Apr 28, 2009
by Tim Mattingly
The land of Lynchburg is economically enriched with the nutrients provided it by the region. Counted among the bolstering benefactors are the many people who inhabit it and, without question, Liberty University. However, this historically happening locale called Lynchburg was already bustling before the birth of Liberty.
In many ways, pre-Liberty Lynchburg bears a resemblance to the prehistoric journey depicted in the “Land Before Time.”
The childhood cartoon begins with an earthquake and Lynchburg began with Quakers — the Quaker John Lynch to be exact, for whom the city would eventually be named. While the lovable Littlefoot had to cross a massive gorge, Lynch also made it his business to cross what is now known as the James River.
It was a fairytale and a ferry-tale. Both fictional dinosaur and ferryman had the same goals — to find a way to a better, more prosperous future.
As Littlefoot journeyed forward toward his goal, he was joined by other dinosaurs that eventually formed into a future-seeking unit. Just as time’s passing brought about the official creation of Lynchburg as a town on Jan. 10, 1805, according to the History of Lynchburg Web site.
Green grazing lands lay ahead and forward progress was an ever-present issue for Lynchburg, which continued to grow as days gave birth to years. And over time, Lynchburg would thrive like the relationships in the Land Before Time. So rapidly had the region around Lynchburg begun to establish itself, that it even caught the eye of Thomas Jefferson, who would construct a home near its borders, according to the History of Lynchburg Web site.
“Jefferson even predicted once that New York, Philadelphia and New London (a town now part of the Lynchburg area) would be the three largest cities in the United States someday,” Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr. said. “Well, two out of three is not a bad average but he was right that Lynchburg would enjoy more than its fair share of prosperity.”
In order to outrun the sharp-toothed bite of economic downfall, Lynchburg began to develop as a hub for tobacco, shoes, steel and iron, according to the History of Lynchburg Web site. So fast did this city begin to grow that Lynch’s little ferry finding was considered to be the “Pittsburgh of the South” in the latter half of the 19th century, according to Localism, a historic Web site that recalls the city’s youth.
Because of its early success, 19th century Lynchburg would become one of the wealthiest cities in the United States, per capita, according to the Absolute Astronomy Historical Encyclopedia Web site. Like Little Foot, Lynchburg had found its economy in the “Great Valley” of lush prosperity.
“Many of the wealthy families in 19th century Lynchburg were actually transplants from the northeastern United States. These northern industrialists and merchants built factories and businesses here because it was a railroad hub and because there was an abundance of cheap labor. The agricultural economy of the Old South was dying and Virginians were leaving their ancestral farms and plantations in droves to find work in industrial cities like Lynchburg,” said Falwell. “My father’s ancestors left their rural Virginia farms and bought farms near Liberty Mountain in the early and mid-1800s. This allowed them to continue to farm but to also operate businesses that served the Lynchburg community.”
There was a major cultural divide between these two groups of people who came to Lynchburg in the 19th century that still exists today. Their backgrounds and traditions were dramatically different but the two groups seemed to peacefully co-exist to some extent, like the Long Necks and Three-horns in Littlefoot’s tale.
The 20th century was a good sequel to its predecessor and Lynchburg continued to see growth and progress. In the 1950s the nuclear power company Babcock and Wilcox took root as well as General Electric, both bringing extra income and families to the region, according to a Virginia Tech Library article. All of this about the same time as a church on Thomas Road began to grow with its pastor, Jerry Falwell.
Then there was 1971 and then there was Liberty. While some long-time Lynchburg residents tend to have mixed opinions of Falwell’s university, the economic benefits of the educational institution are undisputable.
An economic impact study covering the first nine years of Liberty’s life show that the “total spending by the university and economic impact on the community increased 300 percent,” according to a 1990 study abstract found on the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC).
Additionally in 1990, Liberty employed 1,167 local faculty and staff and 997 local jobs were created due to the school’s presence in the region, according to ERIC. Since then, the school has continued to progress and currently employs 3,788, a number reflecting progress.
There is no question that Lynchburg was successful before Jerry Falwell started a church or crafted a university from Virginia’s red clay. Lynchburg has its many industries and has been a success story from the start. However, without Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University, it would not be the same Lynchburg it is today. Falwell’s actions echo the historic goals and dreams of Lynchburg — the dream of growth and progress.
And in this economic day and age, any city that refuses to move forward will find its economy to be a hollow shell, destined to become like the dusty remains of dinosaurs, whose days of glory will be confined to the pages of aging history books.