The Part of Virginia That’s West of Detroit

Lee County, Photo Courtesy of Albert Herring
Lee County, Photo Courtesy of Albert Herring

The Commonwealth of Virginia is a fascinating place that is filled with history, natural beauty and some of America’s most visited landmarks.

Despite encompassing more than 42,000 square miles of territory and being home to nearly 8.5-million people, when it comes to truly understanding the Old Dominion, the average American has a surprisingly limited understanding of the state that served as the first permanent English settlement in the New World.

For most non-residents, the word “Virginia” either gives way to images of the world’s largest naval base at Norfolk, George Washington’s Mount Vernon or just up the Chesapeake Bay the Pentagon and our nation’s capital region; however, there is a whole other part of Virginia that is largely unknown to the rest of the country, just beyond the Blue Ridge Divide — way beyond the Blue Ridge Divide.

While it is true that Virginia Beach jolts out farther east than all of Jamaica, the Bahamas and the entire State of Florida, few people realize that the Commonwealth’s western boundary actually lies west of Detroit, Michigan.

More than 426 miles west of the location the Atlantic Ocean meets the sands of Virginia Beach is Virginia’s most western locality, Lee County.

This past week, Appalachian Magazine took a trip into Lee County and we discovered one of Virginia’s best kept secrets — a mountain lover’s paradise!

Farther west than the entire State of West Virginia, Lee County forms a triangle-shaped wedge at Virginia’s western boundary, dividing Tennessee from Kentucky.

Despite its geographic oddities, however, which includes being closer to nine state capitals than her very own in Richmond, which is more than 410 miles away [Closer capitals are: Frankfort, KY (178 miles), Charleston, WV (216 miles), Nashville, TN (240 miles), Atlanta, GA (264 miles), Columbia, SC (301 miles), Columbus, OH (322 miles), Indianapolis, IN (322 miles), Raleigh, NC (331 miles), and Montgomery, AL (407 miles)], Lee County’s most notable claim to fame is undoubtedly being home to one of the most important and historic passageways in American history — the Cumberland Gap.

The Cumberland Gap is a narrow pass, through the long ridges of the Cumberland Mountains along the Virginia and Kentucky border which begins in Lee County. This area became famous in colonial history for its role as a key passageway through the Appalachians — thus opening the west up to settlers.

Long used by Native Americans, the Cumberland Gap was brought to the attention of settlers in 1750 by Thomas Walker, a Virginia physician and explorer. The path was used by a team of frontiersmen led by Daniel Boone, making it accessible to pioneers who used it to journey into the western frontiers of Kentucky and Tennessee, and eventually father west into places such as Texas, Oregon and California.

With an economy that had been built upon growing tobacco and mining coal, the locality has sought to reinvent itself in recent years and now features the slogan, “Where Virginia Begins,” showcasing the region’s rich historical significance as well as tourism opportunities.

The county is unique among many other places in Virginia, as it predates Jamestown by more than half a century for having Europeans step foot within its territory, as Spanish explorers Juan de Villalobos and Francisco de Silvera, sent by Hernando de Soto entered the area in 1540 in search of gold and claiming the territory for Spain.

Named for Revolutionary War hero “Light Horse Harry Lee”, who was made famous for his exploits as a leader of light cavalry, Harry Lee was also the father of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

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