It is a wet and gloomy Tuesday afternoon. The Calfpasture River echoes through the town of Goshen. Main Street is quiet. The town offices are closed. The volunteer fire department is dark. The brightest part of town is the electronic sign hovering over the BP gas station offering $4.39 a gallon. Deserted homes sit across the street from the gas station with boarded up windows and front doors falling off their hinges. For a traveler passing through Goshen, they’d have an equal chance of seeing a freight train chugging by than they would a person walking the sidewalk.
“I don’t know why anyone would move here,” joked Ruth Tolson, the town librarian, who lives 16 miles away in another county.
The town library sits just a block from the BP gas station and next to an abandoned laundromat. Tolson’s car is the only vehicle parked outside.
Goshen is a small town in the northernmost corner of Rockbridge County, home to fewer than 400 people. The 1.8-square-mile town does not have a school or a police force – just a volunteer fire department, a First Aid crew, a library and a post office. The town does charge low fees for dog tags, auto decals and building permits. But its main source of income is the public water system, which the town operates and maintains independently.
Residents rely on their local government for only one thing every day: clean running water. In February, that service failed. It also failed in 2007 and is expected to fail again in the next 10 years.
An outsider seeking to understand the problems of the water system will run into near silence. Mayor Tom McCraw, a West Virginia native who served in Vietnam as a Marine, said he was too busy for an interview all week but when encountered at Goshen Country Store at the end of the week, declined to talk. He and others, asked about the water system, referred all questions to Town Council Member Steve Bickley. Bickley had several complaints about news coverage of the subject, but agreed to a phone call.
“You live and let live in Goshen. You mind your own business,” said Lisa Conner, a long-time Goshen resident.
During the first week in February 2022, the town began experiencing a decrease in water pressure, according to a report given later by Rockbridge County administrator Spencer Suter.
On Feb. 9, a Wednesday, Sheila Sampson, the Goshen town clerk and treasurer, posted a notice to Goshen’s website advising residents that the water would be shut off from 10 p.m. until noon for emergency repairs.
On Feb. 11, the town issued the “boil water” notice, citing the replacement of some buried valves. Any water coming out of the taps had to be boiled before it was safe to drink.
At 9:45 a.m. on a Saturday, Feb. 12 – with one of Goshen’s two above-ground water tanks nearly empty – Suter declared a state of local emergency for the town.
Not everyone in town was affected. “I think all total, we had nine residents in town that went about seven days with no water,” Town Councilmember Bickley said. “And then we had about 20 residents in town who had water, but it was at such a reduced pressure . . . you could barely take a shower.”
On Feb. 14, at its regular meeting, the county supervisors approved Suter’s declaration of a state of emergency. (Most other water systems in the county are operated by the Rockbridge County Public Service Authority, whose directors are appointed by the county’s elected supervisors.)
“Our major contribution was creating contacts . . . and finding the folks that could help solve the problem,” Suter said from his office in Lexington. “I went out and sat down with Councilman Bickley and Mayor McCraw.” Once Suter got a good idea of the issue, he said, he had some ideas of who to call.
Suter put the town in touch with the Western Virginia Water Authority in Roanoke.
Bickley said that Western Virginia Water Authority had worked with several small-town systems like Goshen’s before. He said the engineers that came said that what was actually in the ground, in many cases, didn’t always match the system maps.
“So they actually took metal rods and just started poking the ground, walking our system,” Bickley said.
Suter said the engineers used metal detectors to scan the area.
That’s when the engineers found a valve no one knew was there.
“They got a ting where there wasn’t supposed to be any ting,” said Bickley.
The engineers dug in the ground until they found a valve.
“This valve was six inches underground with a bush growing on top of it,” said Bickley.
And it was about 2/3 shut.
Bickley said the engineers suggested they try opening the valve.
“It sounded like a freight train through town with the water pouring into the Rockbridge Way Tank,” he said.
Next to the library is B.G.’s 2, the only restaurant in town. It is a dark, wood-paneled, retro-looking diner with a few tables for people who might come in. The original B.G.’s is in Craigsville.
