Fredericksburg, Virginia 1608-1908/5
The Lease of the Market-House Lots — The First Serious Fire — Fredericksburg an Important Center — An Act Concerning Elections — Half of the Town Destroyed by Fire — Fredericksburg an Important Postal Point — How the Mails were Carried — A Congressional Investigation — Amendatory Act of 1821 — The Great Fire of 1822 — The Trade of the Town — Contagious Diseases — The Town in 1841 — Acts of Extension, 1851, 1852, 1858, 1861, &c.
In the year 1789 an enactment was passed by the Legislature empowering the Mayor and Commonalty of the town of Fredericksburg to lease for three lives, or twenty-one years, such unimproved parts of the market-house lots as to them shall seem most proper, and apply the rents arising therefrom for the benefit of the corporation. In the same year an act was passed authorizing the Trustees of the Fredericksburg Academy to raise, by way of lottery, the sum of four thousand pounds to defray the expenses of erecting a building on the academy lands for the purpose of accommodating the professors and the rapidly increasing number of students. We could not learn the result of this latter scheme.
THE FIRST SERIOUS FIRE.
In 1799 the first serious fire the town ever had occurred. It took place in the night time and quite a number of houses were destroyed. By many persons it was supposed to have been the work of an incendiary, but others believed that it was caused by a "wooden chimney or a stove pipe, run through a window or through the side of a wooden house, without being properly protected." The Council decided to meet both views, and offered five hundred dollars for the arrest and conviction of the incendiary, and issued an emphatic condemnation against wooden chimneys and stove pipes projecting through windows or the sides of houses without having them "fire proof." This nuisance was thereby abated.
FREDERICKSBURG AN IMPORTANT CENTER.
As early as 1796 Fredericksburg was an important commercial center, and manufactories of various kinds were in operation. Iron works and mills and other industries were successfully prosecuted, and the trade of the town, in the general merchandise department, was in the hands of public-spirited, energetic merchants; and it would no doubt surprise the merchants of the present day to read the advertisements and note the extent and variety of stocks of goods kept here at that period. The growth and development of the trade was gradual and decided in all departments, the leading article being tobacco, which up to and during the War of 1812 and 1814, was increased heavily and necessitated the employment of vessels of great tonnage to carry it. And, though strange as it may appear to our present population, in those days of prosperity in manufactories, farms and workshops, and when nearly all merchandise and supplies reached our town in said vessels, large three-masted ships were moored at our wharves; and, until large cities sprang up along the coast, that diverted trade by reason of railroad transportation, our leading merchants carried on a direct trade with the West India Islands, as well as with many of the European countries. Our wharves then were a scene of busy activity and the river was crowded with vessels from all quarters of the country.
AN ACT CONCERNING ELECTIONS.
In 1806 an act of the Legislature was passed providing that on the next annual election day for members of the "Common Hall of the Town," which term was used to denote the Common Council, a Mayor and Recorder and eight persons should be elected by ballot to act as Justices of the Peace for the town, who should "continue in office during good behavior." Three of these justices were empowered to hold a hustings court, except in cases of the examination or trial of free persons or slaves charged with felonies, in which case five of the eight justices were necessary to constitute the court. This court had the same power and jurisdiction that the hustings court had under the act of 1781, but the members were ineligible for the Common Council and they had no power to lay a tax for the support of a night watch.
At this election the voters were also to elect by ballot twelve persons as members of the Common Council of the town, who were to continue in office for one year and until their successors should be elected and qualified. The powers of the Common Council should be the same as had been previously conferred upon the Mayor, Recorder, Aldermen and Common Council of the town "in Common Hall assembled." The Common Council, at their first meeting, were to elect one of their number to the office of Mayor and another to the office of Recorder. It was the duty of the Mayor to preside over the deliberations of the body, and, in his absence, the Recorder was to discharge that duty. The Mayor, or in his absence, the Recorder, or any two members of the Council, could call a meeting of the body, but it required seven members present to constitute a quorum. After the Council assembled in the first meeting after the election of the members, and elected the proper officers, the body then consisting of the Mayor, Recorder and the other ten members elected as common councilmen, constituted the "Common Hall" of the town, and all ordinances were adopted by that body.
