In September 8, 1999, representatives of the Fort Mill Ridge Foundation of Romney, West Virginia, and West Virginia State Delegate Jerry Mezzatesta broke ground for a new museum and visitor center that will interpret Romney's role in the Civil War. It marked the culmination of a decade-long effort by local citizens, Hampshire County government employees, and state officials to preserve an important chapter of Civil War history. The facility, which will ultimately consist of a visitor center, restored eighteenth-century house, and a set of well-preserved earthworks, is the Fort Mill Ridge Foundation's latest effort to preserve and enhance Romney's Civil War legacy and is due to be completed next year. According to David Pancake, acting chairman of the foundation, the new facility will "provide a permanent museum featuring interpretation and artifacts from Hampshire County's history through the Civil War...[and] an exhibit area for historical, environmental, and cultural displays on a rotating basis."
The renovation and construction of the new museum and visitor center is part of a broader plan to preserve, enhance, and provide historical interpretation of the Civil War earthworks on the Mill Creek Mountain range located two miles west of Romney. Pancake hopes that the improved facilities will foster greater educational opportunities to the surrounding area by promoting research into Hampshire County's cultural and natural legacy. In addition, the facility will also open new economic outlets in the area by increasing tourism. The entire project will serve as an example to other communities of the benefits, both educational and economic, of a well-directed preservation effort.
The town of Romney, the seat of Hampshire County, began the war as a part of the Commonwealth of Virginia and ended it within the borders of the country's youngest state. Like many of the West Virginia counties that formed the eastern border of the new state, the people of Hampshire County were overwhelmingly Confederate in their sympathies. Located on the South Branch of the Potomac River about thirty miles west of Winchester, Virginia, Romney endured military conflict, Union and Confederate occupation, and economic hardship through four years of civil war. Its citizens enlisted in a variety of Confederate military organizations, while the town's civilians endured the presence of Union soldiers, who were, in turn, frequently the target of Confederate partisan ranger or Regular troops' raids or ambushes. Romney changed hands often during the war, the most notable occupation being by Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's troops during the ill-fated Romney campaign in January 1862.
During the first year of the war Union forces dug trenches on Mill Creek Mountain, two miles west of the town, to defend against Confederate raids and invasions. Cleared of timber, the mountain offered an excellent view of any activity to the west, at New Creek Station (now Keyser) along the strategically significant Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, or to the east, at the Romney bridge over the Potomac's South Branch. From their position on Mill Creek Mountain, Union forces could also easily occupy the South Branch Valley and defend the southern approach to Greenspring Station, an important stop on the B&O between Cumberland, Maryland, and Harpers Ferry.
In the mid-1980s the property on which the fortifications were located was in danger of being developed as a residential subdivision. In response to this threat, State Senator Vernon Whitacre and local attorney Ralph Haines stepped in and arranged for the purchase of the 216-acre site by the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources. This arrangement preserved the site, which is now under the supervision of the Department of Natural Resources.
Further steps to improve the site were taken in 1993 when Mezzatesta and Hampshire County obtained a West Virginia Department of Transportation Enhancement Grant for its preservation. A public steering committee was formed to provide direction and planning for the project. Meeting regularly, this committee formatted a master plan that identified the need to organize a local, non-profit foundation for the long-term operation, maintenance, and continued preservation of the site. On November 8, 1995, the Fort Mill Ridge Foundation was incorporated as a West Virginia non-profit foundation.
Since its inception, the Foundation has continued to work with Hampshire County to complete the fortification project. In 1996 a professional planning firm was hired to prepare a resource management plan, which identified all environmental and historic resources and specified site improvements. As a result of the management plan, the site was provided with a paved access road, new parking area, gravel walkways, and a plank floor in the artillery redoubt where the First West Virginia Light Artillery three-inch ordnance rifle was originally located. The site has been enhanced by limited tree removal that now allows a 360-degree view of the outer rifle trench and a spectacular vista of the road through Mechanicsburg Gap.