Lynchburg in History: U.L. in History

Dr. Clifton W. Potter, UofL History Professor~

On April 18, 1903, Dr. Josephus Hopwood and the men who would form the core of the first Board of Trustees of Virginia Christian College paid $13,500 ($382,000 in 2018 dollars) for the deserted Westover Hotel, its contents, and a large tract of land.  The defunct resort had been built in 1890 during a nationwide land boom as the anchor of the West Lynchburg Land Company.

The springs that still flow near the main entrance of the University of Lynchburg are rich in iron, and at the end of the nineteenth century “taking the waters” was considered efficacious among the fashionable middle and upper classes.  The United States was filled with spas that offered cures for every malady that plagued those who could afford to visit them and pay their fees. For several seasons the elegant wooden replica of the French chateau of Chambord just outside Lynchburg was a popular destination for patrons from all over the east coast, then, in 1893, a nationwide depression led to the closing of the Westover Hotel.

A decade later, the Rev. Frank Bullard, the pastor of First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, and a student of Dr. and Mrs. Hopwood when he attended Milligan College in Eastern Tennessee, contacted his former mentors about the availability of the recently abandoned hotel at a very reasonable price—the perfect site for a co-educational college in Central Virginia. At the time only one other senior institution of higher learning in the Commonwealth pursed that radical form of education, Bridgewater College in the Upper Shenandoah Valley.  The Hopwoods were ready for a new challenge, and so they took the train to Lynchburg and accompanied Frank Bullard and several other church leaders to the end of the streetcar line—the gates of the Westover Hotel. They needed only one look at “The Great Gray Lady” and the exquisite setting in which it had been built, and the rest is history. It was Josephus Hopwood’s sixtieth birthday.

The average lifespan for a man in the United States in 1903 was forty-seven, and those who were lucky to reach the venerable age of sixty were thinking of retirement—not so with Dr. Hopwood!  For Uncle Joe it was just another birthday. Thirty-nine years earlier he had walked out of the prisoner of war camp on Belle Isle outside Richmond determined to restore his health, finish his education, and fulfill his promise to bring educational opportunities to the men and women of the South.  The Good Lord had spared him, and he fervently believed that he had been called to devote his life to the service of others, and especially to use the power of education to liberate them from the bondage of ignorance. This was to be his contribution to the restoration of the United States after the trauma of the Civil War.  When he shared this vision of his life’s work with the young woman to whom he was engaged, she set him free. Disappointed, but not discouraged he waited for divine guidance in this most important aspect of his life. The answer to his sincere prayers was Sarah LaRue, who helped establish the solid foundation on which our university rests.