HALF OF THE TOWN DESTROYED BY FIRE.
In the year 1807 Fredericksburg was visited by a terrible conflagration which destroyed nearly one-half of the town. It was in October of that year, when the town was almost depopulated, the citizens, old and young, having left their homes to attend and witness the horse racing just below town, on "Willis's Field" farm. The fire broke out in the dwelling house of Mr. Stannard, which was located on the lot where the residence of Mr. George W. Shepherd now stands, on the north corner of Princess Ann and Lewis streets. A high wind prevailed at the time, the house was inflammable, the weather very dry, and in a short time the fire swept down Main street, the flames leaping from house to house to Henderson's store, on the south corner of Main and Amelia streets; thence down both sides of Main to George street, destroying every building in its track except Henderson's corner, which alone escaped destruction. The Bank of Virginia, which stood on the spot where Shiloh Baptist church (old site) now stands, on Water street, although more than a quarter of a mile from where the fire originated, was the second house to take fire and was entirely consumed. Mr. Stannard, at whose residence the fire started, was lying a corpse in the house at the time of the fire, and his remains were rescued from the flames with great difficulty.
Preparations to rebuild the burnt district were at once commenced, and buildings of a more substantial character took the places of those destroyed and prosperity again smiled, upon the town. Yet strange to say the square on the west side of Main street, from Lewis to Amelia, then in the business part of the town, and now in the residential part, although before the fire was lined with buildings, was without a building until some five years ago. A tool chest, saved from destruction in this fire, by the debris of the building falling upon it and covering it up, and which escaped the destruction wrought in town by the Federal soldiers in December, 1862, is now in the possession of Police Officer Charles A. Gore. It was the property of his grandfather, Jacob Gore, who had been working at Mr. Stannard's a few days before the fire occurred and left it there temporarily.
FREDERICKSBURG AN IMPORTANT POSTAL POINT.
Fredericksburg, as early as 1820, was a very important point for mail distribution, and the mail matter of not less than five States was assorted here and sent on to its destination. About the breaking out of the War of 1812 mail matter to Fredericksburg rapidly increased, and continued to increase, for several years, which necessitated a change in the method of transporting the mails from Washington, an increase of pay, and finally scandalous reports were put in circulation which resulted in a congressional investigation. A paper on this investigation, prepared by Henry Castle, Esq., Auditor, from the records in the Post office department, and kindly furnished us, will prove interesting.
"The year 1820 had arrived; James Monroe was President and Return J. Meiggs, Jr., of Ohio, was Postmaster General. There were then over three thousand post offices, and the revenues had increased to $1,000,000 per annum, a sum considerable in excess of the expenditures, a feature which seldom characterized the service after that date. It appears from the records that vague rumors of certain irregularities had been afloat throughout the country and in the 'public prints' for some time, and that they finally assumed such a tangible shape that a resolution was introduced into the United States Congress providing for an investigation of the charges.
"A committee of the House of Representatives, of which Hon. Elisha Phelps was chairman, proceeded in accordance with instructions of the House, in due form and great deliberation, to investigate the general conduct of the office under Postmaster General Meiggs, and especially the features which had been subjected to more immediate criticism. Mr. Meiggs's service, as Postmaster General, extended from March 17th 1814, to June 26th 1823, a period of more than nine years. The gravest of the charges made against his administration were substantially as follows:--
"First. That he had introduced an irregular financial system which had led to serious losses of the public funds.
"Second. That he had illegally and improperly increased the compensation of certain contractors for carrying the mail.
