Sophia Street–historic change and a look back

From John Hennessy:

The 700 block of Sophia Street today--the site of the new Riverside Park. Shiloh Old Site is in the distance.

Every town has such a street or neighborhood—the place where all else that doesn’t seem quite to fit resides, the place where constant change is the rule, and constancy seems elusive. Fredericksburg’s Sophia Street—especially below the Chatham Bridge—is such a place.  Known for decades as Water Street, its status as Fredericksburg’s “utility room” is rooted in its nearness to the river, which every few years rises to submerge sections of the street, rendering all in its path dubious, if not ruined.  The regular ebb and flow of water—along with every town’s need for utility space—rendered Sophia/Water Street what it was: a slightly awkward, sporadic mix of open space, modest houses and (below the bridge) tenements, with a sprinkling of warehouses, outhouses, an icehouse, and even a jail thrown in.  At its southern terminus sat the town docks.

Today the 500-900 blocks of Sophia Street are undergoing a historic change, as the city seeks to reconnect to the Rappahananock River waterfront. Below Chatham Bridge over the last six seven decades, buildings have come down periodically–some to make way for more parking, and more recently for a riverside park.  Parking areas now back up to the businesses on Caroline Street, rendering the west side of Sophia slightly disarranged. The changes going on now have the feel of permanence about them, which inspires a look backward. (Bear in mind that the most recent improvements on Sophia–the construction of Riverside Park–have not claimed buildings of historic import. The lost buildings discussed below were taken down more than a half-century ago).

The former sites of buildings on the east (river) side of Sophia Street.

By far the most prominent building on mid-Sophia Street was the original Fredericksburg Baptist Church.  When the white Baptists moved to the bigger, present present site on Princess Anne Street, they sold the original church to its African-American members.  The African Baptist Church became, after emancipation, Shiloh Baptist Church, and the congregation still exists on that site.

Sitting somewhat awkwardly next to the church was the community ice house, clearly visible in wartime images.

The African Baptist Church, and next to it the ground-level roof of the community ice house, owned in 1862 by A.P. Rowe.

Below the icehouse was a mix of tenements and single-family homes, steadily demolished over the years, mostly to make way for new parking in the 20th century. These sorts of working class houses have become increasingly rare in Fredericksburg (we’ll point out a few survivors in future posts).

719 Sophia Street, just below the African Baptist Church

The site of 719 today.


The site of 719 Sophia Street today. That's Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) in the background--the successor structure to the original. The community ice house stood just this side of the white bus.

The tenements that once stood at 517-519 Sophia Street, owned by local painter Robert G. Layton. These buildings stood in what is today the parking lot for Brock's Grill.

The A.P. Rowe house was perhaps the most prominent of the buildings on the mid-section of Sophia Street. It stood well into the 20th century.

The wartime home of Absalom Rowe, cattleman and future mayor, in the 600 block of Sophia.

Along the length of Sophia Street are just nine buildings that pre-date the Civil War.  The Eubank house, below, is perhaps the most interesting of them. The wartime home of Eliza Eubank might well be the oldest building in Fredericksburg, dating to about 1750. It’s clearly seen in this panoramic view, and today possesses what is perhaps the worst aluminum siding anywhere in Fredericksburg. But, the good news is that it’s slated for extensive restoration and recently has been the subject of intense investigation by Kerri Barile at Dovetail Cultural Resources Group.

Eubank house to left, A.P. Rowe house to right

The Eliza Eubank house today, with its distinctive siding--soon to be undone.

Above the church two buildings survive: the “Silversmith House” on the east side, and the Wells house on the west side. The Silversmith House very nearly succumbed to the 1950s mania for parking, but it turned out to be one of Historic Fredericksburg Foundation’s first preservation victories.  Not so lucky were  several buildings that stood in what is today the main Sophia Street parking lot, at the foot of George Street.  Among these was the Mills house–home to Retta Mills Merchant, who would marry Rufus Merchant, perhaps Fredericksburg’s most important newspaperman. A picture of the house was published the regimental history of a Union unit; the author recorded on the picture where a shell went through the wall of the house, nearly killing the Pennsylvanians inside. That’s Retta Mills Merchant on the front step.

The Mills house, which stood on Sophia near the terminus of George--in what is today the main parking lot on Sophia Street, almost directly across the street from the intact Wells house.

Above Chatham Bridge, where flooding was no problem, Sophia Street has had a more settled existence. The river side of the street was historically dotted with a few small industries and homes. The town side has for two centuries been a solid residential neighborhood, albeit a modest one.  This section of Sophia Street was badly damaged during the Union bombardment of December 11, 1862.  Only a single pre-war building survives today.  (For a thorough analysis of this part of town in the aftermath of battle, see this post over at Mysteries and Conundrums.)

