As European settlers expanded west from Virginia’s coast in the 18th century the Blue Ridge Mountains were an imposing physical barrier to their progress, a great divide between the known and unknown. Answering the mountain’s challenge in 1716 then state governor Alexander Spotswood and 50 companions traveled from Williamsburg along a Native American foot path that crossed the mountain in an area now known as Swift Run Gap. When Spotswood reached the gap’s summit he became one of the first Europeans to lay eyes on the Shenandoah Valley. The land that he saw directly beneath him would become the town of Elkton.
Settlers soon followed in Spotswood’s footsteps, tracing his path through the gap and settling in the Shenandoah Valley. By 1727 the area had one of its first European settlers, a German immigrant named Adam Miller. The Elk Run Church built nearby was one of the first religious buildings built in the Valley. The community that grew up at the base of the mountain was originally known as “Conrad’s Store” after a local retail establishment.
Swift Run Gap was an important mountain crossing during the Civil War. Confederate General Stonewall Jackson ferried his army back and forth across the mountain there as he moved between battlefields in the Valley and in central Virginia. Jackson famously made his headquarters for a time near Conrad’s Store in a home that is still standing, known as the Miller-Kite House. During the Valley Campaign the Elk Run Church was used to hold prisoners of war and local homes were used as military hospitals. Confederate soldiers burned the town’s bridge to prevent Federal troops from crossing the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.
After the war Conrad’s Store continued to grow as an industrial town thanks to its location. The town was a transportation hub near the Shenandoah River, along the Norfolk Western rail line and near import roads. The road across Swift Run Gap would become the Rockingham Turnpike, a major road connecting Richmond and points east to western Virginia. The town became home to a tannery, a pottery works, mills and businesses that supported the local mining and agriculture industries. By then it was known as “Elk Run” for the nearby stream, named after the animals once common in the area, that came off the mountain and emptied into the South Fork. In 1881 the town’s name was officially changed to Elkton.
Tourism would bring Elkton’s next boom. The Bear Lithia Springs, originally part of Adam Miller’s property, near town drew visitors from around the East Coast. Hotels were built to house the visitors. The most famous of these was “The Elkton Hotel”, later known as “The Gables.” Built in 1890 the elaborate towered structure built in the French style featured 120 rooms. It was operated until 1956.
The town of Elkton was incorporated in 1908 and by 1912 had 1,000 residents. The road that crossed Swift Run Gap became U.S. 33, an important east-west highway to Richmond before the interstate system and the town continued to grow. Elkton is currently home to 2,800 people governed by a seven member council, headed by a mayor, that works in conjunction with the town manager. The town has done much to preserve its history. The Miller-Kite house, which served as Jackson’s headquarters, is opened to the public as a Civil War museum. The downtown area has been declared a Virginia Main Street Community.
Elkton operates two parks within its limits, one of which is home to a county league baseball team. There are both public and private school options within five miles, including the county public elementary school within the town limits. The city of Harrisonburg, the county seat of Rockingham with a population of 40,000, is about 15 miles away with retail, medical and educational services.
With its proximity to the river and the railroad Elkton continues to be a town that draws industry. Merck Pharmaceuticals and MillerCoors Brewery, two of the largest employers in the region are located near town.
Although the Gables Hotel no longer exists Elkton is near two well-known attractions that continue to draw visitors to the area. In the 1930s Shenandoah National Park and the Skyline Drive were established on the Blue Ridge Mountains east of town and the Swift Run Gap entrance is one of the park’s most popular entry points. To the west the Massanutten Resort has snow recreation to offer in the winter months and hiking and mountain biking trails and golf the rest of the year.
Governor Spotswood wouldn’t recognize the lands beneath him if he gazed out from Swift Run Gap today, but it was his expedition that has made the Shenandoah Valley what it is today. Elkton is the place where the settling of the Shenandoah Valley started. It’s a town that doesn’t forget its history as it grows into the future.