Thunder on the Tunstall Quarterpath

By Henry H. Mitchell

Tunstall quarterpath, looking north

A classic Mustang pauses beside the quarter-mile stretch where Virginia's best horses once competed.

A mile south of Chatham, on a quiet ridge behind the busy Tightsqueeze shopping center, is a narrow, straight stretch of Cherrystone Road which once was one of the most exciting spots in all of Virginia. During the early 1800's this lane was known as “Tunstall's Paths,” a quarter-mile track where some of America's fastest horses ran.

The sandy track was built by William Tunstall, Jr., on the western portion of his Belle Grove Plantation (the plantation house was completed in the 1790's). The Tunstall's Paths apparently saw use for a considerable period of time. According to historian Maud Carter Clement (see p. 33 of her book The Early Homes of Chatham), a Danville newspaper notice of August 27, 1836 included the following challenge by Philip G. Williams:

“The subscriber proposes to run his celebrated quarter horse Ball against Negro over the quarter course near Pittsylvania Court House called Tunstall's Paths, for $1,000.”

Tunstall quarterpath, looking south

The Tunstall quarterpath is seen looking south.

The Tunstall family is noteworthy in America's horse racing tradition. William Tunstall, Jr.'s father (William Tunstall, Sr.) for twelve years or more had owned a famed horse named Koulikhan, imported from England in 1764. Koulikhan's lineage is still recognized and revered in American race horses today.

The quarterpath apparently was incorporated into U. S. 29 by the early 1900's, and paved without significant improvement to the bed of the road. After a short period of service, it was left as a local residential lane when U. S. 29 was relocated to a wider, more modern corridor to the east, now a dual-lane thoroughfare with median. As a result of its brief usage as a national highway, the Tunstall's Path was thus “fossilized” in a manner which effectively preserves its roadbed and makes it easily accessible to nostalgia-seekers.

Horses thundering up the quarter-mile Tunstall track possibly averaged 45 mph from a standing start, and may have reached nearly 50 mph at the finish line. It would be quite unsafe to drive an auto along the narrow lane at such a speed today!


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