The Richmond History Podcast

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Richmond-Petersburg Railroad Bridge

Richmond-Petersburg Railway Bridge looking to Manchester, photo by Jeff Majer

From Brown's Island on Richmond's Canal Walk the old stone piers from the Richmond-Petersburg Railroad Bridge are still visible.  It was the first railroad bridge to span the James River into Richmond.1  The railroad company was chartered in 1836 and by May of 1838 it ran from Pocahontas, a suburb just outside of Petersburg to Manchester and by Sept of that year the bridge was completed, extending to the depot in Richmond2, near today's Kanawa Plaza.  The railroad extending 22 miles between the 2 cities3 was built mostly with slave labor.2  Stock sales were intended to cover most of the costs with a little help from the Richmond Department of Public Works, but a financial downturn in 1837 saw the company defaulting.  The city bailed it out with a $150,000 loan and eventually they had to get another $61,500 loan from London.2 The final cost was $38,000 under the $600,000 estimated by the Chief engineer, Moncure Robinson.2
Richmond-Petersburg Rail, looking to Federal Reserve, photo by Jeff Majer
The original charter allowed any bridge on the line to also be built for horseman, carriages or pedestrians and charge a toll, except the one crossing the James into Richmond.  In order for them to charge a toll they had to get permission from the Mayo's that already ran a toll bridge into the city, which they didn't.2
The bridge was 2,844' long and 60' above the James River and was constructed primarily out of pine planks on the stone pillars.  A sign at Tredegar Iron Works say "the bridge seemed “air built,” and perhaps dangerous to many Richmonders".4

Richmond-Petersburg Railway Bridge looking to Manchester shortly after the Civil War
The railroad didn't originally go all of the way to Petersburg.  It stopped at the Pocahontas Station, just out side of Petersburg, on the north bank of the Appomattox River, in order to force the use of the local train lines, ships, wagon, and carriages and to prevent shipments from going straight through the city to other ports.3

By the Civil War five railroads came into Richmond4 but the break at Pocahontas was not acceptable to the Confederate government who needed access without transporting goods or men to other trains. On Aug 14, 1861 a link was opened by the rebel military, but it was dismantled after the war.3  During the war the Richmond-Petersburg Railroad became the main line for carrying troops, freight, and mail into Richmond.2  One of its most famous pieces of cargo was the president-to-be Jefferson Davis, shortly after the capital of the Confederacy was moved to Richmond in 1861.  

In the beginning of April 1865 while evacuating the city the bridge and depot were burned.2

A new bridge was almost immediately rebuilt, opening May 25, 1866 at a cost of  $118, 245.  The new bridge was 2862' long and 60' above low water2  Just after the war, no one had money to travel or buy many goods making traffic slow.  To add insult to injury, there was a cholera outbreak that discouraged those who could travel from doing so.  The railroad relied on carrying coal that people couldn't do with out.2

1889 the Richmond-Petersburg Railroad acquired the Petersburg Railroad which was three times as long and changed the name to The Atlantic Coast Line Railway and eventual consolidated with many lines under the same name.2
Richmond-Petersburg Rail Bridge looking west down the Haxal Canal to Tredegar
A steel bridge was erected on the stone piers when sparks from a passing locomotive caused the bridge to burn again in 1882.  In the early 1900's a fourth bridge was built on the smaller concrete pilings beside the original stone piers.  They are also still there.4
The best source I can find for when it was decommissioned is unfortunately Wikipedia, which say 1969.  If anyone has a better source or better info I would love for you to share.


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  1. Love this! Thank you!!

  2. Thanks. I am glad you liked it. I have been swamped and not able to post as much as I would like but Facebook and twitter @historyreplays are the best way to keep up when I do.
    again, I am glad you enjoyed it.