For centuries, the present-day Radford has been the place where people cross the New River: the Warrior’s path, the Wilderness Road, the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, Route 11, and finally Interstate 81. This is both Radford’s reason for being its significance to the development of Southwest Virginia.
Native Americans passed through the area for centuries, trading and warring along the Great Warrior’s path, which ran the full length of the Appalachian Mountains. A small Native American village, discovered in what is now Radford’s Bisset Park, testifies to permanent settlements in the area.
As early white settlers ventured westward through Virginia, they encountered a significant natural boundary: the New River. To safely cross the river, they needed ferries. In 1762, William Ingles, husband of Mary Draper Ingles, began operating a ferry across the New River on the Wilderness Road. The small settlement of Lovely Mount sprang up nearby.
The next road to cross the New River at Radford ran on rails. The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, connecting Lynchburg with Bristol, built in the 1850s, crossed the New River a couple miles downstream from Ingles Ferry.
In addition to the covered bridge, a roundhouse and other rail facilities were built, sparking the development of Central Depot (so-named because it was roughly halfway along the route). During the Civil War this rail line supplied Confederate forces, leading Union Forces to burn it down in 1864. It was quickly rebuilt.
From Depot to City
In 1882, Norfolk and Western acquired all the rail lines in the area and set off a period of massive growth for Central, resulting in the necessary population for city status. Central incorporated in 1887 and in 1892 chartered as a city, becoming the City of Radford, Virginia.
Growth and city status brought even greater change. The city built a water power plant and street railway system. Industry flourished, including the Lynchburg Foundry and the Radford Ice Company. The Radford Land & Development Company began buying up land to develop and sell off as new neighborhoods.
With the rise in importance of the automobile in the 1920s, many new roads were built, including Route 11. Radford residents lobbied for and secured Radford’s inclusion on the new route, ensuring the city’s “spot on the map.”
Education in Radford
In 1913, the State Normal School for Women opened its doors, eventually becoming the State Teachers’ College at Radford in 1924. The school would later take the name Radford College, become coeducational in 1972 and achieve university status two years later.
The Radford Arsenal
In 1941 a public works project constructed the Radford Arms and Ammunition Plant. Located just downriver from the city, the arsenal brought an influx of new residents to the city. The federal government initiated three major residential construction projects in Radford to provide housing for the new employees, as well as building a new community center and hospital.
The Post-War Years
After the war, Radford enjoyed the same period of prosperity that much of the nation experienced. Many new businesses moved to the city, and major building projects were completed, including Memorial Bridge across the New River.
In 1965, Interstate 81 was built across the New River very close to where Ingles Ferry had shuttled settlers and their wagons across 200 years before. Today, Radford nestles in its quiet bend of the New River, the place where, for centuries, people have crossed the river.
Learn more about Radford and its place in the history of Southwest Virginia – visit Glencoe Museum & Gallery.