From the Richmond Times-Dispatch, 2/8/1948, p. 32, c. 2
Manchester-North Bank Bridge, Landmark And Industrial Link, Falls to Wrecking Crew
By W. H. Crockford
While Richmond’s city fathers worry about Ninth Street Bridge, the still solid heart of a less familiar but older span upstream, which once linked Manchester with the north bank, is now being removed from its history-laden surroundings.
Because its usefulness has long since ended and its condition makes fire insurance experts raise their eyebrows, owners of the Old Dominion Iron and Steel Corporation are taking down the 76-year-old trestle on Belle Isle, across which the Richmond and Danville Railroad and its successor, the Southern Railway, hauled countless tons of coal and iron for the island mill and the old Tredegar Co. on the Richmond shore.
As a derrick lifts the aged timbers from their moorings, old-timers are reviving memories of days spent toiling for Old Dominion, probably the city’s oldest continuous manufacturing industry, on the midriver site with which most historic Virginia names since Powhatan seem to have been tied.
Belle Island, originally Broad Rock Island, was included in land bought by Captain John Smith from Powhatan in 1608. It later passed through many hands, including those of the three William Byrds, before the day in 1815 when Jacquelin B. Harvie, Philip Thornton and James Humes built a wooden dam off the south shore to get water power for a nail factory on the island. The Old Dominion Iron and Steel Works, which later took over, was chartered by the General Assembly in 1832. Thirty years later, it saw the first of more than 30,000 Federal prisoners of war come to the island for a stay in one of only two tent prison camps used in the Civil War.
Contracts drawn in 1871 by the Tredegar Co., Old Dominion, and the Richmond and Danville arranged for the erection of the trestle on the island and the bridge beyond it to Tredegar’s works. The southern link in the chain, a rail span from Manchester to the island, had been built by the R&D about 1854 to serve the Old Dominion mills. The structure, after many floods and freshets was replaced years ago by a sturdier bridge.
But on April 5, 1871, Tredegar, seeking across-the-river deliveries, contracted to build a trestle from the island end of the southern span across Belle Isle and thence to its own plant, turning the project over to the railroad on receipt of payments in freight hauled. Old Dominion, granting a right-of-way across its island property, in turn obtained the construction of a footway along the north bridge for use of its employees and customers.
Fire Destroys Span
The project carried and the arrangement, after the Southern acquired the Richmond and Danville, June 18, 1894, continued in force until 1909, when fire destroyed the north section of the bridge from Belle Isle to Richmond. Harry R. Wayt, who joined Old Dominion in 1889 and stayed until his retirement as vice-president and general manager 56 years later, recalls that he had just reached downtown Richmond from the island when his wife pointed out the smoke along the waterfront. They went back to watch the span go up in flames.
The fire put an end to the three-way shipping agreement, and left the trestle on the island itself as the only remaining part of the original south-to-north shore bridge.
Obtaining permission in an agreement July 13, 1912 among the three parties, Old Dominion built a one-way vehicular bridge on the old stone piers from the north bank to the island in 1913 to maintain contact with the mainland. The structure is on a lower level than the former rail span, and is not connected with the trestle on the island. The vehicle bridge passed in 1926 to the Virginia Electric and Power Company, which, on June 29, acquired most of the island except for the 12-acre portion on which the Old Dominion mills stand.
But the original cross-island and north span trestle was still young when, 1877, the Old Dominion works hired as an iron “puddler” a 14-year-old youngster named James Monroe Reynolds. At 85 today, “Cakey” Reynolds, who lived on Belle Isle in a boarding house 100-odd years old, which now is company headquarters, has plenty to tell about the place where, off and on for 45 years, “enough sweat poured out of my body to float the biggest battleship Uncle Sam ever made.”
“Cakey,” who believes he is the oldest native male of Manchester still living there today, was in a communicative mood when accosted as he was watching a checker game in Justice Harold C. Maurice’s Third Police Station. He lives today with the judge’s brother, Henry A. Maurice, of the State Highway Department, and Mrs. Maurice, at 1102 Perry St., a scant six blocks from his birthplace at Fifteenth and McDonough.
His family’s connection with Old Dominion dates back to about 1845, when his father, James M. Reynolds, then also in his teens, went to work on the island at $21 a month. The elder Reynolds was there during the War Between the States and was held out of the Army. “Cakey” says, because he was rolling copper for war use. (The company made kettles and camp equipment during the conflict, Mr. Wayt has related.)
With Yankee prisoners on the island, the three-story brick house, which later was “Cakey’s” boarding place, served as headquarters for Confederate officers in charge of the prison camp. Hundreds of prisoners died from exposure when not enough tents could be had to shelter them, and they were buried on the island of which William Byrd I had written in his journal Sept. 18, 1732, that it “would make and agreeable hermitage for any good Christian who had a mind to retire from the world.” The prisons’ bodies, after the war, were removed to the National Cemetery beyond Church Hill.
“Cakey,” a slight man, perhaps five feet six inches tall, who plans to live to be 100, cast back many a year to tell how far huskier workers had to be “dragged out” exhausted from the heat of the old iron mills. When one of them inquired why he never keeled over, he explained, “I’m a little guy, John; have to make every lick count.”
The mill ran by water power then, and was converted to steam later. He “rolled” horseshoes in a mill located where the Vepco power plant now stands. Flooding of that southern low part of the island led the company later to move most of its operations closer to the north side.
Eight tenement houses in addition to the boarding house stood on the island near the old trestle, approximately where the present manufacturing units now function, and a “church” building near by was the scene of Sunday school classes each Sunday evening. Up at the “head” of the island was a cemetery for the families living there, and a quarry, which youngsters later used as a swimming hole, was near by.
Water Was “Thick”
The boarding house was operated in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s by Mrs. Fred Lamb, who also handled wardrobes for actors appearing at Richmond’s old theater at Seventh and Broad Sts., “Cakey” recalled. Living in the mill’s sooty atmosphere was not too pleasant, it appeared, and in the early days the James River water the workmen had to drink was “so thick you could cut it with a knife.”