8 thoughts on “Sophia Street–historic change and a look back

  1. Great post on a very neglected area of town, John! Dendrochronology has the summer beam and other framing members for 523 Sophia Street cut in 1744 and 1745, thus they project a construction date of 1746. We’re hoping work on the building will start in the next few months. I’m sure all of us in town will terribly miss the green aluminum siding…..

  2. John,
    Always great material. Interesting view of the Mills house. Thank you for posting.
    As an aside, I am hopeful you might have some information on an ice ice on the north side of the Shiloh Church (Old Site). It would have been in the lot marked “tenant of Goolrick” on your base map. When a post Civil War house was removed from there several years back, there was a great deal of late 18th century debris mixed in an old fill under it. The oldest Sanborn maps at History Point indicate an ice house there in the late 19th century. Judging by the age of the glass and ceramics found in the fill I am curious about the history of the lot, prior to the Civil War. I imagine pretty much any residential structure used to have their own ice house to store what they acquired from the “community ice house”. Your base map also has the name Forneyhough associated with the south side, larger ice house. Who was he?
    Again, very appreciative of your extensive research.

    • John: I am afraid I can’t illuminate the ice house that stood on the Goolrick-owned lot north of the African Baptist Church. But, of course, you are right that many, many homes in Fredericksburg had their own ice houses.

      As for John Ferneyhough, he owned the home known as Sligo, which stood just south of Fredericksburg–next to today’s Dixon Park. He is listed in the 1860 land tax records as owner of the icehouse (the 1860 tax was my baseline for identifying structures and sites on the base map), and in fact he had owned it since the 1830s. But he died in August of that year and the site was acquired by A.P. Rowe. Beyond his involvement in the ice house–which required Yankee ice for filling most years, though occasionally the Rappahannock would produce enough ice to fill it (in 1857, Ferneyhough’s men cut 17 inches of ice off the river, and amount not seen hereabouts in recent memory)–Ferneyhough built coaches and dabble in shoes. John Hennessy

  3. Thank you so much for this blog and all of Fredericksburg Remembered. I am a historian and also avid genealogist and last summer my family came through Fredericksburg to walk the battlefield and do some poking around in my husband’s family..the Stearns/Merchant/Mills/Gilham families. What a surprise to me to discover this blog and find a photograph of my husbands 2nd great grandmother outside her family home (Mills house)! I began to read through the other blogs, first only to see if I could find other names, but as I read I realized that you have put together a high quality source for understanding important historical periods through the lens of a single town…I’m already thinking about how to incorporate the ‘lost cause’ letter into my lesson on reconstruction to my college students! Your passion, quality of research and presentation are greatly appreciated by this teacher and genealogist!

    • Eileen. Many, many thanks for your kind comments. We do both this blog and Mysteries and Conundrums in the hopes they’ll make a difference, and we’re more than gratified when they turn out to be useful to others. Thanks for letting us know.

      One of your kin has commented here in the past–Mary Katherine Greenlaw, who is on city council and a granddaughter of Rufus Merchant (Retta Mills’s husband). Perhaps you know each other?

      • Thank you for letting me know about Ms. Greenlaw…I had no idea about any of our living relatives – we all live out here in California and my mother-in-law, who is a great-granddaughter of Rufus and Retta Merchant, lost contact with the Virginia side of the family after her mother’s death.

        Would you know a way for me to get into contact with Ms. Greenlaw? It would be so wonderful to make this connection! Please feel free to give her my name and email (Eileen Kerr,!

        I continue to enjoy the blog – I now have a quite long list of books to read from the articles I’ve been reading!

        Eileen Kerr

  4. Wonderful article about Fredericksburg! Thank you for putting so much historical research I to this story. I am always learning more and more of my adopted hometown, even after 30 years living here. Thank you!

  5. Fascinating information here! The modern map with earlier structures was especially interesting. I’m wondering if there is a similar map for the 300 block of Sophia Street. My great-great-great grandfather, John Staylor (1790-1862) owned that property from the 1820s to 1840s. It was later purchased by my great-great-grandfather, William H. Courtney (1814-1842).
    Staylor was a butcher. William Courtney was his apprentice and (later) his son-in-law and business partner. Both families left Fredericksburg before the Civil War.
    I’m thinking there may have been a slaughter house (like the Rowe structure) and livestock corral (similar to one shown in photograph of Rowe property) on one of the Staylor lots. I imagine their one-story brick house was destroying during the Civil War. Would love to know more….

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