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Patrick Farris: Front Royal's nickname was 'Helltown'

Patrick Farris (Buy photo)

By Patrick Farris

During the last quarter of the 18th century, the little community of LeHewtown was perfectly located to benefit from the trade in goods and migration of people from all cardinal directions.

Situated at the confluence of Happy Creek and the North Fork and South Fork of the Shenandoah River with paths that followed these water courses, the town also sat along trading routes that crossed the Blue Ridge. This connected the Shenandoah Valley with the Piedmont and Tidewater regions of Virginia with their towns, cities and ports. A major north-south artery of commerce and migration came through the town as well, connecting the lower reaches of the valley and even Pennsylvania with points south; this is the route followed today by Highway 340/522. LeHewtown grew as a result, and attracted tradesmen to live and work in the village.

During the late 1700s, the community also acquired the nickname "Helltown," which fortunately never made its appearance on a map. The nickname began circulating as travelers through town would - after a hard day's work wrangling horses, herding cattle, driving wagons and like activities - come in to town for a drink or two. The local population responded according to the law of supply and demand, and there were at one time almost as many taverns as residences in the town, although many houses likely doubled in function. When, after the American Revolution, the community chartered under the name of Front Royal, "Helltown" began a gradual decline in usage, assisted by the completion of the C&O Canal and B&O Railroad, which redirected the flood of western travelers away from the valley route. Due in part to its colorful nature, the nickname was never forgotten.

It is interesting to note that Bishop Francis Asbury, who preached in the town in the early 1800s, refers to Front Royal by that name in his diary, but also refers to the village as "Luce-Town" in 1804 and "League Town" in 1805. These two references must be Asbury's distorted attempts at writing LeHewtown, which he undoubtedly heard or saw written at some point during his visit. This evidence suggests that although Front Royal is chartered in 1788 under the name it still uses today, as late as the first decade of the 19th century the settlement's original name of LeHewtown is still in limited use.

The other interesting fact about Front Royal's name in its early days of usage has to do with the changing spelling of the town's name. As noted in an earlier column, the town charter recorded the town's name as "Frontroyall," spelled all as one word and with two "l"s at the end. This spelling can be found on maps of the area as late as 1809, over two decades after the town was chartered.

In addition to the commonly known theories as to the town name's origin, an anonymous writer to The Warren Sentinel newspaper in the mid-1880s referred to a town tradition which "says that an old British ex-soldier, Andrew Forsyte, (possibly Forsythe) used in his maudlin moods to call it Front Royal." So regardless of name, what was this little village like at the time of its chartering?

Front Royal by the end of the 18th century boasted only one major mill near town, which stood a few hundred yards north of the town and was owned by Allen Wiley, a Baptist preacher whose house occupied the bluff just beyond where the railroad would cut through in the mid-19th century.

As far as religious institutions went, just outside of the town was an Anglican "Chapel of Ease," the town's only permanently built house of public worship. There were many congregations at the time, however, which shared facilities or met in private houses. The Anglican Chapel of Ease was a log structure located up on a high limestone cliff overlooking the river, one mile south of the town, and went under the name of the South River Church. In addition to its official use in the colonial era as an Anglican (Episcopal) church, it was used by the Baptists and Presbyterians as well until they erected a long two-story hewn log building at the west end of town, facing Main Street, which they occupied until it was required for a school house. After that point the Baptists built the Rocktown Church, a half mile north of town, and a new weather-boarded Methodist church remained for some time the only church in the town proper.

Interested in local history? Come visit the Warren Heritage Society in Front Royal. Refer to warrenheritagesociety.org for contact information, hours and location.

Patrick Farris is executive director of the Warren Heritage Society.


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