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.”
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!
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.
This week we are sharing another one of local Fredericksburg photographer, F. Theodore (Theo) Miller’s photographs of the Chatham Bridge, taken in the mid 1870s in Chatham Heights.
C.S Scott’s great bridge, the third construction of the Chatham Bridge, eventually met its end on June 1, 1889, when the City of Fredericksburg experienced a major flood, during which the Rappahannock river crested at 32.2 feet. Not only did the flood destroy the Chatham Bridge, but the rapids of the flooded river carried its debris and sent it barreling towards the Railroad Bridge. The Free Lance reported that just before the moment of impact, “women closed their eyes, some screamed and turned away their heads.” Magnificently enough, the Railroad Bridge remained unharmed. On the other hand, the destroyed Chatham Bridge would have to be completely reconstructed. Thus began a heated debate among citizens on the location of the new construction of the Chatham Bridge.
The Free Lance’s aspirations of the new bridge being built at at French John’s Wharf were quickly dismissed a week later on June 18, 1889 when they learned of a contract that bounded Stafford county to rebuild the Falmouth bridge for an indefinite period of time regardless of how often it was destroyed by inclement weather. Realizing this, they immediately shifted their argument to advocate for the purchase of the old Chatham Bridge site (Scott’s site, over Scott’s Island) by the city. In the efforts to build a second bridge as soon as possible to aid in the city’s business ventures, Scott’s site was deemed by The Free Lance as the most convenient and readily available location.
The people have spoken. This was the title of the Free Lance Star article dated May 2, 1890, after the council’s decision to rebuild the Chatham Bridge at the original location. The spirited debate resulted in a 6-6 tie, to which Mayor A.P. Rowe broke in favor of Scott’s site. As it was quite a divided decision, anxiety began over a possible appeal. The resolution held strong, as not even a month later, the city’s Bridge Construction Committee began advertising for bridge contractors to construct an iron bridge with stone piers at Scott’s site.
The September 9, 1890 publication of The Free Lance gave a shout out to the locally born sportsman. Rowe was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1857, where his father worked as a toll collector on none other than the Chatham Bridge (Scott’s Bridge).
The city’s purchase of Scott’s Site in 1890 also meant they now owned Scott’s Island, located relatively underneath the future Chatham Bridge reconstruction. While today the land mass isn’t used for large scale recreational activity, during the late 19th and early 20th century the city leased the land to various entertainment enterprises. Some of the more well known events stemmed from when the land was known as Pleasure Island, a result of Richard Southerworth’s lease on the island from 1919-1924. During this time it hosted spectacular carnivals, patriotic picnics, boat races, and spirited games for the community.
30 years prior to Pleasure Island, The Free Lance reflected the wishes of Fredericksburg’s residents to use excess bridge funds on beautifying the city’s beloved Scott’s Island, laying the groundwork for future historic Fredericksburg traditions such as Pleasure Island to soon take place.
With the holiday season looming ahead, anxiety increased as bridge construction began to slow down, making it clear the bridge would not be completed for its initial date of December 1st, 1890. The Chatham Bridge in its location at the end of William Street (then Commerce Street) was necessary for business relations with King George, and merchants depended on an influx of travel and sales leading towards Christmas. With two spans completed, public pressure on the third span created a new projected completion date of December 10, 1890- 130 years ago to the day.
The closer Christmas approached and the Chatham Bridge was not completed as scheduled (and rescheduled), the more impatient the public grew. The Free Lance turned their blame on the bridge contractors, and pushed for the Bridge Construction Committee to apply pressure on them to increase their productivity. The committee itself was made up of individuals who were also community members and merchants, which meant having the bridge completed on time would personally benefit them and their businesses. The committee decided to hold the contractors liable for any unnecessary delays, which answered everyone’s wishes, and progress on the bridge began to increase. Moral of the story: “Some contractors are slippery as eels, and to be subdued must be handled with sand and by a strong grip.”
Even in 1908, the Chatham Bridge and its ironwork served as an iconic mark of Fredericksburg. The appreciation for the bridge over the Rappahannock made its way to numerous postcards throughout the 1900. This particular postcard stamped April 1, 1908 (3:00pm to be exact) was produced by The Rotograph Co., a German-based postcard printing company between 1904 and 1911.
The Chatham Bridge has long been a popular location for photos. This photograph taken from the Chatham Bridge in 1910 originates from the scrapbook of Frances Robb. Her father was Allan Randolph Howard, a direct descendent of Francis Scott Key. The Howards purchased Chatham Manor on January 30, 1909 and kept it within the family until January 1913, when it was sold to the Conway, Gordon & Garnett National Bank of Fredericksburg during the economic recession.
When the Chatham Bridge reopens this October, it will feature a new scenic Rappahannock River overlook area accessible from the pedestrian path, perfect for photos just like this one!
