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FXBG - City of Fredericksburg, VA

During the 2020-2021 Chatham Bridge closure, the City of Fredericksburg Department of Economic Development and Tourism presented a weekly social media series, Spanning Chatham Bridge’s History. The series took 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 until 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.


📷 Jerry and Lou Brent Collection, Fredericksburg, VA

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.


📸 The Free Lance, June 7, 1889 via Google News Archives

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, June 11, 1889 via Google News Archives

With the widely used and adored Chatham Bridge (Scott’s Bridge) gone, the post-Civil War city became divided over the location of its reconstruction: The Free Bridge. According to the Free-Lance Star, the half east of George Street (Darbytown) was represented by The Free Lance newspaper and the western half (mostly William Street merchants) was represented by The Fredericksburg Star. Both areas wanted the new Chatham Bridge to be constructed on their side of town, and presented their arguments in a series of letters and articles published in their respected newspapers. For the next few Spanning Chatham Bridge’s History posts, we will be sharing op-eds from the 1889 publications of The Free Lance Star and The Fredericksburg Star in regards to the location of the new Chatham Bridge.

‘The Free Bridge’ letter to the editor was published in the June 11, 1889 edition of The Free Lance. The anonymous writer voiced their support for the newspaper’s desire for its construction at French John’s Wharf.


Entrance to French John’s Wharf on Caroline Street

Bamboo currently overgrows in the location of the wharf

Immediately after the Chatham Bridge (Scott’s bridge) was wiped away from the flood, The Free Lance quickly began pushing their idea for the new bridge to be constructed at French John’s Wharf. This leads us to question where exactly is French John’s Wharf? Who is “French John?”

French John’s Wharf was located at the end of today’s Canal Street alley, which is now owned by the city. John DeBaptiste, a free black man, owned the wharf and operated the Falmouth Ferry there in the late 1700s. DeBaptiste immigrated from St. Kitts, an island in the West Indies, and spoke French and English. Hence the nickname: “French John.” He served in the American Revolution alongside Fielding Lewis, Betty Washington’s husband, and had six children, all who grew up to be local entrepreneurs and tradesmen in the city. His grandson George DeBaptiste, became a leader in the Underground Railroad and helped nearly 200 slaves escape to freedom between 1841 and 1846.

Though John DeBaptiste passed away in 1804, 85 years prior to the Chatham Bridge reconstruction debacle in 1889, the DeBaptiste legacy lived on and still characterized the location of the wharf.


📷 The Free Lance June 18, 1889

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 Free Lance, April 29, 1890

Fredericksburg City Council did not vote on the matter of the bridge until nearly a year later on April 29, 1890. By this time, the controversy attracted a large following and resulted in a “lengthy and heated” debate in the city council chambers. Onlookers overflowed the chambers and onto the streets as they anxiously awaited the council’s decision.

The Free Lance’s publication the morning of the vote on April 29 left some not-so-subtle hints sprinkled throughout the paper that urged for the bridge to be built as soon as possible at Scott’s site. After a year of trying to convince the public that Scott’s site was the best possible location for the new Chatham Bridge- for the interests of Fredericksburg merchants, distance away from the train, safety from potential flooding, and access to Scott’s Island- this was their last opportunity to send out their message.


📷 The Free Lance, May 2, 1890

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.


📷 Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred September 2013

James G. Rowe (pictured above) is considered to be one of thoroughbred horse racing’s greatest jockeys and horse trainers. In fact, he was the youngest trainer to win the Kentucky Derby, is only one of two players who have won the Belmont Stakes as both a jockey and a trainer, and holds the record for 8 total trainer wins. Rowe, who is in the Racing Hall of Fame, trained horses for many notable owners such as August Belmont, a wealthy New York banker and politician.

His connection to the Chatham Bridge?

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 Free Lance, June 13, 1890

Terrance McCracken, a prominent local businessman, city councilman, and chairman of the Bridge Construction Committee, put up a notice in The Free Lance on June 13, 1890 for bridge contractors to submit their proposals for the new Chatham Bridge. The new proposed construction was described as “an iron bridge with stone piers, at Scott’s site, across the Rappahannock River…” Work on the bridge would begin rather quickly later that summer.


Richard Southerworth (right) and employee (left) at the entrance to the dance pavilion on Pleasure Island (1921) 📷 Chuck’s Postcards and Collectibles

The Free Lance, September 9, 1890

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.


📷 The Free Lance, November 18, 1890

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 Free Lance, November 28, 1890

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.”


📷 Central Rappahannock Heritage Center, The Free Lance December 30, 1890

130 years ago, amidst the magical snowfall on a peaceful Christmas morning in Fredericksburg, the fourth construction Chatham Bridge was opened for the first time to the public in 1890. The “first” citizen to cross the bridge in their vehicle was Captain Terrance McCracken of the city’s Bridge Construction Committee. However, later in the afternoon a local boy revealed that on Christmas Eve the day before, Charles Wallace and Mayor A.P. Rowe, also members of the committee, caught wind of said trip and “deemed it prudent to cross the bridge in a buggy just to test its strength.”

Despite the discrepancy of who got the honor of declaring themselves “the first to cross” the new iron bridge over Scott’s Island, it was officially opened to the public on Christmas Day. Echoing the community’s wishes, crossing the bridge was free of charge until January 1.


📷 Courtesy of the Fredericksburg Area Museum

The months following the opening of the newly constructed Chatham Bridge were marked with a surplus of patrons, who had been anticipating its reopening for over a year and a half. The Free Lance reported on some occasions the crowds on the bridge were so large that it made it difficult for people to pass one another.

This photograph depicting a peacefully empty Chatham Bridge was taken from Stafford Heights in the early 1900s.


📷 Central Rappahannock Heritage Center

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.


📷 From the collection of Bill Beck

The view of the Chatham Bridge (which was commonly referred to as ‘The Free Bridge” in the late 1890s and early 1900s) from Stafford Heights was quite popular in both photographs and postcards of Fredericksburg. This rendition is produced by the Albertype Company, which originated in 1890. The company’s namesake was Josef Albert, a German photographer who invited Albertype: the process in which a photograph negative is printed from a gelatin-coated plate. Albertype Company was founded by the Wittemann brothers (Adolph and Herman) in Brooklyn, New York. Between 1890 and 1952, the Albertype Company produced over 25,000 postcard “views” from negatives of American towns and cities, including this postcard titled “Fredericksburg, VA and the Rappahannock.”


📷 Robb-Bernard Papers, Special Collections Research Center, William & Mary Libraries

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.


📷 Library of Congress, Frances Benjamin Johnston

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.


📷 “Airscapes” of American and Foreign Areas, Army Air Corps, National Archives

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.


📷 Central Rappahannock Heritage Center

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.


📷 Sievert Collection, Central Rappahannock Heritage Center

📷 Sievert Collection, Central Rappahannock Heritage Center

📷 Sievert Collection, Central Rappahannock Heritage Center

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.


📷 Courtesy of John Janney

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.


📷 Central Rappahannock Heritage Center

📷 Central Rappahannock Heritage Center

📷 Central Rappahannock Heritage Center

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.


📷 Central Rappahannock Heritage Center

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).