Tobacco and Trolleys: Industry and Transportation
Antebellum Architecture
Richmond's African American Heritage
The Continuing legacy of Historic Preservation
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Tobacco and Trolleys:
Industry and Transportation in Richmond

Founded at the fall line of the James River in the Piedmont of Virginia, Richmond is at the head of navigation of the river, an ideal spot for a port. The town spread out over a series of hills and beyond along both sides of the river naturally evolving as a center for trade and commerce with the location of its commercial and residential districts, public buildings, and industrial areas shaped by topography.  Its site, ties to the tobacco industry, and transportation innovations ultimately positioned Richmond to become one of the most commercially successful cities in the South.

Before the arrival of the first European settlers in the early 17th century following the granting of a royal charter by James I to the Virginia Company of London, Indian tribes of the Powatan Confederacy lived in the area.  John Rolfe’s successful venture with tobacco in 1614 prompted settlers to travel westward, establishing large plantations along the James River that would utilize the rich soil of the region.  Early in the colony’s history, the Byrd family erected profitable tobacco warehouses near the falls of the river.  When the Warehouse Act of 1730 designated the falls of the James as one of the 40 required locations throughout the colony where tobacco inspectors graded the product, the Byrd holdings became even more valuable.  Pressure from the House of Burgesses prompted William Byrd II to found the town of Richmond in 1733 as a trading center on the James River. In 1737, Major William Mayo laid out 32 squares and streets for the town on what is now Church Hill. A rival settlement, Rocky Ridge, developed on the south bank of the James River.  The original 1737 plan of Richmond and the 1769 plan of Rocky Ridge (later Manchester) are still evident in the Shockoe Valley and Tobacco Row and the Manchester Residential and Commercial Historic Districts.

Old Stone House
Old Stone House c. 1907
Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

Although not a sophisticated town by the time of its official incorporation in 1742, Richmond grew because of its increasing commercial success.  The network of regional roads expanded, connecting the port to numerous plantations and the well-established town of Williamsburg.  Furs, tobacco, and other crops passed through Richmond for shipment across the Atlantic.  During the years preceding the American Revolution, approximately one-sixth of the tobacco crop sold in Richmond, which required additional coopers, blacksmiths, and warehouses. A market at 17th and Main Streets provided a venue for farmers to sell their wares. The open-air market is still in operation today at the original location, more than 200 years later.  Only a few buildings from this colonial period remain, including the Old Stone House of c. 1740, which is now the Edgar Allan Poe Museum.  Built by a tobacco merchant in 1771, the Archibald Freeland House, the oldest house in the Manchester Residential and Commercial Historic District, and the Woodward House, the last surviving building from the once-bustling port of Rocketts Landing, are testaments to the commercial success of Richmond during this time.

Whereas Virginia's colonial capital, Williamsburg, was a seasonal town, Richmond remained active throughout the year.  The town’s commercial activity and convenient location made it a fine site for a central government.  Advocates of this idea included Thomas Jefferson, who eventually helped design the State Capitol.  After the seat of government moved from Williamsburg to Richmond in 1779, the city emerged as the “Metropolis of Virginia” and one of the most important cities in the early United States during this era.  The population increased from a few hundred people in 1782 to nearly 6,000 by the turn of the 19th century.  Local leaders looked to transportation and industry to make Richmond both the political and economic capital of Virginia, and during the Federal period, the city grew rapidly as a governmental, manufacturing, and transportation center.

Conceived by George Washington, the James River and Kanawha Canal was the first canal in the United States and, like the James River, integral to Richmond’s development.  Begun in 1785, the canal eventually stretched 197 miles westward from Richmond to the town of Buchanan in the Allegheny Mountains.  The canal allowed boats to bypass the falls and bring agricultural and forest products from areas further west in Virginia providing employment for boatmen and assisting the growth of the iron, flour milling, and quarrying industries along the river.  The canal was the city’s primary means of connection with points west until the railways eclipsed it in the second half of the 19th century.  Shockoe Slip, Richmond’s oldest mercantile district, developed in proximity to the Great Shiplock and the mills surrounding the canal Turning Basin.  Ships departing from Richmond’s ports bearing loads of flour would travel as far as Australia, Brazil, and California, bringing back other goods such as coffee for processing locally.

