Washingtonians wanting to leave the rat race behind have a variety of choices within the region. Sailing and boating types can head east for the Chesapeake Bay. Beach lovers trek in the same direction for the Atlantic beaches or southward for the Outer Banks. And to the west beckons the Blue Ridge Mountains.
If you’re short on time, the latter option is very appealing. A mere zip down I-66, then a 10-minute drive northward along Highway 15 puts you on the rural “Route 50 Corridor.” There lies a trip back in time – slow, scenic drives along the Piedmont hills with views of the mountains, horse farms, stone walls, and wineries. Lined up along this protected stretch lies Aldie, Middleburg, Upperville, and Paris, small towns that popped up two centuries ago as stops along the way for weary stage coach and wagon travelers.
The better half and I have been along this road before, paying visits to Middleburg a couple of times, but had yet to continue on to Upperville and Paris. We got the chance yesterday. Helping a friend re-capture a lost memory, we paid a quick visit to Paris and, ate at The Blackthorne Inn and Restaurant in Upperville, and took a guided tour at The Mill in Aldie.
Our original choice was The Ashby Inn in Paris, which got a good review from Tom Sietsima and others. But on Sundays they only serve brunch, a really expensive one that nixed our initial plan.
As things turned out, Blackthorne, not the Ashby Inn in Paris, was our friend’s cloudy memory. The old stone house dates back to 1763. In 1775, George Washington bought the land from Lord Fairfax.
Service was a little slow, and we were not served bread (probably a good thing), but the ambience in the sunroom-like dining area soothed the beast. My steak salad was tasty, although the meat was a bit overcooked.
After lunch we cruised through Middleburg, the one spot on the historic corridor with a stoplight and where the word “crowded” might apply. We then headed on to Aldie and stopped at the stone mill there. The guided tour takes about 20 minutes, and is ca vaut la pliene. The building took 20 years to restore. Part of the tour is getting to see the corn grinding. Our miller explained how the sayings, "Grinded to a halt," and "Keep your nose to the grindstone," originated with this work process.
We also learned the Little River runs behind the mill, and yes, that’s where the Little River Turnpike got its name. Once the turnpike reached the mill, the name changed to Ashby Turnpike. Joe, our guide, said there was toll booth right there. According to the website of the Corridor:
In 1806, the Little River Turnpike Company opened 34 miles of "paved" road from Alexandria to Aldie and the Aldie-Ashby's Gap Turnpike Company was formed four years later to operate a toll road westward to the crest of the Blue Ridge. In 1922, the Little River Turnpike and Ashby's Gap Turnpike were taken over by the Commonwealth of Virginia and became US Route 50, linking Washington, DC with St. Louis, Missouri, and the West.
For history buffs, the entire drive from Aldie to Paris is rich with Civil War history. Interpretive markers can be found throughout the stretch. For five days in the middle of June 1863, Union forces clashed with the Confederate Army along Route 50, known then as Ashby Gap Turnpike (Below is a brief synopsis of the battle).
Anyway, a thank you goes out to the state and local comminuty organizations for the work protecting the corridor. If Washington is getting you down, escaping to this rural setting is not a bad option. Just remember the constables like it slow here too…
We drove on I-66 to Exit (Delaplane), took Highway 17 up to Route 50 at Paris, and then returned on Highway 50. You can also take 55 to Middleburg.
Brief Overview of the Battle of Upperville, June 21, 1863
After their victory at Chancellorsville in May 1863, General Robert E. Lee (historians consider this one his greatest) and his Army of Northern Virginia were on the move to Pennsylvania. Along Route 50, then known at Ashby Gap Turnpike, Major General Jeb Stuart and his men were charged with protecting Lee’s advance along the Shenandoah Valley. The Union Army, under Brig. General Alfred Pleasonton, were given orders to advance westward along the road to try and locate Lee and the Confederates. Some indications had been given of a move northward, but General Hooker needed more precise information.
Two markers in Upperville document the battle there, which was part of a five-day campaign (June 17-21) that was fought in Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville. 20,000 troops engaged with an estimated 1360 casualties (400 dead). At time the fighting was fierce, what the National Park Service called, “Stubborn brawling – the kind of stirrup to stirrup mounted combat with saber and pistol that took a deadly toll of men and mounts.”
At the end of the fifth day, the Confederates were forced to retreat to Paris, but held enough ground to allow Lee to continue his march northward. The Union Calvary gained some fame when their Confederate counterparts acknowledged their new found fierceness which they had first shown at Brandy Station. Lincoln, however, wanted and needed the intel. Not getting it, he fired General Hooker.
Lee marched over the Potomac on his way into the Quaker state. Two weeks after the battles along Route 50, the two weary armies met in the open fields at Gettysburg.