Falmouth Bridge circa 1910

Falmouth Bridge

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

Falmouth Bridge circa 1910

Falmouth Bridge circa 1910

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.

Flyer posted to collect tolls for owner Joseph. B. Ficklen

Flyer posted to collect tolls for owner Joseph. B. Ficklen

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.

Falmouth Bridge, 1916, damaged by ice floes

Falmouth Bridge, 1916, damaged by ice floes

Temporary Falmouth Bridge, circa 1918. This image was taken from the Fredericksburg side of the river but a similar swinging bridge was built on the Falmouth side, as well, because an ice dam had carried off both ends and left only the middle section.

Temporary Falmouth Bridge, circa 1918. This image was taken from the Fredericksburg side of the river but a similar swinging bridge was built on the Falmouth side, as well, because an ice dam had carried off both ends and left only the middle section.

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.

MWC president Prince Woodard giving remarks at Belmont opening day Oct. 19 1975 Director Dick Reid sitting

Forty Years on the Hill

MWC president Prince Woodard giving remarks at Belmont on opening day Oct. 19 1975. Director Dick Reid is sitting.

MWC president Prince Woodard giving remarks at Belmont’s opening day on Oct. 19, 1975. Director Dick Reid is sitting.

On October 19, 1975, Mary Washington College President Prince Woodard presided over the public opening of the Gari Melchers Memorial Gallery, making the artist’s Belmont home and painting studio available to the public on a regular schedule for the first time.

The opening of the museum took over twenty years to accomplish, in the face of numerous governance decisions by the Virginia General Assembly, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the University of Virginia and finally Mary Washington College, all of which had involvement in the winding road of acceptance and implementation of Corinne Melchers’ wishes as outlined in her 1942 gift to the Commonwealth, which was effective at her death in 1955.

Gari and Corinne Melchers purchased Belmont in 1916, finding a pleasant country retreat similar to what they had enjoyed for many years in Egmond, Holland, where Gari was able to concentrate on his work away from the distractions of Paris, where his professional life was centered. After leaving Europe during the turmoil of the war years, Gari established a studio in New York City, but again longed for a rural retreat that he found at Belmont.

During his sixteen years in Virginia, Gari Melchers involved himself in the cultural life of his adopted state, eventually being named chair of the Virginia Arts Commission in 1932. From that post he oversaw the refurbishment of the state capitol building decorations and statuary, and began the development of what was to become the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. After his death later that year, Corinne was appointed to his position on the commission and became one of the founding trustees of the VMFA when it opened in 1935. She had developed a close relationship with Thomas Colt, the museum’s first curator and director, and spurred by a VMFA memorial exhibition of Gari’s work in 1938, by 1942 had worked out a plan to deed Belmont and its collections to the museum at her death.

By the time of Corinne’s passing in 1955, and the subsequent transfer of the property and art collections to the Commonwealth, the administration of the VMFA and the reputation of Gari Melchers in art circles had changed considerably. No longer was Melchers considered an important American artist, and his Falmouth home had become run down and in need of major repairs. The VMFA board almost immediately sought to be relieved of the burden of supporting what they saw as a white elephant fifty miles from Richmond. Fredericksburg’s Mary Washington College, then part of the University of Virginia, was approached and accepted the responsibility for overseeing the site, but could not provide funding for either staff or major improvements that would allow public use. It was not until 1975, under a new college administration that was committed to opening the site as a public museum, that Corinne’s wishes were finally carried out.

Since that autumn day forty years ago, the museum now known as Gari Melchers Home and Studio has kept alive Mrs. Melchers’ goal of preserving and celebrating the now revived artistic legacy of her accomplished husband, and providing a public setting in which to enjoy his art and the historic locale that they so lovingly maintained.

In the early years under Belmont’s first director, Richard Reid, only the first floor of the house and the studio were open a few days a week, staffed by volunteers. In 1984, under the guidance of Reid, an important illustrated reference book, Gari Melchers: His Works in the Belmont Collection, was published by MWC professor Joseph Dreiss. By the mid-1980s hours had expanded to seven days a week, and Reid’s successor Peter Grover leveraged state and private funds to restore the original house and modernize the utilities to both preserve the collections and increase the comfort of visitors. It was at this time that a major retrospective exhibition of Gari Melchers’ best work traveled the country, reviving public and critical interest in his place in American painting.

