Josiah Holbrook. Courtesy of Lynchburg Museum System.

Update: Event postponed from Friday, June 17 to Thursday, June 23.

One of the best known American educators of the 19th century, the founder of The American Lyceum movement, drowned in 1854 after he fell from a cliff in Lynchburg near the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad tunnel, today a popular spot for walkers and bikers. 

Born in Connecticut in 1788 and buried in Lynchburg’s Old City Cemetery, Josiah Holbrook will be remembered with the dedication of a Virginia Historical Highway Marker on the Blackwater Creek Trail, a few hundred feet toward downtown from the tunnel entrance. Previously scheduled for Friday, June 17, the ceremony had to be postponed due to the threat of severe weather and has been rescheduled for Thursday, June 23, at noon.

Holbrook was known as a gentle man with a plain manner, so plain that people were often surprised to learn he graduated from Yale University. He had a single-minded focus on improving education through practical and what might be called today experiential learning as well as spreading knowledge in general across society. Well-known around the country, Holbrook had been in Lynchburg for six months teaching children and collecting rocks for one of his latest venture, a nationwide exchange of minerals and gems among schools to advance scientific knowledge through easy-to-understand examples.

The American Lyceum movement he had established in the 1820s in Massachusetts spread rapidly. The lyceums were an interconnected group of local learning clubs in which members studied practical science, literature and the arts; wrote, presented and discussed essays; and heard lectures. The movement outlived Holbrook and by 1919 had branches in multiple major U.S. cities as well as small towns and counties, Canada, and Australia. Education levels in the 1800s were much lower than today, with some boys perhaps learning a little reading and math, and girls receiving mostly instruction on housekeeping and other domestic tasks. In the South, Black children and many whites received no formal education. What learning there was often focused on rote memorization. Lynchburg’s public school system, for example, was not established until after the Civil War, although there were some private academies for white youngsters. 

Holbrook grew up on a farm in Derby, Connecticut, graduated from Yale in 1810, and became interested in science, especially geology and mineralogy, while running the farm after his parents died. He attended lectures at Yale as a post-graduate, became an itinerant lecturer himself, and wrote articles proposing his educational ideas and a detailed plan for the American Lyceum movement. Shortly after his first publication in 1826, he spoke to a group of farmers and working people in Massachusetts who formed the first Lyceum chapter.  By 1834 there were 3,000 chapters around the country. (In Ancient Greece, the Lyceum was the location of lectures by Aristotle, who believed education was a key to happiness and success.)

Linda Koch Larimer, retired Yale University vice president and prior to that president of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg for six years, described Holbrook in the program for the ceremony: “His passions seem so contemporary: introducing innovations for classroom learning, advocating for expanded access to learning, and promoting the combination of a practical and theoretical curriculum. Josiah Holbrook was an early example of an intellectual entrepreneur — and many in so many states were the beneficiaries. He clearly valued his Yale education and used it to greater service.” Lorimer also praised Lynchburg’s Jane B. White, who proposed the marker as she has many others around the city. 

White said the marker is unusual because it is not actually on a highway or street. Shuttle service will be provided from the Amazement Square children’s museum parking lot at the corner of Ninth and Jefferson streets up the trail about a half-mile to the site. Speakers will include, among others, S. Allen Chambers Jr. of Lynchburg, past chairman of the Virginia Board of Historic Resources; Ted Delaney, Lynchburg’s chief public history officer; and Brooke Haiar, professor and chair of the environmental science and sustainability department at the University of Lynchburg.

In addition to founding the lyceum movement and marketing educational aids like a box of wooden geometrical forms and models of the solar system, Holbrook wrote multiple books to share knowledge with the masses. One, on literature and the arts, and was so popular it was published in eight editions between 1833 and 1845. It includes descriptions that seem contemporary, this one on William Blake: “The name of Blake, at once a painter and poet, must not be forgotten; a man whose fancy over-mastered his reason, who seemed to live in a world of spirits, and dreamed himself out of the sympathies of actual life. He was by nature a poet, a visionary, and an enthusiast. He imagined himself under spiritual influence: he saw the forms and heard the voices of the worthies of other days. His works are beautiful, but obscure and mystic.” 

