This article originally appeared in the March 2016 Stafford County Historical Society newsletter and is shared here on our blog with the author’s permission. The Falmouth Bridge is of particular interest to us because Joseph B. Ficklen owned Belmont.
Author: Jerrilynn Eby MacGregor
Thousands of people drive over the Falmouth Bridge every day without giving it any thought beyond perhaps noticing the deteriorating concrete railings or the somewhat disconcerting bouncing felt when traffic stops mid-span. In reality, neither is a problem so far as the safety of the bridge is concerned. Few realize that the present structure is at least the twelfth to have spanned the Rappahannock River at this location.
From the establishment of the town of Falmouth in 1728 until the first bridge was opened around 1798, people crossed the Rappahannock by ferry. Several of these were established at various points between the Stafford shore and Fredericksburg and some operated concurrently over the years. In fact, ferries continued in operation from Falmouth until the 1890s.
The first bridge at Falmouth was built and owned by Robert Dunbar. It crossed the river at the bottom of Cambridge Street just south of modern Amy’s Café and was a wooden structure on stone piers. It stood next to Falmouth’s first wharf. The land on which the bridge abutted on both sides of the river belonged to the Thornton family of The Falls, later Fall Hill. As part of the deal between Dunbar and Francis Thornton, in return for permission to build the bridge, Dunbar agreed to pay to Thornton and his heirs an annuity of £500 forever after. This was an enormous sum and the annuity remained in force for nearly a century.
For Dunbar, building the bridge wasn’t a selfless act for the betterment of his community; it was a business venture that he hoped would turn a profit despite the very considerable expense involved. Those wishing to use the bridge paid a toll. Tolls were charged for people, cattle, horses, sheep, and wheeled vehicles. Dunbar’s bridge washed out twice during his ownership, in 1808 and again in 1826. He rebuilt it at his own expense.
In 1847 Joseph B. Ficklen purchased the bridge from Dunbar’s heirs, still subject to the Thornton annuity. Like Robert Dunbar, Ficklen collected tolls from those who used the bridge. Part of the bridge gave way in July 1856 “and precipitated into the river and on the rocks below, a fine team of oxen, and a wagon loaded with Wheat…Two of the oxen had to be butchered—the rest were slightly injured and the driver escaped with a few bruises.” Ficklen repaired the bridge at his own expense.
The Rappahannock River has always been prone to violent flooding, which often destroyed or seriously damaged the bridges built at Falmouth and Chatham. In April 1861 the local newspaper reported, “The heavy and continuous rain of the past few days resulted in a tremendous freshet in the Rappahannock River, the like of which has not been known since 1814. On Wednesday morning, the swollen, turbid mass of water, increasing rapidly in height and volume, raged onward with such force as to sweep away panel after panel of the Falmouth Bridge, which with similar velocity, borne down by the impetuous current, struck the Chatham Bridge…and carried off about one-third of that structure…In a few hours the whole of Falmouth Bridge had disappeared, and from bank to bank surged the restless tide of waters.” In 1929 Sarah Anderson recalled standing on the hill at her home, Pine Grove, in April 1861 and watching the flood (Woodmont Nursing Home now stands on or very near the Pine Grove house site). Sarah wrote, I watched from that hill Falmouth’s bridge come floating down the river and hit the Chatham bridge and knock more than half of it off the pillars. Then both bridges came on down the river & hit the car [railroad] bridge which was too high out of the water for them to pull it down. The bridge was quickly rebuilt, only to be burned in April 1862 when Confederate forces withdrew from Fredericksburg. A year later I saw all those bridges and all the vessels at the wharfs all burning at once to keep the Yankees out of Fredericksburg.” Union soldiers used pontoon bridges to cross the river during their occupation.
There was no bridge at Falmouth from 1862 until the summer of 1866 when Joseph B. Ficklen arranged “for the building of his stone piers on the Falmouth bridge, the woodwork of which will also soon be contracted for.” The work was quickly completed and, in direct competition to the owner of the Chatham Bridge, Ficklen reduced the toll on his bridge to nearly the same rate as before the war “or just one half that has been charged by the Chatham bridge.”
