By WILLIAM PAINE
Last Sunday, April 23rd, saw hundreds of folks coming to the Open House event at the newly renovated Inn at Foster Falls. Freshly made pastries and coffee greeted visitors, as they ambled through the richly appointed interiors of the Inn. After touring the Inn and its grounds, several individuals were inspired to reserve a room on this opening day event.
The Inn at Foster Falls is located near the midpoint of the 57-mile New River Trail State Park, which extends from Dora Junction in Pulaski to Galax along the bed of an abandoned railroad track. The New River Trail officially opened in 1986 and today outdoor enthusiasts from around the world enjoy biking and hiking along this path as it follows the New River.
Back in 1881, the Foster Falls Mining and Manufacturing Company built a large stone furnace and in 1887, the company built the Foster Falls Hotel, which served as a meeting hall, post office, commissary and boarding house for its employees. That same year, the railroad built a “Dinky” rail bridge one-quarter mile upstream from Foster Falls, which connected to a hematite ore mine. By 1895, the Village of Foster Falls had a general store, a distillery and upwards of 100 houses.
In 1916, the New River rose 32 feet above flood stage and washed the Dinky railroad bridge away. This spelled the end of the mining operations at Foster Falls and in 1919, the hotel was sold for $1 to the Abingdon Presbytery and converted to a girl’s school.
Following the Great Depression, the old hotel served as an orphanage for girls. A two-story brick building, which still stands today, was built on the grounds to house orphaned boys.
In 1962, the orphanage moved to Wytheville and the structure was abandoned. In 1940, a fire destroyed the third floor and second floor balcony and the old hotel fell further into disrepair.
“We used to come down here when I was younger,” said Bob Byrd who came to Sunday’s Open House. “It wasn’t just run down, there was mice running everywhere. There was hay stored in what’s now the parlor.”
Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) acquired the property in 1995 and the Village of Foster Falls was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.
According to Doug Covington of the DCR, major renovations on the building and its grounds began in 2013. The original roofline, complete with a cupola and dormers were recreated using old photographs. Another aspect of the renovation included rebuilding the two-story wraparound wooden porches. These exterior renovations were completed by the end of 2014.
Interior renovations began in the summer of 2019. The Department of Historic Resources helped make sure the interior restoration was period correct for a 19th Century era structure, though most all of the interior was gutted in the renovation process.
“There were existing partitions that we worked with and that’s why each of the rooms is a different size and configuration,” Covington explained. “But essentially all of the plumbing, mechanical, electrical and the commercial kitchen are all brand new.”
The interior restoration of the structure was completed earlier this year at a cost of approximately $5 million and so, after more than six decades of disuse, this late 19th Century era building is ready to receive the public.
The Inn at Foster Falls is boutique hotel with of 10 guest rooms, each with its own full bathroom, something not available when it was built more than a century ago.
After a competitive bidding process, the DCR chose New River Retreat to be the concessionaire of the Inn at Foster Falls. Under this arrangement, New River Retreat will operate and maintain the hotel and its grounds and give a percentage of the proceeds to the DCR.
New River Retreat is a property management company offering vacation lodgings primarily along the New River and Claytor Lake. Bill and Debbie Gardner founded New River Retreat in 2002 and years later, the couple acquired and renovated the Draper Mercantile building in Draper. This serves as the base for the Thee Draper Village company which, in addition to the Mercantile, is comprised of the Draper Blooms Tea Garden, the Curious Quill, the Village Chapel and soon the Conery, which will serve ice cream and coffee.
In addition, through Thee Draper Village, the Gardners are donating office space to the New River Conservancy, a non-profit dedicated to keeping the New River as healthy and clean as possible.
Every guest room includes a refrigerator, a microwave, cable TV, a safe, an iron with an ironing board and a coffee pot (with coffee included). The guest rooms are each named after towns near Foster Falls and each of these rooms contains a wall mounting that gives a short history of these nearby locations.
The first floor features a modern commercial kitchen, a large lobby area, which can be partitioned as needed, and a cozy parlor equipped with two gas fireplaces. The interior walls of the Inn feature art and photography produced mostly by local talent. Rocking chairs line the long wooden porches that wrap around the front and side of the Inn.
Guests at the Inn at Foster Falls are provided a “Southern Style” continental breakfast and homemade desserts are served every afternoon at 3 p.m. Guests may also purchase snacks and sandwiches from a fully stocked pantry. For an additional charge, guests may preorder their dinners and have them delivered to the Inn at Foster Falls because, as of now, evening meals will not be prepared on site. The guests will be provided with nearby dining options, however.
As an added convenience, the concierge at the Inn will inform guests about outdoor activities and make reservations for bike or kayak rentals as needed.
The interior of the Inn at Foster Falls is both warm and welcoming and the front porches are just a stone’s throw from the New River, the old Foster Falls train depot and the New River Trail.
“We’re already seeing lots of reservations and we just started,” said Debbie Gardner. “Reservations will come from advanced bookings mostly but we’re getting some bikers who come off the Trail. We’re not used to getting bikers off the trail but we are getting some now.”
The renovation of this once abandoned and now marvelously restored piece of Appalachian history provides yet another reason for visitors to come and enjoy the New River Valley.
“The New River Retreat started 21 years ago, when most of the comments were not positive toward tourism because a lot of local people didn’t feel that there was a lot to do here,” said Debbie Gardner. “Twenty-one years later, we’re very proud to take on this project amongst all of our other vacation homes, and it constantly keeps us excited and appreciative of the area because we hear so many good comments from the guests. Once they know this area, our guests continue to want to come back.”