In the early 90s, under current director David Berreth, the formal gardens were restored with the help of the Garden Club of Virginia, which has continued to support the restoration of the estate’s landscape based on the voluminous photographs and records saved by Mrs. Melchers. In 1995 a former garage was converted into a visitor center and museum shop to welcome guests and increase revenues. The building now also serves as the official Stafford County Visitor Center, promoting regional tourism and the study of local history.

By 2001 the original studio building was fully restored to provide a safe, climate controlled facility in which to house a rotating display over 500 works by Gari Melchers. This thoroughly professional venue allows the museum to borrow major works and exhibitions from other museums around the country. And in 2006 a new public event pavilion and collection storage facility was completed, allowing the museum to host a wide variety of public educational programs, concerts, and workshops, along with private events like wedding receptions and business retreats. All of this work was accomplished through combinations of private and state funding, which demonstrated the depth of support from the now University of Mary Washington, and a cadre of local donors and private foundations focused on historic preservation.

Today, Gari Melchers Home and Studio hosts visitors from every corner of the world, and is a regular stop for local residents and regional guests. Corinne Melchers’ dream has been realized, and we celebrate her vision and dedication to art and its ability to endure and inspire, as it has for over forty years on the hill overlooking Falmouth.


Who was Gari Melchers

Who was Gari Melchers?

Listen to Belmont Curator Joanna Catron explain why the modern art world has seemingly forgotten Gari Melchers in a talk she gave at the Bellarmine Museum in Fairfield, Connecticut in conjunction with the the exhibition, “Gari Melchers: An American Impressionist at Home and Abroad.  Catron claims its his own doing.

Looming Yankees: The Union Army Hovers Opposite Fredericksburg–Some Images and Incidents.

Belmont was constructed in the 1790s, nearly 126 years prior to the Melchers’ purchasing the Falmouth property in 1916. This is an excellent blog post written by National Park Service Historian John Hennessy that describes the devastation that took place in Falmouth during the Civil War. Many of the structures included in the image titled “Falmouth looking NW, 1862,” are still extant, including Union Church, the Conway House, and Belmont.

Mysteries & Conundrums

From John Hennessy:

After their rebuke at the Battle of Arby’s, the Union army recoiled long enough along the Warrenton Road for the Confederates in Falmouth to both prepare to leave and to burn the bridges in their wake. Soon after dawn, as the Union columns swept down the hill into Falmouth, the Confederates put their plan into action. The Falmouth Bridge went up in flames, as did the Chatham Bridge and the R,F&P bridge farther down. Fredericksburg had never seen such a day.  Some white residents scattered, fearful of the looming Yankees. Some slaves rejoiced at the Yankees’ coming. And a few people ventured out to watch, including diarist Betty Herndon Maury, who left a vivid description of the destruction that day.

I went down to the river, and shall never forget the scene there.  Above were our three bridges, all in a bright blaze from one end…

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Fannie Roots House

The Fannie Roots house holds many stories, and Belmont staff and volunteers have been working quietly for many years to be able to share the tales this house represents. The house is named after Fannie Roots, the last person to live in the house. You might remember her dressed in her sun hat, leaning on her cane, tending her flowers or waving at those who passed by. The house, like Fannie Roots herself, has a rich and complex history.

Fannie Roots was a highly respected Stafford County citizen who was very active in local government, making a point of attending most Board of Supervisors meetings. She was honored at age 85 by the Stafford County Citizens’ Alliance, whose tax-fighting ways she supported. She was also very active in the Civil Rights movement during the 1960’s. Both Fannie Roots and her father worked intermittently in various positions at Belmont, and their home is a stark reminder that most people did not live in the luxury and comfort known by Gari and Corinne Melchers. She was a fiercely independent soul who managed to live on her own, with no indoor plumbing and only a wood stove for heat and cooking her entire life in the white house with the blue trim at the corner of Route 17 and Washington Street, adjoining Belmont.