Holbrook apparently shared some of these tendencies, and not all of his plans worked out as well as the American Lyceum. As the movement continued to grow, he lost money in an attempt to found a “Lyceum Village” in Ohio. He was disappointed in the late 1840s when he failed to attract financial support from the U.S. government for his methods. A biographical essay that relies in part on information from his son said Holbrook, by then in his 60s, suffered bouts with despondency in the early 1850s. However, Delaney read all 15 of the articles Holbrook wrote for the local newspaper during his stay in the city, and said they were filled with optimism and plans for using the city as the foundation for another, international, educational movement: “He was a visionary, ahead of this time.” Delaney said a tone of moral uplift runs through much of Holbrook’s work, and he wanted to interest people in something other than common amusements like circuses and “tippling houses.” 

The old Virginia and Tennessee Railroad tunnel near the location of Josiah Holbrook’s fatal fall is today part of the Blackwater Creek pedestrian and bike trail through Lynchburg. Photo by Joe Stinnett

Holbrook was encouraged to visit Lynchburg during a previous trip to Richmond, possibly because of the chance to hunt gems and minerals in the fresh rock cuts along the new railroad tracks. The Virginia and Tennessee tunnel had only been open a couple of years, blasted and hammered through solid rock. The line was completed from Lynchburg to Big Lick (Roanoke) in 1852 and then through Southwest Virginia to Bristol in late 1854. The railroad tracks are long gone from the hillside but steep rock, often black with moisture, remains at the tunnel entrance, which can appear ominous amid the surrounding vegetation. It will be a fitting backdrop for Friday’s ceremony.

 “He made frequent visits to the Tunnel … Here he found much to engage his attention. He frequently spoke of it as one of the most interesting locations he had ever seen,” and often took pupils there, wrote a local acquaintance, the Rev. John E. Edwards. “He found an immense and inexhaustible deposit of garnets embedded in the gneiss and mica slate,” and his pupils collected garnets as well, “some as big as a partridge egg.” He was also was accustomed to going out alone each morning to the tunnel, about a mile from old downtown, and was not missed for a day or two after he apparently lost his footing on the rock face. Edwards wrote a detailed account of what happened for Lynchburg’s Daily Virginian a few days later:

“There is a high bluff or point of rock near the Tunnel, that rises nearly perpendicular above the Black-water Creek, on which Mr. Holbrook spent portions of his time, breaking the rocks and collecting specimens. At the foot of this bluff, in an eddy of deep water, his body was found floating in an upright position, on Monday afternoon, June 19th. He left his Hotel on Saturday morning, and was seen walking up the Railroad, by his usual route, toward the Tunnel. This was the last time he was seen, until his body was found … He was, no doubt, engaged on the high point of the rock, when he slipped, and fell, striking the bank just at the water’s edge — where some foot marks were seen — and was thus plunged into deep water, stunned and disabled, where he sank and was drowned. His pockets were filled with large specimens of minerals, some of which were very heavy, and served, no doubt, to keep his body under the water until decomposition took place, when he rose to the surface, and the body was discovered.”

No one saw what happened, and no one today knows the exact spot where he fell. The city coroner convened a “jury of inquest” at the location where his body was found, “and a verdict of death by drowning was rendered.” His remains were placed in a simple casket and taken directly to what is now the Old City Cemetery, one of Lynchburg’s most historic sites. A few pupils followed along. “They left their sports and followed the corpse,” wrote Edwards in the blunt style 19th century newspapers used when reporting deaths. The students and a few local friends attended his funeral service, which was conducted by Edwards.

Holbrook was found with a small amount of money in a pocket, but his financial situation may have been as precarious as his footing on the cliff. Edwards, the minister of Court Street Methodist Church, raised money to pay for the burial and gravestone, according to the program for Friday’s ceremony. Holbrook’s stone marker is still in place at the Old City Cemetery. The inscription reads in part, “His life was devoted to the subject of education.”

Joe Stinnett is retired editor of The News & Advance and The Roanoke Times. He is a member of the...