Nelson Scenic Loop is under construction


We are very pleased to announce that the Rockfish Valley Foundation is undertaking to create a travel opportunity and informational text in Nelson County which we have called the NELSON SCENIC LOOP.

The research, writing and website development are underway. We are pleased to have Jesús Najar, an Urban & Environmental Planning Masters candidate at the University of Virginia School of Architecture working for us this summer as lead developer. He is assisted by M.H.LA Liz Sargent, one of our very committed volunteers and a part time resident of Beech Grove. In addition we are working with Bluewall the website developer and social network creator run by Sara Pope and Peter Agelasto IV. Their intern Samantha Ashley is a valued member of their team for the summer.

You may follow the progress of the NELSON SCENIC LOOP at

It is a 50-mile auto and bike tour that follows four scenic byways and features Nelson’s bounty of natural, cultural, and historic attractions. There are a number of spurs that lead from it as optional discovery trails. Please let us have your comments.

Nelson Scenic Loop Goals

The Loop will:

• Promote the intrinsic natural, scenic, recreational, historic, cultural, and archeological qualities of Nelson County.
• Offer an authentic meaningful rural experience that will enrich the lives of visitors by highlighting connections between cultural activities and the natural world.
• Suggest opportunities for heritage tourism through regional branding and cooperative marketing, including Nelson County, in communities along the Loop.
• Encourage visitors to appreciate, respect, and experience Nelson County’s unique cultural landscape.
• Promote and enrich the Blue Ridge Parkway experience.

• Create a rural tourism model that can be replicated in other parts of Nelson and throughout rural Virginia.

Peter A. Agelasto III
June 1, 2009

August 19, 2008 at 2 PM – dedication of Hurricane Camille Marker

CAMILLE Historic Marker dedication – August 19, 2008 at 2 PM

Everyone is invited to attend the dedication of the Hurricane Camille historic marker located at the Rockfish River Trail head on Rt 151 at the bridge over the S. Fork of the Rockfish River. The dedication will occur at 2 pm on August 19, 2008 which is the 39th anniversary of Hurricane Camille in Nelson County. The devastating rains fell in the evening of August 19 and early morning of August 20.

The program will consist of brief remarks by Nelson County officials, representatives of VA Dept of Historic Resources, VA Dept of Transportation, the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, Cliff Wood , former Nelson County Supervisor and others to be announced. Cliff was involved in the Camille marker placed at Woods Mill in 1971. The additional marker is a replica of that and states:


This second marker is located on the site of the home of Mr and Mrs Ed Ewing who were swept away by the flood and perished on the evening of August 19, 1969. A total of 125 persons died or were lost in Nelson County which at the time was more than 1% of the population.

Light refreshments will be served. Please call 434 361 2251 for further information.

Introduction to Roar of the Heavens by Stefan Bechtel

Roar of the Heavens – preface

From Frances Fitzgerald’s house along the Tye River in the tiny town of Tyro, in Nelson County, Virginia, there is a soul-stirring view of The Priest. The bony, forested crest of this old knob rises to just over four thousand feet, making it one of the highest peaks in these parts. In the twilight, The Priest and its companion peaks The Friar and Three Ridges seem to march into infinity, and into a seemingly infinite color-series of blues and grays and blue-grays — an ever-shifting palette only faintly suggested by their name, the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Spread out below these towering mountains is a lovely, flower-spattered meadow, which in the autumn is scattered with great round hay bales that look like immense loaves of golden bread. The fields are borded by lazy, wandering hedgerows that follow the streambeds, marked by a meandering line of sycamores and oaks and willows and mountain ash. It’s God’s country, some of the prettiest, most pastoral landscapes on the East coast.

