Virginia City, better known as Dry Gulch Junction, was a wild west attraction in Wytheville, Virginia. Dry Gulch was situated on the edge of Jefferson National Forest, around ten miles from Wytheville. The attraction became most notable for the wrong reasons. Debt and death plagued everyone who attempted to make it an attraction. So, did the Curse of Dry Gulch really exist, or was it just a series of wildly unfortunate events?
Stuart Thomas Kime was originally an engineer. After working on an Ozark tower in Arkansas, the Pennsylvania native decided he wanted such a place of his own. As World War II came to a close, he found the perfect spot for a tower. He purchased some land on the Wythe-Bland county border.
He first opened a gas station and gift shop in 1947. He constructed the original 50 ft. tower by himself, around 1953. He then hired a crew of steelworkers to add another 50 ft. The Big Walker Lookout was ready for guests.
Kime’s wife, Abigail, opened the Pioneer Dining Room Restaurant nearby. The restaurant had a 4,000 square-feet basement that became the Kime home. Sadly, the restaurant and Kime home burned to the ground in 2003.
Kime added a chairlift in the 1960s, but the insurance became too expensive. They had to close it. They also had a poisonous snake attraction, but that too disappeared.
Kime wasn’t through building, nor ready to give up the notorious Appalachian Tourism Gambit. He wanted another attraction. He decided to purchase a train, and bought the Shay Engine #19 from a company in West Virginia. He laid a half mile of railroad track and wanted to eventually lay four miles. He named the attraction “Dry Gulch Junction and Tombstone.”
Kime knew it was going to be risky venture, but attempted it anyway. He even went to Roanoke, in June of 1966, to request more funds for the highway. Kime was the president of a group called the Great Lakes to Florida Highway Association. This group was devoted to growth and development along Route 21, the main road connecting Ohio with Florida. The Great Lakes to Florida Highway Museum is in Wytheville.
Dry Gulch was originally just a scenic excursion, somewhat of an extension of the Big Walker Lookout observation tower a few miles away. Kime launched the attraction in 1966. Dry Gulch Junction became a notable county attraction in the 1970s. The train was added to demonstrate the typical logging trains used in the Appalachians at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Kime moved an old chestnut mill from Little Creek. The machinery was still functional.
Ownership of the attraction was never an easy task, even at its inception. Highway US-52 would be its undoing. The highway opened in 1972, and directed traffic away from Kime’s efforts. As if that wasn’t hardship enough, his old Shay engine derailed and he died on November 8, of that same year.
The attraction closed while the family considered their options. One year later, Dry Gulch re-opened with a different engine. Kime’s wife, Abigail, and son Ron were the managers. It was then that Ron considered expanding the attraction. He eventually developed plans for constructing a proper town around the tracks. The historic town opened in 1977, as Dry Gulch Junction. There were “Wild West” shootouts and similar performance artists throughout the town. Sadly, the bad luck didn’t stop.
The site then featured numerous 19th Century structures, such as a general store, chapel, and a jail. The structures in Dry Gulch each have their own history.
Stephen Hamilton was a Chicago native, who worked at Dry Gulch Junction for two years. He was a graduate of Ball State University. He died when the train ran him over on July 15, 1979.
According to historians, Dottie West sang in Dry Gulch during the late 1970s. During this period, Dry Gulch hosted singers Helen Cornelius and Jim Ed Brown. They also claim the latter concert drew around 3,500 attendees.
Just when it seemed the little park might actually be a success, flooding came. It rained every time a show was put on. Once, historians claimed, it even snowed.
The Kime family was not to see success. They paid a great deal for major performers, when the attraction barely paid for itself. Several years later, family had a trustee’s sale, and lost Dry Gulch Junction. The train was dismantled, but the structures remained.
The place was abandoned and left to the elements, and vandals. It was privately owned for a time as a hunting sanctuary, but trespassers were common.
The town’s saloon came from Broadford. Many of the structures came out of Pocahontas. As years passed, the windows were broken and the paint faded. Thieves stole the copper from the buildings. It seemed like the end had came for the old venue.
A North Carolina couple, Michael Hill and Jeanne Davis, stumbled across the forgotten destination in 1998. The native North Carolinians had been searching for a place in Southwestern Virginia. They fell in love with the property, and the price was too good to pass by. Once they assumed ownership, they brought in a crew to restore the town to its original state. Their hard work paid off and they opened in 2000.
Eventually, they expanded to feature the Virginia City Gem Mine. This sheltered sluice allowed visitors to purchase buckets of ore to search for gems. The sluice was imported.
Unfortunately, their hard work seemed to be just as futile as the Kime family’s hard work. The Curse of Dry Gulch never really left. Davis admitted they never received pay for their efforts. They estimated their investment was somewhere between $1-$2 million. They worked on the attraction daily for ten years. They borrowed money, with their own home as collateral, and even sold off family land to support it.
Tragedy came again a few years later. Hill was on his ATV in 2006, and suffered an injury. He thought it was something trivial that would heal itself, like a torn ligament. His pain continued to worsen and, by the time he went to see a physician, it was too late. He died shortly thereafter. As if one loss wasn’t enough, Davis’s own father died the next year.
After her father’s untimely death, she lost any desire to work further on the attraction. She started to put it up for sale in 2008, but didn’t. The only portion that was successful was the sluice mine, but even that wouldn’t provide forever. The property went to the auction block in May of 2014. It was sold in September, and Dry Gulch once again became private property.
Was Dry Gulch cursed? Rumors of its haunted structures continue to spread, but perhaps the bad luck can be more aptly attributed to the wrong place at the wrong time. Like so many other attractions in Appalachian areas, Dry Gulch belonged in an era when the roads were smaller, and the traveler wasn’t in such a hurry.
The Old Shay #19 had a history of its own before even coming to Dry Gulch. The engine was made in Lima, Ohio, in 1905. The first owner was the Tioga Lumber Company in Nicholas County, West Virginia. The Tioga became the Birch Valley Lumber Company in 1915, but engine ownership was not to last. The Shay was again sold to Hookersville’s Sutton Company in 1925. It was sold to the Cherry River Boom & Lumber Company about 1927. Cherry River operated out of Richwood, West Virginia.
The next owner was the Ely-Thomas Lumber Company, although dates for this transaction are difficult to locate. The engine then went to the Elk River Coal & Lumber Company, in 1957, where it became Engine #19.
While there, the engine, and the company, saw a number of new owners. First, the W.M. Ritter Company, and then Georgia-Pacific.
While working at the lumber mill, a fire burned the original cabin away. The workers just replaced it with a cab from a #18. It also froze to the rail during winter. One worker claims he had to open the throttle and reverse the engine to break the ice.
Stuart Kime purchased the engine in 1964. The train ran until 1972, when Kime died. It was replaced with a rod engine. The rod engine was sold in 1977, and the Shay returned to its tracks. The Shay remained running until 1979.
Life for the old Shay engine becomes sketchy after Kime’s ownership. It passed through a number of owners before being moved into storage, or so it was reported. It remains unclear as to where this information came from. According to several reports in the 1990s, the engine was in storage, pending restoration. It was supposed to become an exhibit piece. Several reports claimed the engine had returned to its original owner, the Lima Locomotive Works, which then operated as the Lima Trade Center. The primary issue is that the Lima Trade Center closed in 1981. During the 1970s, it was a branch of the Clark Machine Co.
The Shay #19 is believed to be the same model on display in Ohio today.