Late on June 3, 1781, having discovered a surprise British raid, Jack Jouett set off on a perilous 40-mile ride from Cuckoo Tavern to Charlottesville. Captain Jouett galloped through the night, reaching Monticello around dawn to warn Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and other Virginia legislators meeting there. Jouett arrived several hours ahead of the British, and the patriots eluded their would-be captors.
Alerted by Jouett, Dr. Thomas Walker helped secure their escape. Walker, the legend goes, delayed Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s 180 dragoons and 70 mounted infantrymen at Castle Hill. A noted western explorer, Walker had settled in the Southwest Mountains near Charlottesville and built his Castle Hill home in the 1760s.
Politician and diplomat William Cabell Rives married into the Walker family in 1819 and expanded Castle Hill Manor. His granddaughter Amélie, who earned fame as a novelist and playwright, occupied Castle Hill until 1945 with her husband, Prince Pierre Troubetzkoy of Russia. Rumors persist that Amélie’s spirit, or perhaps that of another female descendant, continues to dwell there.
It was the specter of development, however, that led the current owners to write The Nature Conservancy into the latest chapter of Castle Hill’s rich history. They recently donated a conservation easement to the Conservancy, ensuring that development will be permanently restricted on the 1,203-acre farm.
They also donated 345 adjoining acres that, combined with 33 acres donated by a neighbor, created the Conservancy’s Walnut Mountain Preserve. The landowners donated another conservation easement to Albemarle County on these 378 acres. Together, these easements eliminate 83 development rights, enhancing Albemarle’s efforts to preserve its rural heritage. At Walnut Mountain, the Conservancy will work to restore old-growth forest and ultimately use the preserve as a demonstration site where landowners can learn about managing for old growth.
"In many cultures, forests serve as places of refuge, reverence and mystery,” says Ridge Schuyler, Piedmont Program director. “We have few examples of the wild forests of old left in Virginia, but this acquisition moves us toward enhancing our native hardwood forests and restoring ecological balance.”
The Castle Hill and Walnut Mountain projects complement the Conservancy’s ongoing work to protect water quality in the Rivanna River watershed, where the Conservancy is working to preserve forests, restore streams, retire development rights and maintain natural flows and safe drinking water for people.
The first task at Walnut Mountain, according to Forest Protection Specialist Jean Lorber, will be removing non-native and poorly formed trees to stimulate healthy new growth. “While we are determined to reverse the disappearance of old-growth forests,” says Lorber, “our immediate goal is to restore as much diversity as possible within a healthy native forest.”
The Piedmont staffers understand that their efforts will come to full fruition well beyond their lifetimes. But none of them could imagine a better place for the Piedmont’s future old-growth forests to take root than the mountain overlooking Castle Hill, with its rich and abiding role in Virginia history.