might have some luck.
It’s important to sneak into position to cast as the fish spook easily in the shallow, clear water.
Despite our best efforts, all we caught was a small minnow that also calls the creek home.
We can’t blame the fish or Mill Creek.
We’ll chalk it up to angler error.
No matter – at Fenwick mines – it’s just about being there.
Be it hiking, fishing, or just observing.
“Fenwick mines is more of a place for quiet contemplation,” Lipps said. “There comes a time about anytime that you can find yourself here alone. And it’s peaceful it’s quiet. You’re just here.”