The Priest is a thing that smites even the dullest of hearts with its sheer loveliness — yet to view this landscape simply with ones’ heart is to almost completely miss it. Because standing here in this pretty valley, overshadowed by mountains lifted off a scenic calendar, you are ringed by danger and by death, and the tangible record of catastrophe is everywhere. Above you, there are places where the mountainsides have been raked bare and now stand raw and exposed as open wounds. Scattered in the foothills below, there are immense boulders, some of them as big as boxcars. How did they get there? What cataclysm brought them down?

The Priest is beautiful, but looked at in a more ominous way it is also a great, broad blade almost a mile high, that rakes water out of the sky. In scientific terms, its steepness and height create an “orographic effect,” lifting moisture-laden air masses up into higher elevations, where they cool, condense, and fall as rain — sometimes not gentle rain but fierce, relentless, murderous rain. The very height and drama of these mountains is the source of their danger. The towering crags and ridges form a steep watershed or catchment area, a gigantic basin or a bowl, which gathers water from a vast area and sends it cascading down into narrow streambeds. And the meadow around you, it now becomes obvious, is actually a vast floodplain that has been repeatedly inundated by water and by mud. There have been times when this lowland has become the valley of the shadow of death, and no birds sang.

Then there is the non-obvious matter of Nelson County’s location on the globe. Its particular latitude (about 38 degrees north of the equator) maximizes the chance that disintegrating hurricanes coming up from the distant Gulf but still loaded with almost unimaginable cargoes of water will unburden them in these mountains. That’s why the soporific Tye River, chuckling over its bed of round stones through this peaceful valley, is actually a ravenous beast, the mythological dragon of the human imagination, only temporarily asleep.

We may know these things rationally, but we don’t really know them deep in our hearts, down in the fearful realm below thought.

Part of the reason all this danger is hidden is that we are trapped in human, psychological time. We’re inclined to measure everything against the sixty or seventy or eighty years most of us will be given. Anything that occurs less frequently than this tends to be invisible to us — it vibrates on a slower pulse. Yet even the longest human life on record is so brief it’s akin to the shadow of a bird passing across a wall. Compared to geological time, compared to the rocks and hills around us, a human lifespan is indistinguishable from that of a mayfly, which is born and dies in a single day.

But there are moments — extraordinary moments — when human time comes into direct conflict with geological time. When the implacable inhumanness and grandeur of these great processes rises up around us, like a sleeping monster, and eats us alive.

Such an event occurred here in the mountains of central Virginia on the night of August 19th, 1969, when the remnants of Hurricane Camille collided with a complex system of water-laden air currents in the middle and upper atmosphere. Almost completely without warning, and within the space of eight hours, one of the heaviest rainfalls ever recorded on earth — billions of tons of it — cascaded down these mountainsides, turning these lovely crags and streambeds into a terrifyingly effective drowning machine for all life below. Humans, animals, dogs and cats, trees, boulders, houses, cars, barns and everything else were swept away in a fast-moving slurry of molten soil, a kind of deadly earth-lava that buried everything in its path. The bodies of many people, asleep in their beds when the avalanche smashed into their houses in the night, were never found. The next morning, when Frances Fitzgerald climbed down out of the hole in the ceiling where she and her husband had fled to escape the flood, she saw drowned, half-naked bodies hanging from fences and trees around her house.

“We were encircled by death,” she said.

The rainfall was so cataclysmic that the Office of Hydrology of the Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service) later estimated that the rainfall “approaches the probable maximum rainfall which meterologists compute to be theoretically possible.” People had to cover their mouths even to breathe. Birds perched in trees simply drowned. A team of geologists, after calculating how much soil would be stripped off the mountainsides due to normal wind, water and weather, concluded that about two thousand years of erosion had taken place in a single night. Other scientists later attempted to calculate just how unusual an event this was. The hydrology office estimated that an event of this magnitude “occurs, on average, only once in more than 1,000 years.” Another researcher, at the University of Virginia, pointed out that such catastrophic events were so rare that one had to look beyond human history and instead study the geologic record of ancient “paleofloods” imprinted in the rocks and soil. Using radiocarbon dating of these ancient sediments, he calculated that the hardest-hit area (the Davis Creek basin) had probably not seen such an event in the previous three to six thousand years — since before the building of the pyramids at Giza.