"With slow formality and tedious reiteration of assurances of distinguished consideration, the solemn committee of the Honorable House of Representatives, and the Honorable Postmaster General, finally reached a point where questions were asked and answered and a tolerably clear understanding of what had really occurred may be gained. The statement of the Postmaster General, divested of all its superfluities and reduced to its simplest form, showed no dereliction in either case, but read at this late day gives an almost ludicrous insight into the diminutive transactions which then sufficed for this great, free and intelligent Republic.
"Postmaster General Meiggs's answer to the second charge was perhaps even more interestingly significant as a revelation of the day of small things. He admitted that he had increased the compensation of contractors for carrying the mails, but justified his action on the ground of an imperious necessity.
"The case as he explained it was this: His predecessor in office had about the year 1813, let a contract to certain parties for transporting mail from the Seat of Government at Washington to Fredericksburg, Virginia, a distance of seventy miles. This great mail route, which would now be termed a trunk line, carried substantially the mail for the five States of Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. The contract provided that these mails should be carried by stage coach in summer and, as the roads were impassable in winter, they were to be carried on horseback.
"But," says the Postmaster General, "by the increased popular interest in the war of 1812, correspondence was greatly stimulated and the circulation of the public journals was enormously increased. Consequently, it was found impracticable to transport all this heavy mail for five States, on horseback from Washington to Fredericksburg; therefore contractors were authorized to place a sulky, or curricle service thereon and the remuneration was increased accordingly.
"This explanation was apparently satisfactory to the Honorable Committee as it certainly appears very reasonable on its face, and will appeal to man's inherent sense of justice, even in this exacting era. The final action of Congress is not contained in the records, "but it was no doubt exculpatory since, as shown above, Postmaster General Meiggs, continued to discharge the duties in his high office for several years thereafter."
AMENDATORY ACT OF 1821.
Under the previous acts of the Legislature, extending the limits of the town and providing for laying out streets, and the amendments thereto, it was claimed that mistakes had occurred and irregularities had resulted therefrom. In order to correct these mistakes, and provide for the better government of the town, an amendatory act was passed by the Legislature in the year 1821. In that act the Common Council was authorized and empowered to elect the Mayor from their own number or from the body of the citizens, and in case he was elected from the Council, thus creating a vacancy in that body, it was to be filled by the Council. Under this act the Mayor was eligible to reelection from year to year as long as the Council was pleased to elect him, was made custodian of the corporation seal, and was to keep an office in the town where he should transact the public business, and where the citizens could call upon him and present any grievance or complaint they might have to make.
When the hustings court was not in session the Mayor was to act as a Justice of the Peace and superintend and control the police and night watch. He was to qualify in ten days after his election, and was to preside at the sittings of the hustings court; and in his absence the Recorder, upon whom all the powers and authority of the Mayor were conferred, was authorized to perform his duties. The Common Council had to regulate and fix the salary of the Mayor, which could not be increased or diminished during his term of office. The .same act extended the jurisdiction of the hustings court to high water mark on the Stafford side of the Rappahannock river, and exempted the citizens of the town from the assessment and payment of all taxes and levies to Spotsylvania county, to which they were subject under the former laws.
By the provisions of the act of 1821 the Common Council was authorized to assess and levy a tax on the inhabitants of, and property within, the town for the purpose of repairing and keeping in order the streets and alleys and for other purposes and charges as to them might seem right and proper, and for the improvement, convenience and well being of the town. They were authorized to provide a night watch for the protection of the town and for the "better execution of this duty the power and authority, now exercised by field officers of the militia concerning patrols, shall hereafter be vested in and exercised by the said Mayor, Recorder and Common Council over the militia of the said town," and the militia of the town were, by the same act, exempted from patrol duty beyond the city limits.
