The History of Lynchburg, Virginia

An Overview

In the mid-1750's, the colonial village of New London in central Virginia was an important trading center, however, it was difficult to reach from northern towns (such as Charlottesville) due to the necessity of fording the Fluvanna (now James) River, which passed twelve miles north of the village. John Lynch, son of land-owner Charles Lynch and Quaker Sarah Clark Lynch, decided to remedy this problem, and in 1757, established a ferry service on the James a few hundred yards upstream from the ford, on property owned by his father. The ferry service remained profitable for many years, and by the end of the American Revolution, the village at Lynch's Ferry had itself become an important center of trade. Lynch saw the possibilities of establishing a town on the hill overlooking the ferry site, and in late 1784 petitioned the General Assembly of Virginia for a town charter. In October, 1786, the charter was granted, founding the town of Lynchburg.
The year in which Lynch began operation of his ferry (1757) also saw the beginning of regular meetings of the South River Society of Friends (Quakers) in which John's mother Sarah played a key role. The third and last South River meeting house was built in 1798, and served the Quakers until 1839 when it was abandoned (most Quakers had left the area in the 1820's due to their opposition to slavery). The building soon fell into ruins (pictured to the right), but was restored in the early 1900's after the land was purchased by area Presbyterians (across from the intersection of Fort Avenue and Sandusky Drive). 

The town of Lynchburg grew slowly between 1786 and the turn of the century, with the addition of a tobacco warehouse, a few stores, homes, taverns, a Masonic Lodge and one small church. 1798 saw the creation of the town's first newspaper, and the following year saw initial efforts to supply the town with water from springs and wells.

Lynchburg's First Tobacco Warehouse (built in 1791, demolished in 1978)

On January 10, 1805, Lynchburg was simultaneously expanded and incorporated as a town. By 1810, several tobacco warehouses had been built, and the town also included such staple businesses as groceries, tanneries, blacksmiths and druggists. The Methodist society predominated religion in Lynchburg, and built the town's first church in 1806 (the earlier in-town church was a single room English-built church dating from 1765).

Poplar Forest (built in 1806, Thomas Jefferson's Retreat)

In 1806, Thomas Jefferson began construction of his home, "Poplar Forest," just west of Lynchburg. Construction on Poplar Forest continued for several years, during which time Jefferson began using the home as a retreat from visitors at Monticello (the home, shown to the right, is currently undergoing restoration and is open for tours).
In 1815, George Cabell, who owned a point of land adjoining Lynchburg (known today as Daniel's Hill), built a home, "Point of Honor," overlooking Lynchburg (Point of Honor, shown to the left, is also open for tours and is located on Cabell Street).
By the early 1800's, tobacco was the city's major economy, with numerous warehouses processing and shipping the product east to Richmond by river batteaux. 1817 saw the beginnings of construction of the Salem Turnpike (the roadbed of what is now U.S. 460 between Lynchburg and Roanoke) as well as a toll bridge across the James River (this bridge was at 9th street, at the original ferry site). John Lynch (founder of the ferry, the town, and who also headed the toll bridge project) died on October 31, 1820, and was buried in the cemetery beside the Quaker Meeting House.
In the late 1820's, the town accomplished a major engineering feat with the construction of a water works system which drew its supply from the river below. Plagued by continual problems with a spring and well-based water supply, a reservoir was constructed (at the corner of 7th and Clay Sts.) along with wooden pipes and a pump house at the river (near the base of 7th). The following decade brought with it some unusual phenonema to Lynchburg, including an earthquake, an all-night meteor storm, a hailstorm that broke almost every window in the town, and a rare auroral display in the northern sky. By the end of the 1830's, Lynchburg's population topped 6000.
By 1840, the James River and Kanawha Canal was completed (the town had in 1832 dropped a planned railroad in favor of the canal system), and packet boats began regular operation 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). 1842 and 1847 brought two floods, the latter one wreaking havoc with the canal system and destroying the water works dam, leaving the town without water for several months.

Packet Boats on the Canal

On March 24, 1848, Lynchburg incorporated the Lynchburg and Tennessee (soon to be named Virginia & Tennessee) Railroad, following the refusal of the state to fund its construction. By June 1, sufficient funds had been raised to retain the charter, and by October, property at the old ferry site had been purchased to build a depot, and contractors were solicited for the first segment from Lynchburg to Salem. Construction began in 1850, and on February 18, 1852, the railroad's first locomotive (the “Virginia”) was tested when it climbed out of the river basin, disappeared into a tunnel and then returned (By 1881, the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad would be a part of the Norfolk & Western RR).
Early Virginia & Tennessee Railroad Locomotive
NOTE: The “Roanoke,” as sketched above in 1854. A sister locomotive, the “Lynchburg,” had blown up two years earlier in Forest, Virginia, killing two people.