The canal also helped in the shipment of coal mined in the region.  The coal industry developed early on in Richmond’s history and had a major impact on trade and transportation.  The first coal mine in North America was at the Midlothian coalfields in Chesterfield County, and by 1763, the mines produced 14,000 tons of coal each year.  Until the 1830s, these eastern Virginia mines were the main source of coal in North America, providing coal shipped to New England, the West Indies, and Europe.  Present-day Midlothian Turnpike and Broad Street initially developed to facilitate the transportation of coal from the mines to ports in Richmond and Manchester, and in 1831 the Chesterfield Railroad was built to speed transportation.  This gravity-powered rail was the first in Virginia and the second in the United States.

Triple Crossing

Shockoe Valley Triple Crossing
Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

Spurred by the success of the canal and the relocation of the capital, Richmond experienced a period of steady growth and development in the early decades of the 19th century.  The transportation network and associated industrialization made Richmond an important economic center, and during the 1840s, Richmond was the largest tobacco production market in the world.  The construction of more than 50 tobacco factories in Shockoe Valley made tobacco the dominant industry in this area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as well.  Tobacco factories and warehouses dating from between 1880 and 1930 remain throughout this historic district.  Today, most of the large warehouses and factories along Tobacco Row are converted to apartments, condominiums, restaurants, and office space.  Collectively, they represent one of the largest contiguous adaptive reuse projects in the country.

Tredegar Iron Works, a National Historic Landmark, opened in 1837, taking its name from the famous iron works at Tredegar, Wales.  Proximity to a waterpower source and working coalfields, and development of the railroad industry from c. 1830 to c. 1850 made Richmond the iron and coal center of the South.  The foundry’s ability to produce massive quantities of ammunition was an important factor in the selection of Richmond as the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War.  By 1860, the city’s population grew to nearly 38,000 - making it by far the largest town in Virginia and one of the largest in the South.

In 1865, the retreating Confederate army started the infamous evacuation fire that destroyed a substantial number of the buildings in Richmond’s core.  The city rapidly rebuilt, continuing as a center of the tobacco trade.  With economic and population growth, a large downtown business district, extensive warehouse and industrial areas, and diverse residential neighborhoods developed.  The early financial institutions in the Main Street Banking Historic District and commercial buildings such as the Stearns and Donnan-Asher Iron-Front Buildings date to the post-Civil War period. 

The Virginia Central Railroad and the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad dominated the Shockoe Valley and Tobacco Row area after the Civil War.  Elevated railroad tracks were a part of the improvements to the railroad network.  The confluence of so many railroads prompted construction in 1901 of the Main Street Station, a National Historic Landmark.   Recently restored to its early grandeur, the station is to become a centrally located multi-modal transportation hub.  Elevated railroad tracks, including the well-known Triple Crossing, a point at which three different railroads crossed one over the other, date to the same period.  Another monumental train station, John Russell Pope’s 1919 Broad Street Station furthered the city’s extensive rail network and allowed it to continue to grow as a center of manufacturing, wholesale distribution, and retail sales.

Historic Belle Isle
Belle Isle
Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

Richmond was also home to the first successful electric streetcar system in the United States.  Originating in 1887, with a design by Philadelphia engineer Frank Sprague, the network of trolley lines gave rise to some of the country’s early “streetcar suburbs,” including the Ginter Park and Town of Barton Heights Historic Districts.  The James River, the provider of transportation as well as water for powering mills and factories, was harnessed for electricity and even streetcars.  Belle Isle, formerly a camp for captured Union soldiers, was the location of an early hydroelectric plant that provided power for streetcars on the south side of the river, where the trolley line headed west to its terminus at Forest Hill Park.   A c.1899 hydroelectric plant, formerly owned by the Virginia Electric and Power Company (VEPCO) and now part of a retail, office, and residential redevelopment project, still stands at the bottom of 12th Street on the Canal Walk.

Richmond grew and prospered until after World War II.  The tobacco industry continued at a large scale, expanding with the construction of modern cigarette factories next to the rail line alongside Tobacco Row in the first half of the 20th century.  Following a period when a variety of factors caused the city to lose both population and businesses, the trend began to reverse.  Today, Richmond is at the intersection of Interstates 95 and 64 in the center of a metropolitan region of 1.2 million people.  Law, finance, and government are now the primary drivers of its economy.  A number of Fortune 500 companies, including tobacco giant Phillip Morris USA, have their headquarters in the city.  Richmond’s historic districts and sites remain one of its biggest attractions.  Visitors come from all over the world to witness the legacy of one of the nation’s largest agricultural processing and shipping centers; the industrial center of the South; the seat of the Confederacy; and the home to Thomas Jefferson’s revered temple to democracy in the New World, the Virginia State Capitol.