In order to correct defects in laying out streets under the former acts, by this act a Commission, consisting of John W. Green, John Mundell, George Cox, Silas Wood and David Briggs, was appointed to survey and locate the streets of the town according to existing laws and authentic ancient surveys. This Commission was to locate the streets by metes and bounds, making such alterations as its members might think expedient, with the consent of the proprietors of lots effected by such alterations, but not otherwise. It was also required to mark the boundaries of the streets by stones or otherwise, which were to be designated on the map of the town made by it. These Commissioners were to report their plan, with explanatory notes, to the Common Council, and if approved by that body it was to be taken as the authentic plan of the town.
But in making this survey of the streets it was especially provided that if a house should be found, in whole or in part, in the street, it was not to be considered a nuisance or an illegal obstruction of the street, but if such building should perish, or in any manner be destroyed, it was not to be rebuilt so as to encroach upon or obstruct the street.
THE GREAT FIRE OF 1822.
After the great conflagration of 1807, a regular and decided increase in population is noted with a marked improvement in local trade. So things progressed with no unusual or startling calamities to disturb the usual serenity of a prosperous town—not bustling, but active—until the year 1822, when the quiet was disturbed by another serious conflagration. It was not as disastrous as its predecessor was, but it was of such a character as to cause great loss of property, and to retard, to a very great extent, the general prosperity of the town. This fire originated at the corner of Main and George streets, where Mr. Thomas N. Brent's dry goods store now stands, and, curious enough, just where the great fire of 1807 was checked. It was then known as Wellford's corner, because Mr. C. C. Wellford, for a great many years, kept store there. From that corner the fire made its way down Main street totally destroying every building on that side of the street from there to Hanover street, which square was then known as the "Commercial Block," because of the large trade carried on there.
With the energy and enterprise so characteristic of the citizens of the town at that day, steps were at once taken to rebuild the burnt district. Soon the street was almost blocked up with building material, laborers were busily at work, clearing away the debris and preparing the foundations for the new buildings. Carpenters and brick masons were in great demand and large numbers flocked to the town from neighboring cities and villages. That part of the town was soon a busy scene and the music of the hammer, the saw and the trowel greeted the ear from early morning until late in the afternoon* And there were soon erected, with an occasional exception, the substantial block of brick buildings which now stand as monuments to the good judgment and excellent workmanship of that early day. The work of rebuilding was speedy and complete, and the character of the new buildings was an improvement upon the old ones they replaced. With the rebuilding of that portion of the town, and the resumption of business by the burnt-out merchants, came an unusual degree of prosperity, and for a long period the general peace and happiness of the people were undisturbed.
THE TRADE OF THE TOWN.
At this time the trade of the town was chiefly of a local character, except the products of the country extending even beyond the Blue Ridge mountains, as from the early years of the town, were brought to market in wagons, and it was no uncommon sight to see daily as many as fifty or sixty four and six-horse teams here at one time from that part of the country. The merchants were men of exalted character and fine business capacity, and the amount of business transacted was, considering the times and circumstances, simply enormous.
To the credit of the authorities of the town it can be truthfully said that, in all the past, they have been very watchful of and solicitous for the health of the people. At all times, upon reports, or even rumors, that contagious or infectious diseases were prevailing in contiguous communities, they were on the alert, taking every precaution to prevent their introduction here, and it may be said to their credit that such strict observance and enforcement of the laws of health, and temporary quarantines at the proper time, have prevented all kinds of epidemics in the past history of the town.
Before the first of the nineteenth century, in 1790, the people of the town were very much excited about the small pox. It was raging in Philadelphia as an epidemic, and the large trade carried on between the two places, altogether by water, made it necessary that numerous vessels should bear the merchandise. In order to prevent the small pox from reaching this place a strict quarantine was established at the mouth of Hazel Run, just below town, and a hospital was located at Sligo. Dr. Brooke and Dr. Ker, two skillful physcians of the town, agreed to attend the sick at the hospital without charge, whether sailors or citizens. The wise precaution taken in establishing the quarantine prevented any case from reaching the town, to the great relief of the citizens generally. In 1792 the same disease broke out in Baltimore and a quarantine was again established at Hazel Run and a hospital at Sligo. The citizens were greatly alarmed, fearing its introduction here either by land or water. The greatest precautions were taken by the health officers, who were nobly assisted by the town authorities, and the disease was kept out as it had been two years before, not a single case having made its appearance in the place.
