This past weekend I once again signed on as an artilleryman with the militia from Martin’s Station, this time for an event at Natural Tunnel State Park near Duffield, VA. NTSP’s most famous attraction is its namesake geologic feature, but the main attraction at the reenactment area was a great reconstruction of an eighteenth-century fortification.
The Wilderness Road Blockhouse represents the home of John Anderson, built in the 1770’s not far from the park. It bruned about a century after its construction, but today a monument marks the original site. During the Revolutionary era, it was a significant landmark for migrants starting out on the Wilderness Road. Because Anderson’s house was a relatively secure structure near the road’s point of origin, it was a convenient gathering place for people waiting to join parties headed into Kentucky. It was also a handy storehouse and defensive post for settlers during periods of Indian trouble.
Unlike the familiar walled forts that stood at places like Boonesborough and near Sycamore Shoals, which were made up of a series of buildings linked by palisades, frontier blockhouses were solitary, individual buildings. What they lacked in size, they made up in strength. The second story was wider than the first, so that the walls of the upper floor jutted out beyond those of the one below; imagine a small cabin perched on top of a slightly smaller wooden box. This made it extremely difficult for assailants to climb up onto the roof. Furthermore, since the edges of the second floor stuck out over empty space, openings in the floorboards allowed defenders to shoot or pour boiling water downward, directly onto the heads of anyone approaching the building too closely.
Two additional features make the Wilderness Road blockhouse a tough nut to crack. There’s no mud chinking to seal empty spaces on the outside walls. The wood pieces themselves fit snugly together, making a solid and more impregnable structure. And unlike most frontier cabins, which had external chimneys, this building’s chimney is built within the walls, so that an attacking party can’t tear through it to get inside.
The Wilderness Road Blockhouse has its own small visitor center, with an exhibit and gift shop. It’s a great little interpretive area, with an extraordinarily effective use of limited space. The exhibit explores the blockhouse itself, the Wilderness Road, and frontier life in general. It’s a great spot, with a fantastic view of the surrounding hills. Check it out the next time you’re in southwestern Virginia.