It’s been swept away by floods and burned down by the Confederate Army, but Chatham Bridge keeps being rebuilt.
Now this local transportation artery is out of commission once again while improvements are underway. As part of its effort to keep people up to date as the bridge is being renovated, the Fredericksburg Department of Economic Development and Tourism is also taking a step back in time to trace its nearly 200-year past.
The department has launched “Spanning Chatham Bridge’s History” on visitfred.com and several social media platforms to provide a new nugget of information each Thursday.
Lily Eghtessad, a department intern with a degree in historic preservation from the University of Mary Washington, began doing the research for the series last January. She’s combed through primary sources such as old newspapers at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library’s Virginiana Room, Central Rappahannock Heritage Center and Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc.
“The really isn’t any cohesive document or book dedicated to the bridge itself,” she said. “It’s just kind of a background in other buildings, other people’s histories.”
Eghtessad said her personal favorite fun fact is that Union Army engineer Washington A. Roebling’s first bridge was the one that he designed to be built over the ruins of Chatham Bridge, which Confederate forces had destroyed following their retreat across the Rappahannock River to Fredericksburg. Roebling would go on to gain fame after the Civil War for creating the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City with his father, John Roebling.
“I think that’s cool,” Eghtessad said. “The Brooklyn Bridge has a connection to Fredericksburg, in an indirect sort of way.”
Her “Spanning Chatham Bridge’s History” posts began May 28, and are continuing to run in chronological order while work is being done on the bridge. Each includes a visual element such as a portrait, photograph, letter, map or newspaper clipping to help make them pop on the visitfred.com’s website and its Facebook and Instagram pages, as well as those of the Fredericksburg Department of Economic Development and Tourism.
Chatham Bridge is named after Chatham Manor, the stately Georgian-style mansion facing the river in Stafford County. The house was built between 1768–71 by William Fitzhugh, who named it after William Pitt, the first Earl of Chatham. Pitt was a British prime minister, and had championed many of the opinions held by American colonists prior to the Revolutionary War.
The first bridge to be formerly named for the manor wasn’t built by him, however, but by Maj. Churchill Jones, who’d purchased Chatham Manor from Fitzhugh in 1806. Jones began construction of a toll bridge over the Rappahannock in 1821, but died before its completion in 1823. The cause, according to his niece Betty Churchill Lacey, was a fever “brought on by too much exposure in superintending the building of a bridge over the Rappahannock.”
That bridge lasted until summer 1826, when floodwaters destroyed and carried away the entire structure. An article in the Virginia Herald gave a vivid description of the destruction of what it called “one of our most delightful promenades.” It added that Judge John Coalter, who owned Chatham Manor at that time, promised to quickly replace the bridge. That wasn’t completed until 1832, and was commonly referred to as Coalter’s Bridge.
Chatham Bridge has been destroyed and rebuilt four times since then, but Eghtessad has been unable to find much documentation to show who did the actual work prior to the 1900s. One of posts notes that some evidence has led the National Park Service to presume that the laborers included some of Chatham Manor’s slaves.
The bridge was one of three that spanned the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg to Stafford County during the Civil War. After they were destroyed by the Confederate Army, the Union Army constructed several pontoon bridges to connect Fredericksburg and Falmouth in 1862. These relatively flimsy structures were unable to withstand frequent floods, so Washington Roebling used wire rope that he’d brought with him to build a suspension bridge over the Chatham Bridge’s 13 remaining piers.
“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 Sept. 1, 1862 during the Union Army evacuation. It stood for just 2 months,” according to a post in “Spanning Chatham Bridge’s History.”
The Union Army occupied Chatham Manor during the war. The owner, J. Horace Lacy, had left it to join the Confederate forces. He began restoring the house and the bridge when he returned in 1865. Lacy eventually sold Chatham Manor to the Watson family. Oliver Watson Jr., who owned it in the 1880s, hosted a number of lavish events at the estate, including a horse race that more than a thousand spectators crossed Chatham Bridge to watch.
Eghtessad said Sept. 3 that she’s been adding posts to “Spanning the Chatham Bridge” for 15 weeks, has only reached the 1880s and still has so much to share. She’s not sure when it will actually end, since the completion date for work on the bridge will depend on a number of factors, including the weather.
The Virginia Department of Transportation closed Chatham Bridge to all vehicle and pedestrian traffic June 22 for a $23.4 million rehabilitation project that’s expected to take about 16 months. The top portion of the span, which stands atop the concrete piers, is being completely replaced.
Travel lanes will be slightly widened and a shared-use path will be added to the downstream side of bridge, with a concrete barrier separating it from the road. The path will feature a small bump-out area offering a scenic overlook of the Rappahannock.
“We have been talking about sharing photos of the current construction and what is happening currently with it if the construction date is prolonged,” Eghtessad said.
“Spanning Chatham Bridge’s History” is being compiled into a resource document for Fredericksburg, and Print Jazz, a local design company, has created a stylized image of the bridge that incorporated the timeline of its history that’s on display in City Council chambers and will eventually be moved to the Visitor Center, Eghtessad said.
Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407
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