In 1833, it is said by old citizens, a remarkable case of either fright or disease occurred in Fredericksburg, which proved fatal. In that year several parts of the United States were visited and scourged by the Asiatic cholera. The country generally was in great terror, and Fredericksburg came in for her share of excitement. In fact, she may have been more alarmed than other places which were as far removed from the seat of the scourge, because of a prediction that had previously been made, and which made its impression on many people. Rev. Lorenzo Dow, an able, but eccentric, itinerant Methodist minister, when on a visit to the town the year previous to the scourge, it was reported had predicted the appearance of cholera in Fredericksburg. Some people believed the disease would come because Mr. Dow had predicted it, and the excitement ran high, especially among those who believed the prophecy. A Mr. Shelton became dreadfully alarmed and whether from fright or from actually contracting the disease, died in the month of June and the cause of his death was pronounced sporadic or accidental cholera. His was the only case then, and to this day there has been no other, Fredericksburg having enjoyed singular and perfect immunity from epidemics of all kinds.
THE TOWN IN THE YEAR 1841.
In describing the town in 1841, an intelligent visitor says, "Fredericksburg is regularly laid out and compactly built; many of its buildings are brick. The principal public buildings are a courthouse, clerk's office, a jail, a market-house, an orphan asylum, one Episcopal, one Presbyterian, one Methodist, one Baptist and one Reform Baptist church. The town also contains two banks and one male and one female seminary of the higher class. It is supplied with water from the river* by subterraneous pipes and is governed by a Mayor and Common Council. A canal, extending from the town to Fox's mill, a point on the Rappahannock, thirty five miles above, has been commenced and partly completed. "Fredericksburg enjoys considerable trade, chiefly in grain, flour, tobacco, maize, etc., and considerable quantities of gold are exported. Its exports have been computed at over four millions of dollars annually. The falls of the Rappahannock, in the vicinity, afford good water power. There were in 1840, by the United States statistics, seventy-three stores, with a capital of $376,961; two tanneries, paints, drugs, etc., with a capital of $37,000; one grist mill, two printing offices, four semi-weekly newspapers; capital in manufactures, $141,200; five academies, with 256 students, and seven schools, with 156 scholars. The population in 1830, whites, 1,797; slaves, 1,124; free blacks, 387—total, 3,308. The population in 1840 was 3,974."
But the commercial prosperity of the town even in 1840 was not equal to its advantages, but it steadily grew and prospered during the next decade. The completion of a canal, extending from the town to a point on the Rappahannock river, a distance of forty miles, railroad facilities and river navigation by sail vessels and steamboats, greatly enlarged her commercial advantages and increased her export trade, and the beginning of the year 1850 found her enjoying a degree of material prosperity, presaging a glorious commercial future. Commencing the year 1850 under circumstances so encouraging, the next decade was expected to exceed in all departments of trade the preceding one.
The failure to build a railroad through the section of country from which the bulk of our trade was drawn, and the substitution therefor of a plank road, with the building of the Orange and Alexandria railroad, now the Western, and the advance of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad along the upper line of the Shenandoah Valley, greatly injured the trade of Fredericksburg by diverting from her a large amount of produce, which was formerly brought to town in wagons, and while in 1860 the population had somewhat increased, the general trade of the town was diminished.
THE CORPORATE LIMITS EXTENDED.
