IRON GATE -- Locals call it Devil's Backbone.

Newcomers who don't know better prefer Flag Rock.

Motorists aplenty pass by on U.S. 220 and wonder. Some shudder. Many wheel off the blacktop to shoot photographic evidence of what appears to be a first-class example of sheer human folly.

Devil's Backbone thrusts from Wilson Mountain like a fin from a 1959 Cadillac. Its craggy peak hovers hundreds of feet above the Jackson River within the Iron Gate gorge.

From the rock's precipitous tip flies an American flag. The banner's steady presence there has long been a point of pride in Iron Gate -- where natives, town government, volunteer firefighters and other locals have been the flag's stewards through many years. Some say for 50 years. Some say much longer. Some say less.

Regardless, the flag and its treacherous, mountainous locale in Alleghany County attract attention.

"I'd like to have a dollar for every picture that's been taken of that flag," Iron Gate Mayor Alan Williams said.

On a late afternoon in early March, Williams, Chazy Nicely, Williams' son, Alan "A.J." Williams, and three other men gabbed and slung waggish insults at each other around a kitchen table in the cramped back room of Hill Top Market and Produce on the edge of Iron Gate.

"It's also called 'Hill Top Liar's Club,' " Nicely said.

The elder Williams, 57, and Nicely, 51, talked about the town, the gorge and the flag.

The mayor lounged in a battered La-Z-Boy. Nicely perched next to a large garbage can into which he flicked ashes from an ever-present cigarette. Jars of honey, biscuit mix and other goods lined storage shelves. A small TV broadcast a black-and-white rerun of "The Andy Griffith Show."

Iron Gate is one of those tiny towns people say you'll miss if you blink while traveling through.

It's a short distance upstream from where the Jackson and Cowpasture rivers merge to form the mighty James.

Winds whistling through the Jackson River gorge quickly shred even top-quality flags. On March 2, the latest installment flew tattered and torn in the wake of two fierce blows. Nicely said it might stay that way until spring.

"No one much ventures out there when it's blue cold," he said.

A couple of years ago, the mayor got an earful.

"This guy stops to tell me that the flag is ripped all to pieces and it's a disgrace," Williams said. "It's windy as hell up there."

Nicely nodded.

"Nothing lasts up there very long," he said.

Even flagpoles.

Anchormen

About 10 years ago, a determined pair, Tim Tabor, now 45 and living in North Carolina, and Steve Brackenridge of Iron Gate, decided to secure a flagpole in a way that might render it less susceptible to the gorge's gales.

"We backpacked concrete mix and water and took it up there," Tabor said.

They found a deep crevice in the rock and crammed in one end of a hollow, galvanized steel pole intended for use in chain-link fencing. But the wind whipped the hollow pipe.

"We had to go backpack up there again and we took a solid aluminum pole," Tabor said.

Nicely believes that pole still stands.

On one trip, at the mayor's urging, Tabor and Brackenridge installed solar lights to highlight the flag after dark.

Nicely said people saw the lights one night and set off a generalized fret.

"Several people thought there was somebody over there stranded with a flashlight," he said.

Weather took the lights in short order. They have not been replaced.

Tabor said some folks pale after scrambling up the steep mountainside when facing the prospect of actually braving a scramble down to the rock's tip. The spine of the rock is narrow, probably wide enough for just two or three people side by side, Tabor said. And the path to the tip follows a downward slope. A fall to either side would likely yield a funeral.

Tabor once escorted a man to Devil's Backbone who longed to install a cross on the crag. Never happened. The man would not stand atop the narrow ridge, Tabor said.

"He wore the seat of his pants out before he could get off there," he said. "He was scared to death."

Mary Brackenridge, 69, Steve's mother, said she believes all her children and one granddaughter have been out on the rock. She has asked them one favor -- disclose nothing until everyone returns safely home.

"I told them, 'Tell me about it later,' " she said.

For 10 years Nicely served as chief of the Iron Gate Volunteer Fire Department. He said he's trekked up to Devil's Backbone "20 or 30 times, probably, over the years."

"Every time I went up there I didn't climb out and post a flag," he said.

How about Williams, the former railroader now serving his sixth term as mayor?

Williams said he ventured out once while in his mid-20s.

"I wouldn't do that again," he said.

Nicely gestured to a stack of photos.

"One of these shows the mayor hugging a rock," he said, grinning.

Neither recalled any serious injuries suffered during flag outings.

"Nothing they had to call the rescue squad or a mortuary for," Nicely said.

Steely stewardship

Williams said town government stopped buying flags about three years ago and no longer plays a role in keeping the banners flying. He and Nicely said they don't know who the latest flag stewards are but are grateful the banners keep waving.

Meanwhile, the small town is becoming smaller and its median age is rising, according to U.S. Census Bureau data or estimates.

The 2000 census reported a population of 404. A five-year estimate through 2009 suggested a population of 372 and a median age of about 46.8.

What will happen if locals eventually stop volunteering to replace the flags?

"There's always somebody who would go up there for money," Nicely said.

News researcher Belinda Harris contributed to this article.

Load comments