But whatever metrics one uses, what occurred in Nelson County, Virginia in the last days of August, 1969 — and, a few days earlier along the Mississippi Gulf coast — was an event out of the nether regions of mathematical probability, out of an entirely different scale of time than the one to which humans are accustomed. After it was over, when the mountainsides collapsed in a deafening, continuous roar, people marvelled at the smell that hung in the air, a pungent, earthy smell, the smell of rock and soil that may not have been exposed to air and light in thousands of years. It was the smell of deep time.

It was as though, on an ordinary day in August, in an ordinary place, time itself had been ripped open and laid bare.

This is the story of a collision between human and geological time.

It’s the story of the fragility and unknowableness of everything we think is predictable and secure.

It’s the story of what people do when the worst that could possibly happen, happens.

For many, it became the story of the end of the world.

Roar of the Heavens by Stefan Bechtel was published in 2006 by Citadel Press. It is available as hard back and soft bound. ISBN 0-8065-2706-4

Hurricane Camille and its impact described and illustrated

Hurricane Camille and its impact described and illustrated

Please imagine that the slide scars represent the headwaters of the S. Fork of the Rockfish River up near Wintergreen Mountain Village above elevation 3500. The torrential rains loosened the soil, the shrubs and trees. That debris began to wash down the mountain, pulling with it rocks and any other thing in its path. As the flow became larger and reached the upper valley at Beech Grove, it broadened out (represented by the debris chutes) and tore a 40 foot deep trench into the earth where Rt 664 now exists. The build up of water, material, animals, automobiles and everything in its path continued to travel under gravity into the Valley Floor at elevation 1300 and began to fan out to cover the valley (represented by debris fans). This occurred in the middle of the night which found the occupants of the one story house in the flood plain at elevation 900 located beside the river at the existing Rt 151 Bridge asleep in their house. Many people thought the roar of the debris flows was thunder as the sky was filled with lightening. It was not. It was the roar of rocks hitting rocks. This debris flow can be estimated to have travelled at a speed of over 40 miles per hour when it reached the South Rockfish Valley you are looking at. The home, located where you are standing, of Mr. and Mrs. Ed Ewing was destroyed and their bodies recovered nearly 1/2 mile down stream. The Charlottesville Daily Progress printed adjacent photo showing the steps remaining to the house, the roof of the house on the bridge and the devastation of the site. The historic marker located beside Rt 151 recognizes the loss of lives and the devastation wrought by Hurricane Camille in the State of Virginia. It is hard to imagine the loss to the Ewing family. A brother lived in the house across the road and three siblings at ELK HILL, the home on the hill. Each woke the morning of August 20th to see the ghastly site of debris filled, flooded fields and an empty space where the Ewing family had lived and perished.

Please be respectful of this site and honor their memory along with those others lost in the storm of August 19-20, 1969. Thanks you for your visit. To obtain more information, please see the website or read the introduction reproduced here from the book entitled Roar of the Heavens (2006) by Stefan Bechtel, a Charlottesville author, which is considered the best presentation of Hurricane Camille.

We are indebted to the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation ( for its support of this exhibit and the duplication and installation of the Hurricane Camille marker.

++Camille Flow Diagram prepared and available through the courtesy of David Spears, Geologist, Virginia Department of Mines and Minerals.

Peter A. Agelasto III
Rockfish Valley Foundation
434 361 2251
P O Box 235
Nellysford, VA 22958

Other books on Hurricane Camille
Torn Land by Paige and Jerry Simpson 1970
Hurricane Camille – monster storm of the Gulf Coast by Philip D. Hearn 2004
Category 5, the story of Camille by Ernest Zebrowski and Judith A Howard 2005
Roar of the Heavens by Stefan Bechtel 2006