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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.”