In the year 1851 the Legislature passed a bill extending the limits of the town, in accordance with a plan made by Commissioners appointed by the Common Council. That extension embraced the territory we now have within the corporate limits except a portion of the Water Power Company, the survey having been made by Mr. William Slaughter, City Surveyor, in 1850, and reported to the Council by Joseph Sanford, John Minor and John Pritchard, who were appointed a committee by the Council to "enquire into the expediency of extending the limits of the said town." After making a thorough examination, this committee reported back to the body that it was both expedient and desirable that the extension should be made, which report and recommendation were adopted. To carry out this action, the Council appointed Hugh S. Scott, Wm. S. Barton, John James Chew, Joseph Sanford and John Pritchard, and they were instructed and empowered as a Commission, under the provisions of the act of the Legislature, to locate and lay out such streets in the part of the town annexed by the provisions of the bill, as they might think proper, and report back to the Council, with a full plan of their work. But it was provided that none of the new streets reported upon were to be opened unless the Council should decide it necessary, and in that event, if the owners of the lots did not relinquish their claims to the town, damages were to be paid by the Council in such sums as should be ascertained by three disinterested freeholders of Spotsylvania county, who should be appointed by the county court of said county for that purpose. The Commission performed the duties assigned them by the Council, and laid out the new portion of the town into streets, giving a name to each, but many of them were never opened, as they were not needed, and remain closed to this day.
The same act made it unnecessary for either the Mayor or Recorder of the town to be present and preside over the hustings court, but made it lawful for any three Justices of the Corporation to hold the court, except, as in the former act, where parties were to be examined or tried for felonies it required that five Justices should be present and preside. In consequence of this provision the court would convene with five Justices when felony cases were to be considered, and after they were disposed of, two of them would be excused and the other three would continue the session until the business of the court was completed. These Justices were appointed by the Governor, on the recommendation of the hustings court, and were among the best citizens and most successful business men of the town, and what they lacked in a knowledge of the law, it is generally agreed they more than made up in good common sense and unyielding integrity.
In the following year, 1852, the Legislature passed another amendment to the charter of the town, extending its limits, but this amendment was only made necessary to correct an error in the section of the act of the year before, extending the corporate limits. The metes and bounds were left the same as prescribed in the act of 1851.
In 1858 an act was passed by the Legislature enabling the Council to sell real estate for delinquent taxes due the town. It authorized the authorities to sell all real estate within the corporation returned delinquent for the non-payment of taxes and interest, and to make such regulations for affecting the sale and collecting the taxes as they might deem expedient. In case the sale was not made and the taxes remained unpaid, the taxes became a lien on the property and ten per centum was charged thereon until they were paid. The act also provided that if the taxes due on real estate were paid by the tenant, who was not the owner of the property, the amount might be deducted from the rents of the same in settlement with the owner. In cases where the property was owned by non-residents, and was vacant or unimproved, and no levy could be made to satisfy the taxes, the town was authorized to take summary proceedings before any court in the State, on ten days' notice to the parties owning the delinquent property.
In 1861 another act was passed by the Legislature, extending the corporate limits of the town. This was done in order to bring certain property within the limits of the town for the purpose of city taxation, according to a previous agreement with the owners of the Fredericksburg Water Power. That agreement was that all mills and manufactories, using the water of that company for power, erected after the completion of the canal, should be liable for, and should pay, city taxes. The extension by this act is described as follows:
"Beginning at a point Sixty-seven feet North 64 1/2 degrees east from the northeast cornerstone of the present boundary of said town; and running thence to the Rappahannock river twelve hundred and fifty feet to a stone; thence south 58 1/2 degrees west, four hundred and sixty-six feet to a stone; thence south 13 1/2 degrees west, three hundred and seventy feet to a stone; thence south 35 1/2 degrees east, six hundred and eight feet to a stone; thence south 38 3/4 degrees, two hundred and eighty-five feet to a stone; thence south 25 pounds degrees east, one hundred and forty-four feet to a stone in a line with the present corporation line; thence with said line north 64 pounds degrees east six hundred and eighty feet to the point of beginning, and particularly set out and described in a survey and plat made by Carter M. Braxton, dated the 23rd day of January, 1861, and deposited in the clerk's office of the corporation court of said town."