A History of Lynchburg Virginia

history of Lynchburg

A History of Lynchburg Virginia

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The colonial community of New London, located in central Virginia, was a major commerce hub in the middle of the 1750s. However, because the Fluvanna (now James) River ran twelve miles north of the village, it was difficult to reach from northern places like Charlottesville. In order to address this issue, John Lynch, the son of landowner Charles Lynch and Quaker Sarah Clark Lynch, founded a ferry service on his father’s property in 1757, a few hundred yards upstream from the James River ford. The settlement at Lynch’s Ferry developed into a significant hub of trade by the conclusion of the American Revolution, and the ferry service continued to be profitable for many years. Lynch submitted a town charter petition to the Virginia General Assembly in late 1784 after seeing there was potential for a settlement on the hilltop above the ferry location. The town of Lynchburg was established when the charter was granted in October 1786.

The year that Lynch started running his boat (1757) coincided with the start of the South River Society of Friends (Quakers) monthly meetings, where John’s mother Sarah was very involved. Built in 1798, the third and final South River meeting house was used by the Quakers until it was abandoned in 1839. At that time, the most of the Quakers had left the area because they opposed slavery. After local Presbyterians bought the land (across from the intersection of Fort Avenue and Sandusky Drive), the structure quickly collapsed and was rebuilt (see the picture on the right).

Between 1786 until the turn of the century, Lynchburg’s population gradually increased as a tobacco warehouse, a few shops, residences, pubs, a Masonic Lodge, and one tiny church were added. The town’s first newspaper was published in 1798, and attempts to provide the town with water from springs and wells were made in the following year.

The First Tobacco Warehouse in Lynchburg, constructed in 1791 and destroyed in 1978

Lynchburg was both enlarged and incorporated as a town on January 10, 1805. By 1810, the town had grown to include a number of tobacco warehouses in addition to general stores, tanneries, blacksmiths, and druggists. The majority religion in Lynchburg was Methodist, and they constructed the town’s first church in 1806. The previous in-town chapel was an English-built, one-room structure that dates back to 1765.

Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson’s Retreat, constructed in 1806

Just west of Lynchburg Thomas Jefferson started building his house, “Poplar Forest,” in 1806. While Poplar Forest was still under construction, Jefferson started to use the house as a hideaway from guests at Monticello (the house, pictured to the right, is presently being restoration and is open for tours).

George Cabell, the owner of what is now known as Daniel’s Hill, erected a house overlooking Lynchburg in 1815. The house, “Point of Honor,” is located on Cabell Street and is visible to the left. It is also open for visits.

Tobacco was the main industry in the city by the early 1800s, and it was processed in many warehouses before being transported by river batteaux east to Richmond. The year 1817 marked the initiation of the construction of the James River toll bridge located at 9th street, which was the original ferry location, and the Salem Turnpike, which is now U.S. 460 between Lynchburg and Roanoke. John Lynch, who oversaw the construction of the toll bridge and founded the town and ferry, passed away on October 31, 1820, and was interred at the cemetery next to the Quaker Meeting House.

The town completed a significant engineering achievement in the late 1820s when it built a water works system that took its water supply from the river below. A reservoir was built (at the intersection of 7th and Clay Sts.), together with wooden pipes and a pump house at the river (at the base of 7th), due to persistent issues with a spring and well-based water supply. A rare auroral display in the northern sky, an earthquake, an all-night meteor storm, and a hailstorm that smashed nearly every window in the town were among the remarkable phenomena that Lynchburg experienced in the next ten years. Over 6000 people called Lynchburg home by the end of the 1830s.

After the town abandoned its planned railroad in favor of the Kanawha Canal in 1832, the James River and Kanawha Canal was finished by 1840, and packet boats started running regularly between Lynchburg and Richmond (a lock from the Kanawha Canal is preserved on the Blue Ridge Parkway and Rte. 501 intersection about 15 miles west of the city). Two floods occurred in 1842 and 1847; the latter destroyed the water works dam and caused severe damage to the canal system, leaving the town without water for several months.

On the Canal, Packet Boats

After the state refused to provide funding for the railroad’s construction, Lynchburg organized the Lynchburg and Tennessee (later to be known as Virginia & Tennessee) Railroad on March 24, 1848. By October, property at the former ferry site had been purchased to construct a depot, and contractors were sought for the first leg from Lynchburg to Salem. By June 1, enough money had been raised to maintain the charter. Beginning with construction in 1850, the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad was to become a part of the Norfolk & Western Railroad by 1881. On February 18, 1852, the railroad’s first locomotive, named the “Virginia,” was tested as it emerged from the river basin, vanished into a tunnel, and then reappeared.

Richmond also witnessed the installation of a sewer system, a gas works for lighting, and telegraph service in the 1850s. More significantly, on August 27, 1852, Lynchburg was officially proclaimed a city. The South Side railroad started running in 1854 when the first train from Petersburg arrived at the Island terminal. In a few more years, Lynchburg would get its third railroad, the Orange and Alexandria (a northern route). Lynchburg provided shelter from the yellow fever-stricken cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth during the summer of 1855. The following year, Lynchburg experienced 58 inches of snowfall due to a sequence of consecutive snowstorms.

