Clifton Forge: A small but mighty witness to history

It dates back to the 1700s

Construction begins on Masonic Theater in Clifton Forge (Image 3)

CLIFTON FORGE, Va. – Nestled in the Alleghany Mountains, the small but mighty town of Clifton Forge has served as a witness to history — from two world wars to the heyday of railroads and of course, a global pandemic.

The town wasn’t chartered until 1906, but its history goes all the way back to the 1700s. Before it was known as Clifton Forge, the area was a village known as Williamson after the family that owned the land in the 1820s.

So where did the name Clifton Forge come from?

William Alexander owned a forge in the Rainbow Gorge near Iron Gate and named it “Clifton” after his father’s estate in Lexington. Thus, Clifton Forge was born.

Josephine Dellinger, the co-author of ‘Images of America: Clifton Forge,’ arrived in the town in 1939 when she was 12 years old.

Now 94, she’s seen the town grow and change and has been an active part of that process as a part of the Clifton Forge Women’s Club.

When asked what the town was like when she first arrived, Dellinger said that despite the times, Clifton Forge was a bustling community.

“The railroad was the backbone, and nobody dreamed the railroad would diminish in size,” Dellinger said. “It was a very busy place and still building, believe it or not with the Depression.”

Clifton Forge has a rich railroad history, with the first passenger train arriving in 1857.

From then, the area went on to become a maintenance staple for the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Railroad, which at one point employed nearly 2,000 people.

Shops lined the streets, and the town became a railroad boomtown — until many shops started closing up in the 1980s. The diesel engine came about in the 1950s, and the C&O Railroad moved operations to West Virginia, leading to a population decline.

But if you ask Dellinger, despite C&O operations leaving town, Clifton Forge has persisted — and has done so graciously.

“I’ve seen it go from one type of community to another type of community, and we all went through it well and adjusted to it and are happy with it,” said Dellinger.

From integrating schools in the 1960s to the city giving up its charter and reverting to a town in 2001, Dellinger said the community has supported each other through it all.

“There will still be people who hold on to things and say ‘the good old days are better’ — and the good old days had their pluses,” said Dellinger. “But as far as I’m concerned, these are the good old days.”

About the Author:

Samantha Smith joined WSLS 10’s award-winning digital team as a content producer in July 2018.