Visitors and residents of the Shenandoah Valley know the importance of Interstate 81, the crowded, yet vital north-south link that moves goods and people up and down the East Coast. It’s hard to imagine when you travel through the small town of Port Republic that this quiet community was once a bustling hub of East Coast transportation and commerce.
The Port Republic area was one of the first to be settled in Rockingham County. A ford in the Middle River near the town was a popular crossing for European settlers making their way from Pennsylvania through the Valley. By the mid-eighteenth century a community was being established in the peninsula formed where the South and North Rivers join to make the South Fork of the Shenandoah River. Early inhabitants used the power of the water to run their mills. The town was officially established by an act of the general assembly in 1802.
In the early 19th century rivers were the way that goods were hauled to market. Shenandoah Valley rivers were traversed by flat-bottomed wooden vessels known as “gundalows.” Port Republic’s location on a navigable river made it a port town. Eight roads converged on the town from every direction, where farmers, miners and trappers would bring their goods to be hauled to the markets in big cities downstream.
The South Fork that follows past Port Republic meets the North Fork near Front Royal to form the Shenandoah River and then continues 55 miles to where it spills into the Potomac River near Harpers Ferry. Some left their goods there while others continued to float down to Georgetown to sell their products in the nation’s capital. Boats were constructed in the area around Port Republic, floated down river and then sold for their lumber at their final destination. Sailors returned home by horseback to make another trip.
Port Republic’s strategic location made it a battleground in the Civil War during the Valley Campaign. In 1862, while camped around the town, Confederate general Stonewall Jackson encountered Federal forces and fought the Battle of Port Republic, burning the town’s bridge in the process to prevent his enemy from advancing. Following the battle a church in the town was used for a hospital.
Improved road systems, the coming of the railroad and the war put an end to the Shenandoah River “superhighway,” slowing Port Republic’s growth and what was once a bustling town continued into the 20th century as a small village on the river in the midst of an agricultural community.
Today Port Republic is an unincorporated community within Rockingham County. The town of Grottoes, two miles away, is home to a public library, a community park and a county public elementary school. Port Republic is 10 miles away from Harrisonburg, the county seat of Rockingham with a population of 40,000 with retail, medical and educational services. While the rivers near Port Republic are no longer used for commerce they are popular for recreation, drawing fisherman and boaters to what was the Valley’s original superhighway.
Port Republic, VA