Over the span of Chatham Bridge’s history, it fluctuated between operating as a toll bridge and a free bridge. This toll bridge token dates to around 1921 and advertised the 8 cent toll that was required for four-wheeled vehicles to cross the Chatham Bridge. Pedestrians walking across the bridge were also required to pay a toll of 2 cents. According to author Roy Butler in his book “Fredericksburg Underground,” the toll price was quite expensive considering the living wage during this time was 50 cents to two dollars per day. The Chatham Bridge toll was reinstated between January 1, 1921 and August 13, 1922 to pay for intensive repairs on the bridge, including replacing the old wooden stringers with steel, reinforcing beams, adding steel guard, handrails, and constructing ornamental pedestals with electric lamps at each end of the bridge.
This bridge toll token is courtesy of Jim Schroetter & family. The token was passed down to Schroetter through the Rowley Family.
Between 1920 and 1931, Helen and Daniel Devore owned and made extensive repairs to Chatham Manor. To carry out the restoration they hired D.C. architect Oliver Clarke and landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman, who is famous for her work in gardens at Duke University, Manhattan’s Astor Court Building, and many other residential properties. After Chatham Manor’s restoration was complete, the Devores hired renowned photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston to document the renovations as well as other notable buildings in the Fredericksburg and Falmouth area. These photographs contributed to Johnston’s Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South, which aimed to preserve vernacular and high style structures.
One of the contributing structures to the survey was the Old Stone Warehouse, photographed by Johnston from the Chatham Bridge in 1927.
This aerial view of downtown Fredericksburg and the Chatham Bridge (lower left) was taken in 1933 by the Army Air Corps as a part of an effort to document aerial views of important places. Four years after this photograph was taken, the Chatham Bridge would be completely destroyed by the 1937 flood.
Learn more about this image from Mysteries and Conundrums.
The infamous Fredericksburg flood of 1937 occurred on Monday April 26th, with precipitation totaling at 39.10 feet. This image of Chatham Bridge from William Street was taken on Monday afternoon as the Rappahannock river was still rising. Just a few hours after this photograph was taken, the Chatham Bridge collapsed and a large section of William Street became completely submerged by flood waters. Seven people died and the damages of the flood totaled to over $1,000,000, with the largest expense being the Chatham Bridge replacement which was estimated to cost $200,000.
After the flood of 1937 destroyed the Chatham Bridge, temporary repairs were made to aid in the flow of traffic between Stafford and Fredericksburg. In 1940 the State Highway Department, with funds from the Federal Government, the State of Virginia, and the City of Fredericksburg, began construction on the new permanent Chatham Bridge, in its same location at the foot of William Street. To prevent future flooding and damages, Sophia Street was raised to accommodate the new bridge. This resulted in the second floor of the Old Stone Warehouse being the only level accessible from the street. The new bridge consisted of reinforced concrete and steel with a four lane roadway and two sidewalks.
These photographs of the Chatham Bridge construction were taken in 1940.
The last opening of the Chatham Bridge occurred on August 15, 1941. After the completion of the $325,000 new concrete bridge, the City of Fredericksburg held a ceremony with Virginia and Fredericksburg public officials. United States Senator Carter Glass made the ceremonial “first walk” across the bridge, however being 83-years old, he was restrained at the one-third mark by the Virginia State Highway Commissioner who insisted he reserve his strength. “I wanted to walk the entire distance,” he announced to the crowd, “but I didn’t think the bridge was strong enough to bear the weight of the United States Senate!” The ceremony was followed by an official ribbon cutting and a city parade through downtown Fredericksburg. Pictured here is the official Chatham Bridge opening ceremony itinerary from 1941.
The Virginia Department of Transportation and the City of Fredericksburg will have the Chatham Bridge open to pedestrian traffic only on Saturday, October 9. The bridge will reopen for vehicle traffic on Sunday October 10, after 16 months of reconstruction.
It was a Thursday afternoon on October 15 in 1942 and Fredericksburg was experiencing its third day straight of rain. The Rappahannock River was rising three feet an hour and finally crested at 42.6 feet on October 16. Water rose over the Chatham Bridge, stranding trucks that had to be rescued by an Army Wrecker from Fort AP Hill. Despite the intense flooding, the Chatham Bridge remained standing, though the damage to the city was estimated to cost $836,742 (12.3 million dollars today). Pictured here are photographs during the 1942 flood taken on William Street looking towards the Chatham Bridge.
During World War II, Fredericksburg held a scrap drive in September of 1942 to help the war efforts. Scrap metal came from everywhere downtown, including those in which contributed to the historic fabric of the town: the fence from the Jackson’s wounding monument, the 122 year old furnace from the National Bank Building (which was 1,500 pounds and had not been used in at least 50 years), and the old Chatham Bridge sign from 1890. The drive resulted in 463,000 pounds of scrap being donated- which is more than 100 pounds per resident. This is considered to be the biggest World War II related event in Fredericksburg (aside from Greer Garson’s appearance in town for a war bond drive which took place a few weeks later).