She was born January 1st 1914, and died January 22nd 2004, meaning she spent 90 years watching Falmouth change from a busy little town to a small historic district overshadowed by big roads with lots of traffic zipping by. Falmouth is blessed with many interesting buildings, industrial ruins and other remnants of early Stafford County history, but visitors have to look hard to find them. The trail that goes through the woods at Belmont down to the Rappahannock River documents some of the cultural resources that remain, but there are many more pieces of Falmouth history that need to be brought to light.

The house she lived in was built after the Civil War, and Stafford family names such as Fritter, Hewitt and Payne are associated with its early history. My research dates the house to ca. 1880, and the builder used salvaged materials for sills and studs; ruins perhaps from the destruction of the recent war. The original house encompasses the gable roofed section with a shed roof kitchen and porch on the back. The building materials may have been salvaged from other structures, but it was well made, using traditional building techniques such as pegged sills and post in ground construction.


Detail of original post in ground construction

In 1885, George W. Payne, a plasterer, purchased the home and made improvements which included adding a room to the north and putting up fine plaster walls in the downstairs rooms. Fannie Roots’ father, Willie Roots, purchased the house in 1912. Mr. Roots and his wife Lettie Nelson Roots eventually had six children, necessitating the addition of another bedroom and the expansion of the kitchen. The upstairs room was never finished, and Fannie Roots told me in an interview in 2001 that the attic served as a very rustic sleeping space that was hot in the summer and cold in the winter.

Over time, electricity for lights and television were added, as well as a telephone. The house was never hooked up to a water and sewer system however, and Fannie Roots relied on her well and outhouse for those essentials. Layers of newspaper were used for insulation on both walls and floors throughout the house, and we have kept as much of the original material we possibly could to help interpret the conditions that existed before Belmont took ownership in 2008.

Fannie Roots House 2008

The house as it looked in spring of 2008.

The house was in terrible shape when we first entered the property; the roof and chimney had collapsed in the kitchen, sills had rotted out, and windows were broken; it was a rather daunting task to try and repair the place. We have worked slowly over the years with the help of volunteers and private donations. Dave Ludeker, our grounds maintenance manager, has been the main person on this job, making sure all repairs adhere to preservation standards, and engineering the detailed puzzle of putting the house back together again.

Siding is going up

Dave Ludeker putting up siding.


Lars Mohs working on sistering in old studs to new sill.

Despite setbacks, such as a car driving through the gate and fence, and crashing through the north wall, we have been making improvements. Most of the structural work is now done, and I am very pleased to announce that we have received grants from the Duff McDuff Green Fund and the Fredericksburg Savings Charitable Foundation to repair the roof, so watch this spring as further improvements are made.

truck crash

Truck crashing through the wall was a “minor” set-back!

Fannie Roots garden, and the paint scheme of the house tell a story as well. The simple wire hoop fence with white posts and stones, and the white gate with an old-fashioned rose is a wonderful example of African-American garden traditions. The vivid blue paint, traditionally called “haint blue” is another example of African American cultural expression. A “haint” is a spirit or a ghost, and the blue paint was thought to prevent them from entering the doors and windows.

New fence and gates were installed this winter, and are ready for paint this spring. The new roof will be added in the spring as well.

The Roots House is a great opportunity to learn about the history of the people who lived in the cottage and it represents a rare example of how the majority of Stafford County citizens lived after the Civil War up through the early twentieth century. This type of housing does not usually survive, as most were torn down as soon as the owner’s economy allowed. It is very important that this cottage is saved for the future as a place where people can see how the working class of that period lived; the house is a vivid reminder that much has changed in the last century and a half.

We hope to have an open house this fall to share the stories this building tells, – the story of ordinary people, – the tradesmen, workers, and women who represent the people who made Falmouth their home. Stay tuned for more information as we continue the work to preserve the building for the future.

Monetary support for the project is still needed, to contribute contact David Berreth 540-654-1840, dberreth@umw.edu, or Beate Ankjaer-Jensen, 540-654-1839, bjensen@umw.edu.