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Spanning Chatham Bridge’s History

The Fredericksburg Department of Economic Development and Tourism is proud to present the weekly social media series, Spanning Chatham Bridge’s History, every Thursday. As our Chatham Bridge undergoes construction, we’re taking a look back on the history of the bridge, and its prominence in downtown Fredericksburg throughout generations.



📷 Colonial Virginia Portraits

The first Chatham Bridge was built in the 1820s, however its namesake stood decades before its construction. The bridge was named after Chatham Manor, a Georgian-style home in Stafford, Virginia that overlooks downtown Fredericksburg and the Rappahannock river. It was built between 1768-1771 by William Fitzhugh (pictured above), who later served as a delegate to the Continental Congress of Virginia, and was a colleague and close friend of George Washington. Fitzhugh named his home after William Pitt, the first Earl of Chatham, a British statesmen that advocated for the rights of the American colonies.



📷 Library of Virginia

Major Churchill Jones (who served in the Continental Army) purchased Chatham Manor from William Fitzhugh in 1806. In efforts to expand his economic prospects, Major Churchill Jones began the construction of the first formally named “Chatham” toll bridge across the Rappahannock river in July of 1821. The bridge only took two years to build, however Jones would never see it completed. According to his niece, Betty Churchill Lacey, he passed away on September 15, 1822 due to a fever “brought on by too much exposure in superintending the building of a bridge over the Rappahannock.”

Quote from “Memories of a Long Life” by Betty C. Lacey



📷 Encyclopedia Virginia

After Major Churchill Jones’ death in 1822, both Chatham Manor and the Chatham Bridge were passed down to his brother, William Jones, who eventually sold it to his son in law, Judge John Coalter, in 1825.John Coalter was a judge of the Virginia Court of Appeals between the years 1811-1831 and a member of the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829-1830. After Coalter retired from the court in 1831, he spent his remaining years at Chatham Manor until his death in 1838.



📷 The Virginia Herald via Google News

In the summer of 1826, just three years after its construction, the Chatham Bridge was carried away in a flood. On July 28, 1826, The Virginia Herald mourned the loss of the bridge, as quoted below. Though the current owner of Chatham Manor and the Chatham Bridge, Judge John Coalter, promised the bridge would be replaced quickly, the replacement span was not completed until 1832. This second construction of the Chatham Bridge was then commonly referred to as “Coalter’s Bridge.”

Quote from The Virginia Herald, July 28, 1826



📷 Edward Sache & Co. via Mysteries and Conundrums


📷 Edward Sache & Co. via Mysteries and Conundrums

This panoramic chromolithograph titled, View of Fredericksburg, VA, was produced in 1856 by Edward Sache & Co. (a Baltimore company specializing in large scale prints of cities) and overlooks the city of Fredericksburg from a point across the Rappahannock River in Stafford Heights.The physical copy of this print is quite large, measuring at two feet by three feet. Chatham Bridge is depicted on the bottom right side of the print. After this print was published, the bridge only stood for six more years, until the Confederate and Union Armies arrived in Fredericksburg.



📷 Courtesy of Historical Collections, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

📷 Courtesy of Historical Collections, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

If you are keeping up with our weekly series, you might have noticed the Chatham Bridge met quite a few fateful ends prior to the 1900s. In fact, between its construction in 1823 and present day, the bridge was destroyed and rebuilt five times. This leads to the question, who was rebuilding bridge? Little has been documented on the builders of the Chatham Bridge prior to the 1900s, but some evidence leads the National Park Service to presume the laborers included the enslaved population from Chatham Manor. The quote you see above is from a letter sent to a local Fredericksburg medical practice, Dr. Carmichael & Son (307/309 Hanover Street), reporting on the condition of Ned, a laborer rebuilding the bridge after the 1826 flood. This letter exemplifies the extremely poor conditions that workers were faced with in efforts to replace the bridge as quickly as possible under the command of Judge John Coalter.

Quote transcribed: “Chatham. Feb of 16, 1827. Dr. Carmichael. Sir, Ned unfortunately got his fingers frost bitten. The last freeze and I never have noticed them particular untill this morning. They appear to be in a dangerous situation- I wish therefore you would examine them and if they can be cured without cutting I shall be glad. As Judge Coalter is absent and his work upon the bridge is a considerable loss- Any favor or any directions of yours shall be properly attended to. Respectfully yours, John Clark. Fredericksburg.”



