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US 15 in Virginia - The James Madison Highway

US 15 - James Madison Highway - just outside of Clarksville.
History of the James Madison Highway:
The James Madison Highway (US 15) is named in honor of the fourth President of the United States.  JamesMadison was born and raised in Albemarle County.  Madison is considered the "Father of the Constitution" and served as President from 1809-1817.  The highway was designated in his honor by an act of the Virginia State Assembly on March 19, 1928.   Today, much of the James Madison Highway follows US 15.  Over 80 percent of the highway wanders along two lane roads through Virginia's Piedmont.  The James Madison Highway runs solely through Virginia, ending at both the Maryland, north of Leesburg,  and North Carolina, south of Clarksville, state lines. 


History of US 15 in Virginia:

US 15 would first appear in the Commonwealth in 1927.  It would enter the state from North Carolina as it does today, south of Clarksville; however at that point, US 15 continued to run east along VA 32 (now US 58) to South Hill.  It was in 1929 that US 15 was moved on to an alignment that is similar to the route the highway takes today.  From Clarksville, US 15 would continue north on VA 32 routing through Keysville, Farmville, Palmyra, Orange, Culpeper, Warrenton and Leesburg.  As a result of this move, VA 32 would no longer exist.  As a result of the alignment shift, US 15 now followed the entire James Madison Highway.
 
In the 1940's, US 15 would have its next large scale alignment shift.  The designation was adjusted between Warrenton and Gilbert's Corner.  Prior to this change, US 15 had followed a route that consists of modern US 17 north out of Warrenton, north on VA 245 through Great Meadow, at The Plains it continued north on what is now secondary route 626 to US 50 in Middleburg, finally east of US 50 to where the route turned north at Gilbert's Corner.  This former route of US 15 is still considered as the James Madison Highway today.  In the early 1950's, the creation of what is now Kerr Lake caused US 15 to be realigned south of Clarksville.
 
Since the opening of the Keysville Bypass in 1966, US 15 has been realigned several times onto a freeway bypass of several small cities.  Over the next 20 years, bypasses were built around: Leesburg, Culpeper, Remington, Farmville, and finally Warrenton in 1987.  This would be the second time US 15 was rerouted in Warrenton.  50 years earlier, US 15 was rerouted on a bypass to the west and north of the historic downtown.  The new bypass now carries US 15 to the east.  Finally, US 15 was rerouted to the south and east of downtown Clarksville on a bypassed shared with US 58.  The Clarksville Bypass opened in June 2005.

North Carolina to Sprouses Corner:


The first two features that US 15 passes after entering Virginia from North Carolina are Kerr Lake and the town of Clarksville.  The lake, originally named Buggs Island Lake, was created in 1953 when the John H. Kerr Dam was built on the Roanoke River.  As a result, Clarksville became a waterfront community on the shores of a 50,000 acre lake.  Clarksville boasts itself as "Virginia's Only Lakeside Town."
 
Because of the large lake, Clarksville has become the site of numerous fishing and boating events.  The Virginia Lake Festival is held annually in July and attracts close to 50,000 visitors.  There are numerous lakefront hotels, cabins, and vacation homes in the Clarksville area.  Although a recently opened bypass carries US 15 and US 58 to the south of town, Business US 58 still runs through downtown and many of the lakefront hotels.
 
The creation of Kerr Lake resulted in the rerouting of US 15 south of Clarksville.  The lengthy - albeit segmented - former alignment of US 15 that runs into North Carolina.  This remnant has not been US 15 for over 50 years.  In 1952, the area around Clarksville was flooded for the formation of Kerr Lake - originally named Buggs Island Lake - for electricity and flood control.  Today, the forgotten US 15 from Clarksville south to the lake is known as Secondary Route 821 - Old National Highway.  From the lake south to the North Carolina line, the former US 15 is known as Secondary Route 822, Old Soudan Road.

Looking north on former US 15 (Secondary Route 821).  The road is still paved; however because of a lack of use, the overgrowth has narrowed the former alignment to one lane (Mike Roberson)

Looking North into Virginia on former US 15 (Secondary Route 822) at the North Carolina State Line. (Mike Roberson)
(Doug Kerr)
US 15 moved onto a bypass of Keysville in 1966.  Along with Route 15, US 360 was also moved onto the new bypass.  The James Madison Highway follows US 15 Business through Keysville.  At right, US 15 leaves US 360 and the Keysville Bypass.

After leaving Keysville, US 15 continues north seventeen miles to Farmville.  Farmville calls itself, "The Heart of Virginia," and every May is host to a festival by the same name.  Farmville is also the home to Longwood University which was chartered in 1839.  The last major battle in the Virginia Theater of the Civil War was fought nearby at Sayler'sCreek.  Farmville was also the site of an early turning point of the great Civil Rights struggle on the 1950s and 60s.  Barbara John's strike against segregated school began at Robert R. Moton High School on April 23, 1951.  This strike would become a key challenge to the Plessy v. Ferguson "Separate but Equal" doctrine.  

