Founded in 1734 and named for Prince William of Orange, Orange became the county seat in 1749, and the first Orange County Court House was constructed in 1804. A reception at the invitation of James Monroe, and attended by James Madison and James Barbour, was held at the Court House in 1824 for the Marquis de Lafayette, Revolutionary War hero and commander at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781. Following their defeat at Gettysburg, The Army of Northern Virginia spent the 1863-64 winter encampment in Orange. During this time Robert E. Lee attended services at St. Thomas's Episcopal Church, tying his horse Traveler to a locust tree out front before entering. Nearby Mine Run and The Wilderness battles occurred during the Confederate encampment here. Orange prospered as a railroad town from 1854 until the early 1970's. The train station was closed to passenger service in the 1970s but was renovated, reopened and given new life as a community and visitors center in 1997. Orange has been a Virginia Main Street town since 1992 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1998.

Visiting Downtown Orange

Your best bet to tour Historic Downtown Orange is to start at the Orange County Tourism and Visitors Bureau located in the Orange Train Station. Here you can pick up a copy of A Walking Tour of the Downtown Orange Commercial Historic District. The tour begins at the Orange County Courthouse and shows many fine examples of 19th and 20th century commercial and residential architecture. The tour also passes by the James Madison Museum on Caroline Street next to St. Thomas's. The Museum preserves the history of Orange County, and its collection includes personal belongings of James and Dolly Madison, a timeline of events of 'Founding Rivals' Madison and Monroe, a complete and authentic 1732 'Patent' House originally built in Spotswood, as well as Early American clothing, furnishings, tools, and artifacts.

If you're looking for a little adventure outside Orange, pick up a copy of the fun and fascinating A Civil War Driving Tour of Orange County, Virginia by Phil Audibert. Filled with historical footnotes and anecdotes, this scenic driving tour begins at Orange Train Station, then heads up toward Rapidan, then down to Mine Run and The Wilderness Battlefields, then onto the Civil War Museum at the Exchange Hotel in Gordonsville, and winds up at the Confederate Encampments and Gilmore Cabin in Montpelier.

What to See and Do

... Shopping ... Preserving history - one house or door at a time - Salvagewrights carries an extensive inventory of salvaged parts and furnishings from historic homes and buildings. If you're looking to restore an older home or add a bit of vintage charm to a newer one, they've got it all.

... Dining ... Located in the historic Sparks Building, Elmwood at Sparks is light and airy, with a refined yet cozy vibe. The innovative dishes are prepared by Chef Randy Cooper and showcase fresh local ingredients. The wine list offers intriguing pairings for the weekly menus. The Silk Mill Grille offers classic American favorites as well as a bar and entertainment in a historic early 20th century silk mill. Located in Gordonsville, The Barbeque Exchange is a popular casual dining place with indoor and outdoor seating featuring hearty homemade barbeque, sides, breads and desserts prepared by chefs Craig and Donna Hartman.

... Battlefields ... Nearby scenic and historic Civil War Battlefields include Mine Run and The Wilderness.

... Tasting Rooms ... Nearby tasting rooms include Barboursville and Reynard Florence.

... Area Attractions ... Built in 1860, The Exchange Hotel operated for only a brief time before being pressed into service as a receiving hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers. After the war, the hotel served as a Freedmans Bureau. Exhibits at the Civil War Museum at the Exchange Hotel include a recreation of a hospital ward room and explain the role the war played in the development of modern medical practices as well as the expanding role of women in nursing and philanthropy.

Located a few miles west of Orange, Montpelier is the home of James Madison - Father of the Constitution, Architect of the Bill of Rights, Secretary of State and fourth President of the United States - and Dolley Madison - the first First Lady of the United States.

Born enslaved at Montpelier, George and Polly Gilmore gained their freedom and raised their five children as independent farmers and landowners. Their home, The Gilmore Cabin , was brought to the attention of The Montpelier Foundation by the Gilmore's great-granddaugher who donated a portion of the farm to The Foundation, creating the first preserved and interpreted freedman's home in the United States.

The cramped waiting room marked 'Colored' and the spacious one marked 'White' offer stark testimony to the separate, but not equal, legalized segregation that existed in the United States prior to the 1960s. The 1910 Train Depot Exhibit In the Time of Segregation documents this time in American history with intepretive signs, audio recordings, photographs and memorabilia from that era.

The Rapidan Historic District is a well-preserved 19th Century village located about 5 miles north of Orange. Maps of the walking tour are available at the Orange visitors center and include several churches, a mill, a school house, a train depot, and scenic views of the Rapidan River. The tour begins at the Rapidan Trading Post on Route 614 (Locust Dale Road) and meanders down to The Mill, Waddell Presbyterian Church, the School House and then back into town to Emmanuel Episcopal Church and the Train Depot.

Pictured at the top: Completed in 1910, Orange Train Station presently houses the Visitors Center in downtown Orange.

rapidan historic district caboose montpelier train depot colored waiting room

(left) This 1922 Southern Railway Caboose was sold to the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway in 1948 and remained in service until 1960. In 1979 it was brought up from Piney River for display at the Passenger Depot in Rapidan Historic District. (right) The 'Colored' Waiting Room at the 1910 Train Depot is part of the educational exhibit In the Time of Segregation at Montpelier Station.

gordonsville exchange hotel

The Civil War Museum at the Exchange Hotel in Gordonsville is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is an African-American Memorial Site.