📷 Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

The 1832 construction of the Chatham Bridge stood for 30 years until the Civil War arrived in Fredericksburg in April 1862. Union General Irvin McDowell brought 30,000 soldiers with him to Fredericksburg and took Chatham Manor as their headquarters. The Confederate Army retreated into downtown Fredericksburg, burning down all three bridges across the Rappahannock behind them on April 18.
This 1862 lithograph by E. Sachse & Co. depicts a view of Fredericksburg from the east bank of the Rappahannock. If you look closely on the bottom right, you will see the remaining piers of the Chatham Bridge after it was burned by the Confederates.

📷 Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

The drawing you see above is a zoomed in portion of a larger map prepared under the direction of Captain R.S. Williamson and First Lieutenant Nicholas Bowen with the U.S Corps of Topographical Engineers. It was drawn by C.A. Mallory during the Civil War in 1862. It denotes Chatham Bridge has been destroyed over Brown’s Island (now known as Scott’s Island), and marks Chatham Manor as J. Horace Lacy’s home. At the time, Lacy left his home to join the Confederate forces, which left Chatham Manor open for Union occupation. 1862 is also the same year that Abraham Lincoln visited Chatham, making it one of three houses visited by both President Lincoln and President George Washington!

Chatham Manor suffered major damage at this time due to the occupation. When Lacy returned from the Civil War to Chatham in November of 1865, he began restoring both his home and the bridge.

📷 Photograph by Timothy O’Sullivan via Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Civil War Photographs

After the Confederate Army destroyed all three bridges crossing the Rappahannock River, the Union Army constructed several pontoon bridges to connect Falmouth and Fredericksburg. The two pontoon bridges you see above were located at Franklin’s Crossing, and enabled the travel of over 30,000 Union soldiers!
According to one Union soldier, Theodore B. Gates, one of the first pontoon bridges was constructed by Union engineers near the remaining Chatham Bridge abutments, on May 5, 1862. This pontoon bridge allowed Union soldiers occupying Chatham Manor direct access to the city. The bridge took just a few hours to complete, as it was assembled with only pontoon boats, side rails (bulks), and wooden boards (cheeses). Though the bridge was secured with anchors, the relatively fragile construction was carried away by a flood on June 4.

📷 Wisconsin Historical Society

According to the National Park Service, this is believed to be the earliest known photograph of Fredericksburg. It was taken in the location of today’s Pratt Park in June 1862. On the right side of the photograph, between the trees, you are able to see one of the Civil War pontoon bridges at the base of Hawk Street. If you look farther downstream the remaining abutments from the destroyed Chatham Bridge are also visible.
Fredericksburg’s pontoon bridges were constantly being destroyed from frequent flooding, which created the need for a more permanent crossing over the Rappahannock. After the pontoon bridge pictured here was destroyed by a flood, Washington Roebling, a Union Engineer, began his construction of a “wire suspension bridge” over the Chatham Bridge abutments in July 1862.

📷 Brooklyn Museum

As we introduced in last week’s post, the remains of the Chatham Bridge abutments were eventually put to use to support a new bridge designed by Union engineer Washington A. Roebling in July 1862. Construction of a new wire suspension bridge began on July 1 and was finished rather quickly on July 18.
Unfortunately, the National Park Service claims that no photographic evidence of the suspension bridge has been found (check your attics and basements!). However, it is important to note that this was the first bridge Washington Roebling created before eventually designing and constructing the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City with his father, John Roebling. Pictured above is a portrait of Roebling in a New York office with the Brooklyn Bridge behind him, painted by Théobald Chartran.

📷 Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland

Though there are no photos of Washington Roebling’s wire suspension bridge, this photograph shows the remains of the Chatham bridge’s abutments, which Roebling would directly build his bridge on top of.
His aforementioned father, John Roebling, constructed the famed suspension bridge over the Niagara River near Niagara Falls. Following in his father’s footsteps as a Union engineer, Washington Roebling brought his own wire rope with him to war, which was able to support 30 tons. The bridge was completed in 18 days by the work of 10 soldiers and 30 “contrabands.” It spanned 1,028 feet and used all 13 remaining piers of the Chatham Bridge, making it about the same size as today’s bridge. Roebling claimed that this bridge “would defy the highest freshets that will ever come.” Unfortunately, that was never proven true, as it was burned on September 1, 1862 during the Union Army evacuation. It stood for just 2 months.