The 1850’s also saw the arrival of telegraph service to Richmond, along with a gas works for lighting, and a sewer system. More importantly, Lynchburg achieved full status as a city on August 27, 1852. In 1854, the South Side railroad began operation with the arrival of the first train from Petersburg at the Island depot. Lynchburg would see its third railroad, the Orange and Alexandria (a northern route), in a few more years. In the summer of 1855, Lynchburg served as a refuge from the yellow-fever-plagued cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth, and in the following year, a series of back-to-back snowstorms dumped 58 inches of snow on Lynchburg. 
During the Civil War, Lynchburg served primarily as a supply and hospital center, and was spared most of the destruction that befell other Virginia cities and towns. Lynchburg did see battle action, however, in June of 1864,  when Confederate forces successfully fought off a Union attack. On June 17, Union General David Hunter approached the city from the west after moving down the Shenandoah Valley burning farms and towns. After a series of delaying actions by Confederate General John McCausland, the Union troops managed to force back a Confederate line positioned at the old Quaker Meeting House, and took the nearby Sandusky House (c. 1808, pictured left) for use as a temporary headquarters. On June 18 following the fallback,  Confederate forces, now reinforced by General Jubal Early, maintained positions along a 3-mile line west of the town (extending from what is now Fort Early to McCausland Ridge). After inconclusive fighting, the Union troops withdrew under the false impression they were facing a larger Confederate force. Part of the deception arose from a continuous series of train movements on several rail lines, giving the impression that reinforcements were arriving at a steady pace.
The following day, General Early chased the Union troops back towards Liberty (now Bedford), overtaking them and inflicting heavy casualties. (The Battle of Lynchburg is reenacted each year at Berkley, an antebellum estate in Bedford county. Over 3,000 Confederate dead are buried in the Old Confederate Cemetery, located just west of the southern end of Fifth St.).

In late September of 1870, Lynchburg experienced its worst flood in history when the James rose 26 feet out of its banks. The flood destroyed all bridges across the river, all railroad property in the river basin and on the island, the main gas pipe across Blackwater Creek and the water works pump house, leaving the city without light or water for months, and without a bridge across the James. In 1877, yet another flood wreaked similar havoc, once again destroying all bridges.

Lynchburg in 1875

In this view from Amherst County, one can see the court house (top middle), the Virginia & Tennessee depot and train shed (center/left), the V&T roundhouse (right)and covered wooden bridge across the James River (destroyed by flood in 1877).
Following reconstruction, Lynchburg entered a period of prosperity in the latter part of the 19th century, with iron works, blast furnaces and steel mills fueling the growth. Railroads eliminated the need for the canal system, which having been damaged frequently by flooding, was sold off and soon abandoned. By 1880, Lynchburg's population had reached 15,000. In the same year, work began on a bold new enterprise: a street railway system, whose initial purpose was to facilitate transportation from the town to Miller Park. By 1888, electric cars had replaced the early, horse-drawn cars (Lynchburg's street car system operated until 1941; remnants of the rail lines can be seen today at Harrison and 12th St.)

A Lynchburg Horse Car in the Late 1880’s

By the dawn of the 20th century, Lynchburg was well-underway in its evolution from a tobacco-based econony into one driven by manufacturing. A large number of factories opened, some of which would remain cornerstones of the econony for years to come. These firms included: Lynchburg Foundry and Machine Works (1882; renamed in 1894 as Glamorgan Pipe & Foundry; today known as Griffin Pipe); Lynchburg Cotton Mill (1888) Craddock-Terry Shoe Co. (1888; which became Lynchburg's largest industry and the largest shoe manufacturer in the south);  Lynchburg Plough Company (1896; renamed in 1902 as Lynchburg Foundry).
Lynchburg spent its wealth transforming itself into a modern city. Numerous large homes were built in the Diamond Hill and Rivermont areas (Federal Hill had previously been the area of the city’s well-to-do). The Lynchburg Hill Climbers (1894) brought baseball to the city, more electric power was supplied from the Reusens hydroelectric dam (1903), and in 1907, a 21-mile wooden pipe system was laid to nearby Pedlar Lake, which, to this day, serves as the city's primary water source.
Education and the arts also flourished with this prosperity. Three colleges were founded in this period: Randolph-Macon Woman's College (1893), Sweet Briar (1901), and Lynchburg College (1903). A new high school was built in 1899, and soon replaced by a larger one in 1910. The Jones Memorial Library opened as the first public library in 1907. The Academy of Music opened in 1905, replacing the Lynchburg Opera House as the city's premiere theater.

Lynchburg College’s Westover Hall (built in 1891 as Westover Hotel, demolished in 1970) 

The First World War saw many of Lynchburg's men in the military, and the city’s industries supplying the war effort. A Red Cross-operated canteen serving troop trains at the Southern Railroad station gave the city the nickname Lunchburg. In the period after the war, the city weathered the depression and continued to modernize. Radio arrived in 1930 with station WLVA, and the city built its first airport in 1931. In 1938, side-by-side football and baseball stadiums were constructed on former fair grounds. As with the rest of the country, World War II had Lynchburg's factories running around the clock, her citizens in the military and her airport being used to train pilots.
Since the 1950's, Lynchburg has evolved from a small, tightly-knit manufacturing city to one with a diverse economy with most residents now living in surrounding suburbs. This transformation began in 1955 when Babcock & Wilcox (nuclear technology) and General Electric opened plants in the city, causing an influx of new residents. Housing developments appeared throughout the city, and in 1960, the city’s first shopping center (Pittman Plaza) opened, signaling the end of the original downtown area as a retail center. This trend of growth has carried through to the present with the continued development of numerous office and industrial parks, whose firms are involved in insurance, cellular communications, nuclear energy, castings, paper, machinery and more.
The information above is copyrighted and was used with the permission of LynchburgOnline.com. To learn more about the City of Lynchburg and the surrounding area go to www.LynchburgOnline.com
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