Ficklen died in 1874 and the bridge, then valued at the considerable sum of $12,000, passed to his wife and children. The Thornton annuity passed with it. For a number of years people had been discussing the advisability of having a free bridge connecting Falmouth and Fredericksburg. Of course, that required the use of public funds, i.e. taxes, to build a bridge and maintain it, which certainly didn’t suit those Stafford residents who anticipated using it infrequently, if at all. In February 1882 the Virginia General Assembly passed the “Free Bridge Act” in which the Stafford Board of Supervisors was authorized to borrow money to build a bridge across the Rappahannock. The projected cost was $24,150 for a new structure to replace Ficklen’s bridge, which was still standing and functional. A board of commissioners, one from each of Stafford’s four districts, was established and tasked with building, maintaining, and operating the bridge. They contracted with the Wrought Iron Bridge Company of Canton, Ohio to build the structure, but the project stalled. In March 1886 the commissioners agreed with the Ficklen family to purchase the existing bridge with its toll house and lot as well as the 64-acre Amaret farm on the Spotsylvania side and upon which the bridge abutted. The bridge was still subject to a $1,666.66 annual annuity due Francis Thornton’s heirs. The commissioners agreed to pay the Ficklens $1,000 twice each year “forever” with Stafford residents being taxed to raise this sum. Stafford residents whose names were included on the tax rolls were entitled to cross the bridge free of charge. All others paid tolls.
In the fall of 1889 Fredericksburg decided to take over the Chatham Bridge, previously a toll bridge, and make it free. Thus, Stafford assumed financial responsibility for the Falmouth Bridge and Fredericksburg for the one at Chatham.
Shortly after purchasing Ficklen’s bridge, the commissioners decided to build a new one anyway. The newspaper reported, “The bridge promises to be a magnificent structure when completed. It will stand for ages as a monument of the wisdom of its friends, and a rebuke to its enemies, past and present…’Rah for the free bridge, for Stafford, her people, her old hares, herrings, persimmons, and her Republicans. We will also include her Democrats, with one or two exceptions.”
Just 29 months after this was written, a flood swept away the entire structure. It was rebuilt in 1893, but lasted only until 1918 when ice floes carried off panels from both ends. A middle section was all that remained standing. Stafford County sold bonds to raise money to rebuild.
In April 1922 the Virginia State Highway Commissioner brought suit to have the Falmouth Bridge condemned so it could be added to the new state road system. The Richmond to Washington Highway was then under construction and the Falmouth Bridge was to be included. The purpose of the suit was to determine the damages due those who still retained a financial interest in the bridge. It was at this point that the Thornton annuity ceased and the Ficklen family was paid off.
The bridge was severely damaged by flooding in 1937. For several years a narrow swinging footbridge connected the Falmouth side of the river with what remained of the bridge. Many Falmouth residents worked in Fredericksburg and having a means of crossing the river was a necessity. The only other option was to walk down River Road and use the Chatham Bridge.
Construction of a new bridge finally commenced in 1942. In November of that year one of the worst floods of the river’s recorded history sent water over the top of the deck of what remained of the previous bridge and effortlessly twisted the steel superstructure. At that point, all that had been completed of the new bridge was the pouring of the concrete piers. The flood waters actually submerged these and, after the water subsided and work resumed on the new bridge, engineers added another five feet of concrete to the tops of the piers to provide extra height. These may be viewed from beneath the current bridge. Raising the height of the bridge deck required realigning and raising Route 1 as it approached the bridge, thus accounting for the present configuration.
Back in 2014 I wrote about all the images in our collection that pictured Gari Melchers and the artists who created them. The identity of one in particular, who sketched a funny caricature of a dapper Gari Melchers, remained elusive until today, when I stumbled on a clue in the archives of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, a fair organized to commemorate Christopher Columbus’ landfall in the New World, and to showcase the technological, cultural and artistic prowess of the nation, brought together scores of artists, sculptors, architects and decorators in the planning of the site and exhibitions. Somewhere in the process of their work, a small group of artists decided to amuse themselves by drawing caricatures of several committee members.
Two caricatures (pictured here) of Gari Melchers, who served on the selection committee
of the American Art display, and whose murals decorated one of the exhibition halls, were produced by the American artists Robert Reid and Edward Simmons. Melchers is recognizable in these caricatures, drawings today contained in the Art Institute’s Daniel H. Burnham Collection of Papers. (Burnham was the architect of the Beau-Arts style fair buildings.)
Also contained in that collection is Burnham’s numbered list of the principal caricaturists and their subjects.
Number 53 lists a third rendition of Melchers, by Charles Yardley Turner, but that example is not in the Burnham Collection because Melchers himself walked away with the caricature. It resides today at Belmont, its creator now identified, thanks to the annotation “53” in the upper left corner.
The stone used to build the studio, summer house, and stone garage, as well as those that make our paths and garden walls, have recently been identified as being rich with dinosaur footprints. Dr. Robert Weems, research geologist for the United States Geological Survey (retired) found the deposits while visiting Belmont with his wife and guests. I was thrilled to learn about this discovery as it adds another layer of significance to our already history-rich site.