📷 The Fredericksburg Ledger via Google News Archive

The Chatham Bridge was officially rebuilt after the Civil War ended in 1865. The third construction of the bridge began in July of 1866 by C.S. Scott (the namesake of Scott’s Island). Pictured above is a snippet from the ‘City and Vicinity’ section of The Fredericksburg Ledger from July 20, 1866, reporting on the state of the bridge’s construction.
It reads, “Chatham bridge is already begun. The lumber has arrived and the workmen have commenced. Our fellow-citizen, Mr. J.B. Ficklen, has contracted for the building of his stone piers on the Falmouth bridge, the wood work of which will also soon be contracted for.”

📷 The Fredericksburg Ledger via Google News Archive

After just a summer of construction, The Fredericksburg Ledger reported on September 18, 1866, that “those men of work and energy, Beall & Morrison, are rapidly pushing this bridge to completion, and it will be finished by the 1st of October. Mr. Charles S. Scott has a Christmas turkey staked on accomplishing this much..” The odds were in C.S. Scott’s favor, because according to the National Park Service, the third Chatham Bridge was completed and in full use by October 1866.


📷 Courtesy of Central Rappahannock Heritage Center

After the Civil War ended, J. Horace Lacy sold his home, Chatham Manor, to the Watson family, eventually leading to the ownership of Oliver Watson Jr. in the 1880s. Watson was a local figurehead in Fredericksburg and was elected as one of the ten vice presidents of the local Agricultural Fair Association. He was also one of four owners of The Rappahannock Light Power Company which was chartered in 1887 to light over thirty downtown Fredericksburg street lights.
Oliver Watson Jr. hosted a number of lavish events and races at Chatham Manor, including a horse race on July 5, 1886, that utilized over a mile of circular track on the grounds. Over a thousand spectators crossed the bridge to attend Watson’s horse race. Thus, the Chatham Bridge connected the downtown community to events at Chatham Manor, and oftentimes was advertised in local newspapers as such. This photograph depicting the view west across the Chatham Bridge was taken in 1886, the same year as the famed horse race

📷 The Free Lance via Google News Archive

This news clipping, featured in the ‘Local News’ section of the July 22, 1886 publication of The Free Lance, advertises one of many races hosted across the bridge at Chatham Manor during the Watson ownership. Horse races, human races, and boat races made for an eventful summer in Fredericksburg, thanks to Oliver Watson.
The news clipping reads, “All of the races will be rowed over the usual course, passing Scott’s Island, on the Stafford side; finishing above the bridge. The best view of the races can be had from Scott’s Island, which is delightfully shaded and to which a small admission of 25 cents will be charged. There is nothing but the Regatta, that can be looked upon to bring a crowd to our city, with any certainty, and as it is proposed to establish a Jockey Club, should the races be successful, we trust they will be liberally patronized.”
 In 1888, a series of 11 stereopticon images were taken of Fredericksburg from the steeple of St. George’s Episcopal Church to create a panoramic image of the city. This particular image looks northeast across the Chatham Bridge. During this time it was a toll-operated bridge for public use, but only remained so until 1889.

📷 Jerry and Lou Brent Collection, Fredericksburg, VA

For this and next week’s Spanning Chatham Bridge’s History post, we will be sharing photographs of the bridge from F. Theodore Miller, taken in the mid 1870s.
Frederick Theodore (Theo) Miller was a local photographer whose work was most prominent between the 1860s and the 1880s. To him, we undoubtedly are grateful for his photographic documentation of Civil War battlefield scenes, family portraits, downtown buildings, and notable city sites in Fredericksburg. His photography business operated out of a building on Main Street (now Caroline Street) in the 1870s.
This particular photograph of his was taken from Chatham Manor’s Carriage Drive, and looks across the Rappahannock River and Chatham Bridge (left) towards downtown.