On the other side of town, which would be only a short walk, is the Goshen Country Store. Some would consider it the center of town with the occasional resident walking in to buy a pack of cigarettes or perhaps a scratch-off ticket. On any given day one can find the manager Tammi Sampson grilling up sandwiches in the back.
The third spot to get food in town is the BP station. Goshen native Scarlett Edwards has managed the BP for over a decade.
Things in Goshen didn’t use to be this way.
Virginians know Goshen for its water. It’s the headwaters of the beautiful Maury River running through Goshen Pass, a popular swimming area for many Rockbridge County locals and visitors. In the late 19th century, the popularity of its mineral springs inspired the construction of a lavish Victorian-style hotel called the Alleghany.
Goshen had attracted visitors to its waters since the 19th century. In “Lost Landmarks of Goshen,” by John T. Allen III, you can envision a picture of booming Goshen. Allen wrote that the Cold Sulphur Springs drew everyone from Civil War veterans and wealthy businessmen to town to experience its “healing properties.”
More memorable and talked about in town was the Alleghany Hotel. Built in 1891, at one time the hotel owners and the Goshen Land and Improvement Company planned to bring the water from the Cold Sulphur Springs into the hotel.
In Goshen’s first attempt at tourism, the Goshen Land and Improvement Company released this statement in the 1890s:
“The Cold Sulphur Springs is pronounced by leading physicians and chemists as the finest water in the state. We have in our possessions leading testimonies from leading physicians north and south to that effect.”
– Goshen Land and Improvement Company
Tolson, the librarian, pointed out the hill behind the library where the hotel used to be. Families and groups from big cities would stay for the summer at the Alleghany. Locals weren’t even allowed in. Tolson said she heard of kids peeking into the windows to watch the rich people dance in the gilded ballroom.
But Goshen began to hurt when the first car drove into town – and away from town – and over 100 years later, the wound continues to grow.
When more people got cars, they didn’t want to stay in one place, writes Allen in his history. The summertime community that came to Goshen slowly disappeared. The hotel was sold in 1923 to “foreign doctors.” Rumors still circulate as to what their plan was. Allen writes that some heard of it being a Sanitorium. Other current locals say they heard plans changed when the hotel got insurance. Nonetheless, the Alleghany burned down on Thanksgiving Day, 1923. It was never replaced.
When the Great Depression hit, Goshen fared better than many other towns. Two new mills had come to town in 1930, and helped mitigate the closing of a nearby marble quarry. In 1932, a Rockbridge County News article praised the Stillwater Worsted Mills for employing 70 men, and “saving Goshen from suffering from the business depression as much as many towns in Virginia.”
It was during this period that Goshen first got its own water system.
What’s up with the Water?
Goshen’s water system was installed in 1938, largely thanks to President Franklin Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration, which had helped with similar projects in other parts of Rockbridge County, including Lexington.
Goshen is one of two towns in Rockbridge County that keeps and maintains its own water system. The town only works with drinking water, so residents manage wastewater with septic tanks.
Goshen’s potable water system is fed by three springs. The town uses pumps to fill two tanks with spring water. From there, water travels through distribution lines to residents’ taps.
Unlike many systems that charge residents based on how much water they use, Goshen charges a flat rate up to the first 5,000 gallons. Residents pay $35 per month, small businesses pay $45, and large businesses pay $75. Prior to 2017, residents paid only $5 per month. The water system supplies about 186 houses, Bickley said.
Leaking Water and Money
In 2002, town officials were offered a loan from the USDA to fix the water system, but to do so they were required to install meters and raise water rates. Town Council rejected this offer and the pipes continued to leak, causing the water crisis in the summer of 2007.
During the crisis, most of the town was left without potable water for over a week, when old pipes began springing leaks.
“It was a very, very serious situation,” said Suter. “As I recall, most of the town was out of water.”
At least 14 major leaks were discovered.
In January, 2008, the town received proposals from seven firms for the water system replacement project, according to a 2008 post on the town website. They received a $987,000 Rural Development grant in 2009, according to government records. In 2010, the water system replacement project started.