In 1976, US 15 along with US 460 was moved onto a bypass of Farmville.  The bypass runs south of the city and Longwood University.  US 15 Business carries the James Madison Highway through downtown Farmville.  Exiting the city, US 15 continues north along farmland and the shadows of Willis Mountain (1,129 ft). 

Sprouses Corner to Orange:

(Doug Kerr)
The James Madison Highway's run through Central Virginia combines Colonial and Civil War History.  US 15 runs about 25 miles east of Charlottesville and Jefferson's Monticello.  Just north of Sprouses Corner, VA Route 20 heads northwest towards Charlottesville.  VA 20 is known as the Constitution Route as it returns to US 15 in Orange.  Not far from Route 15 are numerous Civil War battlefields that are minutes away including The Wilderness and Chancellorsville, which are accessible via VA 20 east from Orange.  Many other minor battlefields are nearby and can be followed by the Commonwealth's popular Civil War Trails.
 
Route 15 is blessed with spectacular scenery along the rolling countryside it traverses.  The photo at right, shows the highway crossing the James River near Bremo Bluff.  Small towns like Dillwyn, Dixie, Palmyra, Gordonsville, and Orange add to the scenery of the central section of the James Madison Highway.

(Mike Roberson)
Palmyra sits along the northern banks of the Rivanna River.  The Rivanna was the first river within the Commonwealth to receive 'State Scenic River' status.  Palmyra has been the Fluvanna County seat since 1828.  From the south US 15 enters Palmyra over a 75 year old camel truss bridge.  The bridge, shown at right, was built in 1931 and replaced a covered bridge that sat slightly upstream.  After the current bridge's opening, the covered bridge was burned by the state out of concern that flooding would dislodge the covered bridge and threaten the integrity of the new bridge's steel structure.  

Just of Route 15 in Gordonsville along Main Street is the Exchange Hotel Civil War Museum.  The hotel opened in 1860 and was a stop on the Virginia Central Railway.  However during the Civil War conflict, the Confederate Army transformed the hotel to a receiving hospital.  One of the most requested exhibits of the museum is 'The Lists'.  There are two 'Lists'; one of those that died under the hospitals care, and a second that lists all known patients.  The Exchange Hotel was restored in 1971 and the museum was founded shortly thereafter.

The James Madison Highway meets its namesake in Orange.  Orange is home to the James Madison Museum and his homestead, the famed Montpelier, is nearby.  Though not along the route, Madison's Homestead, Montpelier, is not far from US 15 in Orange.  In December 2010, my wife and I visited Montpelier.  It is worth the detour.  As with Gordonsville, US 15 runs through downtown Orange.  Orange has many bed and breakfasts and small restaurants to add to its small town charm. 

Culpeper to Maryland:

US 15 meets US 29 in Culpeper. (Doug Kerr)
From Orange, US 15 heads north to Culpeper where it joins another "Great Virginia Drive", US 29 and the Seminole Trail.  Route 15 no longer goes through downtown Culpeper, as it runs along the Culpeper Bypass with US 29.  The James Madison Highway still goes through the nearly 250 year old town by way of Business US 15.  Culpeper still boasts a vibrant Main Street along with numerous historic neighborhoods and homes. 

Route 15 has bypassed Warrenton twice since 1938.  Originally routed through downtown, US 15 was moved to the west away from the central business district in 1938.  As the town grew, so did traffic on the bypass.  In the mid-1980s, the second bypass - this time to the east - was constructed.  After the bypass' opening in 1987, both Routes 15 and 29 moved onto it.  A decade later US 17 would move onto the bypass as well.

Business US 15 still follows the first routing of the highway through town.  Warrenton can be considered as a crossroads of major 'named' highways.  The Lee Highway enters town from the east along Route 29 and continues west towards Luray on US 211.  The Seminole Trail's journey from the south ends here.  Finally, the James Madison Highway continues north on its original alignment via Route 17.  US 15 follows US 29 northeast towards Gainesville before turning north towards Leesburg via Haymarket.

Leesburg, which has a lengthy history of importance during the Civil War, is the last large town on the James Madison Highway.  Near Leesburg is the site of the October 21, 1861, Battle of Ball's Bluff.  Also, the Town of Leesburg played an important role in both the Antietam and Gettysburg campaigns.  At Edward's Ferry, just east of town, over 100,000 Union troops crossed the Potomac over 12 days in June of 1863.

The town of Leesburg was bypassed in 1967.  The James Madison Highway and US 15 continues from Leesburg as a rural two lane highway through the small village of Lucketts before crossing the Potomac and entering Maryland at Point of Rocks.  It is here where the James Madison Highway ends; US 15 continues towards Frederick, Maryland and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. 

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