In contrast to other Virginian cities and towns, Lynchburg was largely spared from the destruction that occurred during the Civil War and was used as a supply and hospital hub. However, there was combat at Lynchburg in June 1864 when Confederate soldiers repulsed a Union offensive. Union General David Hunter moved down the Shenandoah Valley, burning towns and farms, and reached the city from the west on June 17. Confederate General John McCausland’s delaying tactics eventually allowed the Union forces to drive back a Confederate line that was positioned at the historic Quaker Meeting House. The Confederates then gained control of the nearby Sandusky House (c. 1808, seen left), which they used as a makeshift headquarters. Confederate soldiers, now bolstered by General Jubal Early, held positions along a 3-mile line west of the town on June 18, the day after the pullback (stretching from what is now Fort Early to McCausland Ridge). The Union troops withdrew after a lackluster engagement, believing they were up against a stronger Confederate force. A portion of the trick originated from a constant sequence of train movements over multiple rail lines, creating the illusion that reinforcements were coming in a regular stream.

The next day, General Early overtook the Union forces and severely wounded them as he pursued them back towards Liberty, which is now Bedford. (Every year at Bedford County’s Berkley, an antebellum home, the Battle of Lynchburg is reenacted. The Old Confederate Cemetery, situated just west of Fifth Street’s southernmost point, is home to more than 3,000 Confederate graves.

The James flooded Lynchburg to unprecedented levels in late September 1870, rising 26 feet above its banks. The major gas pipe over Blackwater Creek, the water works pump station, all railroad property in the river basin and on the island, and all bridges over the river were devastated by the flood, leaving the city without water or light for months and without a bridge over the James. A similar devastation was caused by another flood in 1877, which destroyed all the bridges.

After rebuilding, Lynchburg had economic boom in the later 19th century, driven by steel mills, blast furnaces, and iron industries. Due to the regular flooding that caused damage, the canal system was sold off and eventually abandoned, as railroads replaced it. Lynchburg had fifteen thousand residents by 1880. That same year, work started on a daring new project: a street railway system, the initial goal of which was to make it easier for people to get from the town to Miller Park. Horse-drawn vehicles gave way to electric vehicles by 1888 (the street car system in Lynchburg ran until 1941; the remains of the rail lines may still be seen at Harrison and 12th St.).

A Horse Car in Lynchburg in the Late 1880s

Lynchburg was well into its transition from a tobacco-based to a manufacturing-driven economy by the turn of the 20th century. Many factories began operating, some of which would go on to become important pillars of the economy for many years. These companies included Lynchburg Cotton Mill (1888), Craddock-Terry Shoe Co. (1888), Lynchburg Foundry and Machine Works (1882; renamed in 1894 as Glamorgan Pipe & Foundry; today known as Griffin Pipe); Lynchburg Plough Company (1896; renamed in 1902 as Lynchburg Foundry); and Lynchburg Cotton Mill (1888).

Lynchburg used its riches to build a contemporary metropolis. Federal Hill, which was once home to the wealthy of the city, saw the construction of several big residences in the Diamond Hill and Rivermont neighborhoods. The city received additional electricity from the Reusens hydroelectric plant in 1903, baseball was introduced by the Lynchburg Hill Climbers in 1894, and in 1907 a 21-mile wooden pipe system was constructed to Pedlar Lake, which is still the city’s main water source.

Alongside this riches grew the arts and education. During this time, three institutions were established: Lynchburg College (1903), Sweet Briar (1901), and Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (1893). Built in 1899, the new high school was quickly superseded in 1910 by a larger one. In 1907, the Jones Memorial Library became the first public library. The Lynchburg Opera House was replaced as the principal theater in the city by the Academy of Music when it opened in 1905.

Many Lynchburg residents served in the armed forces during World War I, and the city’s industries provided supplies for the conflict. The city got its moniker, Lunchburg, from a Red Cross-run canteen at the Southern Railroad station that catered to troop trains. The city survived the Great Depression and carried on with its modernization during the postwar era. The first radio station, WLVA, debuted in 1930, and the city constructed its first airport in 1931. On the site of the old fair grounds, side-by-side facilities for baseball and football were built in 1938. Lynchburg’s factories were operating nonstop during World War II, her residents were serving in the armed forces, and her airport was being utilized to train pilots, much like the rest of the nation.

Lynchburg’s economy has diversified since the 1950s, when it was a tiny, close-knit manufacturing community. Today, the majority of the city’s people live in the nearby suburbs. The city had a surge in population in 1955 as a result of the opening of plants by General Electric and Babcock & Wilcox, two companies involved in nuclear technology. The city saw the emergence of housing complexes all around it, and the original downtown area as a retail center came to an end in 1960 with the opening of Pittman Plaza, the city’s first shopping center. With the ongoing construction of multiple office and industrial parks housing businesses engaged in insurance, cellular communications, nuclear energy, castings, paper, equipment, and other industries, this growth pattern has persisted to the present d

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