In July 2012, the town considered the system fixed, according to its website.
“The general understanding in town was in 2010 when they came in and did this project, that they had replaced the entire water system,” Bickley said. “[We] come to find out that wasn’t true.”
Bickley said they discovered that Goshen is 10 to 13 years away from another major water project.
Bickley said many smaller lines are still made of 37-year-old iron pipe. Iron pipes are supposed to have a life span of around 50 years.
If the water system had been working normally, the town likely would not have found out that the pipes are reaching the end of their life span. The incident in February alerted the town to problems that will come up in the near future.
Bickley said working with the water system has been tricky, as he doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of the system’s past. Bickley moved to town in 2016.
No one in town management today was involved during the 2010 work, Bickley said. “Of course the level of knowledge in the town of a municipal water system is pretty low anyway,” he said. Every time there’s a problem, “it’s kind of go re-learn the system.”
Water system installed
Iron pipes are installed from the 1930s – 1980s
Discussion on system replacement
Pipes keep springing leaks. It would cost an estimated $1.3 million to fix the system
The town is pumping 7 million gallons a month, more than 3X what they should be pumping
Town council is offered a USDA grant, but rejects it, opting to take out a smaller bank loan instead
A new tank is built by Rt. 600. It is built too low and does not work properly.
Most of the town is out of water for a week
Goshen receives almost $1 million for system repairs
New water system installed
Town gets new eight-inch water lines, water meters, a new water tank, and upgrades to pump systems.
Nine homes have no water, at least 20 have severely reduced pressure
And there are other issues that make Goshen’s water system tough to manage.
Bickley said the porous rock lying under the ground means leaks often don’t surface.
“So here in Goshen, when we get leaks, most of the time we don’t see the leak,” Bickley said. “It goes down through the rock.”
The town monitors how much water flows from the tanks. A higher water output can indicate there’s a new leak in the system, but it can’t reveal where the leak is.
When the town brought in engineers to find the problem in February, Bickley said, they brought audio equipment to listen to the pipes. This allowed them to locate at least four leaks.
Before the crisis, Bickley said, the water pumps were running about four and a half hours per day. Now that time is down to one and a half.
Since the incident, the town has replaced a few valves and all the electronics that open and close control valves, he said.
“We’ve been using it like a science project ever since,” said Bickley. “Trying to figure why the valve was installed and why it was shut.”
He says so far, the system seems to be running fine. But looking for the problem and finding a surprise valve has alerted the town to some blind spots and impending problems.
“The emergency overall cost the town around $50,000, but in my head it’s money well spent because of the knowledge we got of the upcoming work that’s going to have to be done,” he said.
Into the Future
Bickley is glad that Goshen will be able to prevent the next crisis based on what it learned, if the town starts saving for repairs now.
The town has always had an independent spirit. Previous town councils have been wary of accepting outside influence and funds. But that will be unavoidable. Bickley estimates the repairs may cost $2 million. That’s not a sum the town will be able to raise without help.
Goshen will need to raise about $1 million, with the remainder from a grant and forgivable loan. That will likely mean raising water rates – something the town council was staunchly against when coming up with a plan to repair the system before the 2007 crisis.
“We feel like [with] a small increase in water rates, contributions from the county, properly invested for the next 10 years or so, we can probably get close to that million dollars,” Bickley said.
The town is making other plans for the future as well.
Mayor Tom McCraw has brought festivals, concerts and various community events to Goshen.
The town has also been discussing converting the old school building next to the library into a multi-use community center with help from a Virginia Community Development Block Grant.
Goshen has been working with the Central Shenandoah Planning District Commission to plan for the town’s future.
The 2016 Goshen Community Strong Project Summary and Action Plan outlines the town’s priorities for the next few years, which include the community center and boosting tourism.
The people of Goshen are quiet but always looking out for one another, said Scarlett Edwards, the BP manager. “If something happens, they all come together and help. No matter what.”
Published May 20, 2022.
Journalism major with minor in Latin American and Caribbean Studies.
Journalism major with minor in Classics