Adventure Us: Lignite

Adventure #45: Lignite

Of all the adventures to be found near Roanoke, the obscure place called Lignite is in a category by itself. Tucked in a remote hollow of the Jefferson National Forest northeast of New Castle, Lignite is one of the few true ghost towns in Virginia.

In the 1800s, Lignite was one of many small mining towns in the western Virginia mountains, built around a seam of iron ore and the company that owned it. A handful of miners and their families, the mine superintendent, and a few supporting workers called this tiny town home. After a few decades, the town fell on hard times. In the 1920s the company was sold, the mine was closed, and the town was abandoned by its residents, leaving it to decay and be absorbed back into the forest.  

Wandering around Lignite’s narrow, overgrown trails, it’s hard to imagine this was once the bustling town that you can still see in a few faded old photographs. Lignite is fast losing its battle with the surrounding forest. But the area is an interesting adventure for a family that doesn’t mind some off-trail exploration. Coming from New Castle, follow Craig Creek Rd (Rt 615) east until just a couple miles beyond the village of Oriskany. Look for Rt 704 and a sign for Lignite on your left. If you follow Rt 704 about a mile back into the forest until it forks, you’ve come to what was once the start of Lignite’s main street. Off to the left, you’ll see some old concrete foundations; we found a number of old relics here – one of my sons found a rusted old kitchen skillet. Taking the right fork, you’ll soon come to the end of the road. From here, you can hike on through the brush and grass until you see the most prominent remaining artifact, the double brick chimneys. We surmised these are the vestiges of the old superintendent’s house, which once commanded a view down main street (up which you just hiked). Several ruined foundations and building materials can be found nearby. At times, we’ve ranged beyond the ruins back into the mountain, busting through the undergrowth, sometimes following what look like old roadbeds. It’s impossible to tell exactly where the old mine was, but the mountain terrain does seem changed – sometimes graded into flat benches, sometimes mounded into incredibly steep slopes.

Backtracking and taking the left fork of the road, you follow a rutted road to the beginning of an old railroad grade, which is now a forest road. Our guess is that this is the railroad that once hauled out Lignite’s iron ore. The grade travels through the woods for miles, creating a smooth (if sometimes overgrown) trail for hiking or biking, and eventually connects to Fenwick Mines Recreation Area (the site of another short-lived ore mining town). Along this trail we have discovered dozens of old railroad spikes, plus countless pieces of shiny iron ore slag.

Lignite is a fascinating glimpse into the passage of time and the fleeting nature of life. How a town can spring up, then melt away into nature in a matter of decades, can make us ponder what will remain of our lives in a few more generations. Or, if you’re not feeling philosophical, it can just be a fun wilderness excursion with the possibility of finding some cool old stuff! 

If you choose to visit Lignite, some bits of advice: in summer weather, the brush can be difficult to cut through, and the bugs and ticks can be bad. On the other hand, during hunting season, you may want to use caution and dress in bright colors, as this public land is sometimes used by hunters.

Name: Lignite, VA 24085 (the nearest inhabited town is Oriskany; I would suggest consulting a map!)

Time from Roanoke: 1 hour

Activity Options: Hiking, old ruins, relic hunting, wildlife

Nearby Food: Pine Top Restaurant, Bibo’s Pizzeria, other convenience stores in New Castle

Nearby Attractions: Fenwick Mines Day Use Area, Roaring Run Furnace  

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Cristy Carr

Cristy and her family keep busy writing, tutoring, homeschooling, homesteading, and adventuring in the beautiful Appalachian mountains.
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