The dinosaur footprints and how they came to Belmont is an interesting story in and of itself. Gari Melchers purchased stones from several sources. However, much of the sandstone came from a mansion called Mannsfield located about two miles south of Fredericksburg on Tidewater Trail.
A Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) documents archaeological and historic research undertaken in 1936. Mannsfield was built in 1776 by Mann Page as a gift to his wife Mary Tayloe of Mount Airy in Richmond County, Virginia. According to tradition, he promised her this as an inducement to accept his marriage proposal. It would be, he said, a home even better than the one where she reared.
An army correspondent of the “New York Times” describes the house and its fate in an article written, May 9, 1863:
“The owner of this estate, H. I. Bernard, is a wealthy Secessionist, middle-aged, bachelor. Not long after General Franklin’s force had crossed, he was detected endeavoring to steal into our lines, and believing that he had been conveying information to the enemy, General Franklin ordered him into durance vile, where he has remained ever since. His lordly Mansion, built after the English style of architecture, was furnished with everything that wealth could furnish. Damask curtains, Brussels carpets, marble center tables, elegant mirrors and chandeliers adorned the various apartments. There were rare paintings from the Italian masters suspended on the walls; and numerous libraries ware found in various parts of the buildings. This home and all these adornments are now gone; and their owner is a prisoner in our hands.”
The house burned during the civil war, and the stone ruins were sold to various people in the early twentieth century.
National Park Service historian John Hennessy prepared an excellent blog post about the subject in 2010. You can read this at: https://npsfrsp.wordpress.com/2010/12/03/digging-mannsfield/
Research from 1963 concluded that some of the stone decorative elements at Belmont came from this site. The report, images, and drawings are all available at the Library of Congress web site. Click on this link to see information gathered by HABS.
The HABS article mentions that that it was ”reported by local amateur historians that this stone was quarried from a now deserted quarry close by on the Rappahannock,” but at the time this notion was dismissed. Robert Weems, our speaker for the Sunday March 13 program and John Bachman, amateur paleontologist, discovered an outcropping of sandstone rich in dinosaur footprints just downstream from the Mannsfield location in 2010. This area showed evidence of quarrying, lending credence to what the amateur historians mentioned in the 1936 report. I had a chance to visit the Mannsfield site recently and discovered quarried sandstone identical to that found in our buildings, leading me to believe that both the decorative elements and the building stone came from the mansion.
Be sure to examine our beautiful stone work during your next visit to Belmont – who knows what you might discover?
by Bernard K. Means Friday, February 26, 2016 found me at the Gari Melchers Home & Studio at Belmont located in Fredericksburg, Virginia, accompanied by Laura Galke, who brought her photographi…
Since being featured in the “30 cool sites to visit within 100 miles of Richmond, Va” article the phones here at Belmont have been ringing off the hook. Thanks Richmond Times-Dispatch!
Anecdotal evidence has long suggested that Belmont’s studio and lower pasture gates originated from the grand 1834 house “Smithsonia,” located at the corner of Charles and Amelia streets in downtown Fredericksburg, Virginia. According to a 2010 Virginia Living magazine article about Smithsonia,
The home was built in 1834 on what is the original site of the Presbyterian Church of Fredericksburg. The church was founded in 1808, when there were only two Presbyterians in town; by 1832, the congregation had outgrown its original home on the Amelia Street site, where Smithsonia now stands, and moved to a new sanctuary at the corner of George and Princess Anne streets, the site of the present Presbyterian Church.
The Presbyterian Church, at its second location, also has a double gate and fencing identical to Belmont’s that most certainly came from Smithsonia.
I hoped a historic photograph of Smithsonia with its original iron work would put the issue to rest. Following up on several leads, I located two images of the grand structure with her original gates and fence intact. Indeed, they are an exact match to the iron work at both Belmont and the Presbyterian Church.
Perhaps Smithsonia’s original iron work was removed in 1916 when William E. Lang purchased the building and converted it into a private residence.
Local legend has it that Gari and Corinne Melchers purchased their gates and fence portions from a local scrap yard. The Presbyterian Church most likely ended up with its fencing and gates owing to its ties to the site.
If the above time frame is correct, the wrought iron gates and fencing sections were likely purchased by the Melchers before the studio was built in 1924. Furthermore, the gate fits perfectly into the studio doorway, and the stone border begins its graceful arch exactly at the top of the iron gate.