A history of Three Chopt Road.

I’ve driven the length of Route 250 in Virginia, and often noted its frequent intersections with the meandering Three Chopt Road. Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall and Main Street used to be that road. As a kid I learned—who knows where?—that it used to be an American Indian footpath, built up over the years. So I was glad to discover “The Route of the Three Notch’d Road: A Preliminary Report,” by VDOT’s Nathaniel Pawlett and Howard Newlon, from back in 1976. It’s just seven pages long, with dozens of pages of maps, citations, and old photographs. It’s great that VDOT prepared this and made it available online. It turns out that, yes, the legends were true, and 250 follows the route that developed into crude roads in the 1730s, became a major transportation corridor and acquired its current name in 1743.

This is the route paralleled by Route 64 now. Was this the ideal location for a major interstate highway? In a vacuum of human development, probably not. But because American Indians and then settlers wore a groove into the earth centuries ago, that’s where untold millions of dollars of dollars of transportation funding have gone. Urban planning is a funny thing.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

5 replies on “A history of Three Chopt Road.”

  1. The different markings in trees for the boundaries of land and road, were often various chop marks in the trees.

    Thus, Three Chop’t (or Notch’d) is significant for the demarcation of property.

  2. As a kid I learned—who knows where?—that it used to be an American Indian footpath, built up over the years.

    Historical marker on the Downtown Mall?

    That’s a great find at VDOT. I drive 250 quite often, and have also noted with interest the many intersections with roads called Three Chopt and Three Notch’d. As a map geek, I have wanted to research all the little roads that share those names, and see how they line up with 250… glad to see it was already done.

  3. Historical marker on the Downtown Mall?

    I’d wondered that, but I checked, and it doesn’t mention that:

    Three Notch’d Road (Q-21)
    Also called Three Chopt Road, this colonial route ran from Richmond to the Shenandoah Valley. It likely took its name from three notches cut into trees to blaze the trail. A major east-west route across central Virginia from the 1730s, it was superseded by Route 250 in the 1930s. Part of Jack Jouett’s famous ride and the Marquis de Lafayette’s efforts to prevent Gen. Charles Cornwallis from obtaining munitions took place along this road. Today West Main Street and part of University Avenue approximate the Three Notch’d Road’s original course through present-day Charlottesville.

    I’m guessing I learned it in a history class at WAHS.

  4. The history of Three Notch’d or Three Chopt Road is pretty well known. Looking at some actual books (don’t know about an online source), there are lots of references to Three Notch’d or Three Chopt Road as referring to the manner in which the road was marked going through the wilderness. Being a good Boy Scout, Waldo, you will remember — it used to be part of your Second Class badge, though that may have changed — that trails would be marked by blazes hacked into the bark of trees along the trail. So if you were supposed to be following Three Chopt Road, and you came to a fork in the road, you would look down the trail to see in which direction you could see trees with three blazes. I have seen Three Chopt Road in Western Richmond, and I have seen roads Three Chopt Road in Henrico, Goochland, Louisa and Albemarle Counties. In colonial times, you could follow Three Chopt Road up to the crest of the Blue Ridge and over to Waynesboro. According to the Henrico Historical Society:

    Three Chopt Road began as an Old Indian Trail that was marked by making three notches on the trees. As the English colonists moved into the area, the road was called the King’s Highway. Because there were so few roads at this time, it was not uncommon for a road to be referred by local residents as the King’s Highway. More often than not, however, the road was called the Three Notched Road. A map of Henrico County dated 1819 shows the road marked as Three Chopped Road. Years later the spelling of the road changed from Three Chopped to Three Chopt, as the latter spellling is used on Smith’s map of 1853.


    Now, let me give you a bit of more recent history. In the 1960’s, when I-64 was being located, the General Assembly had to decide whether the road would follow US 60, going from Richmond to Amherst to Lynchburg and on to Lexington, or whether it would follow US 250, up to Charlottesville to join with I-81 at Staunton. It came down to a vote in the General Assembly, and the Charlottesville area legislators out-politicked their brethren to the south. The question then came, do we run I-64 north of Charlottesville or south of the City? Senator Ed McCue was asked which route he preferred; he responded, “It doesn’t matter to me. I own property both places.” (The notion of conflict of interest had not yet hit the General Assembly.)

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