Some tidbits on Alum Springs

Veterans at Alum Springs

Today it is a park–“Alum Springs,” along Hazel Run just west of the Blue-Gray Parkway. I daresay not many people give much thought to how it came to be or what it was, but in fact Alum Springs has a fairly complex history. Beyond the springs themselves–in the upper end of the park and once productive of waters believed to be curative–Alum Springs was the site of one of Fredericksburg’s few upland mills, the scene of at least two duels, and by legend a refuge for refugees during the Battle of Fredericksburg.

By far the best source on historic Alum Springs is Robert Reid Howison, who became a notable historian of both Fredericksburg and Virginia in the 19th Century. Howison was a lawyer, the brother of Jane Howison Beale, and after the Civil War the owner of Braehead along what is today North Lee Drive. His article “Dueling in Virginia,” [William and Mary Quarterly, October 1924.(Vol. IV, No. 4), pp. 217-218] includes a good deal of background about Alum Springs.  After this excerpt I have posted a number of images of the area today.

…It became a common source of enjoyment to the ladies and more refined men of the town to make up walking parties, and, in the temperate and delicious afternoons of the autumn season to walk out of the town, generally to the spot known as “Alum Springs Rock,” about two miles from the Court House in Fredericksburg. A mill site and dam for the old “Drummond’s Mill” then existed and a lake of pure water of the “Hazel Run” was just in front of “Alum Springs Rock.” In the freezes during he winter seasons this lake was frequented by many skaters. It furnished also the very hardest and best ice, which was eagerly gathered into ice-houses, private and public, in Fredericksburg, and was advertised as “Alum Spring ice,” and highly appreciated. Continue reading

Down the Potomac to Aquia and Stafford County: Unique Glimpses of Antebellum Life on the River

from: Harrison

The ship-to-shore fighting at Aquia Landing in late May and early June 1861 noisily raised the curtain on a new genre of literature featuring that place and other locales in the Fredericksubrg area: accounts of life within and between two contending militaries.

These wartime diaries, letters, and reports, and the postwar reminiscences that followed, overshadowed a subtler but still intriguing genre focusing on prewar life, which itself had not lacked for contention and conflict.

At one place in particular, antebellum life acquired a scenic, contemplative backdrop as it flowed along one of the the busiest corridors in Virginia:  the railroad that opened from Richmond to Fredericksburg in 1837, and in 1842 from Fredericksburg to Aquia Landing. When northbound passengers reached the railroad terminus at Aquia and transferred to steamboats for the next stage of their journey, to Washington and railroad connections to points beyond, they made a sudden transition from confining, monotonous views of scrubby woodlands bordering the tracks to broad vistas of the Potomac River. Since the eighteen-teens, Potomac steamboats had been carrying passengers to and from Alexandria, Washington, and various landings in the Fredericksburg area.

While my knowledge of the literature on antebellum Potomac life is not sufficient for me to nominate its ideal eyewitness writer, I am able to recommend, highly, at least one eyewitness illustrator. On a June day in 1853, a British artist and curator named George Wallis voyaged from Washington down the Potomac to Aquia Landing, where he would board a train that carried him through Fredericksburg to Richmond. Wallis was in the midst of what ultimately became a 5,000-mile tour, tasked by his government with evaluating American art and manufactures.

Thanks to the generosity of a descendant, part of Wallis’ portfolio today resides at the Library of Congress.

In the course his journey down the Potomac, on June 26, 1853, Wallis sketched a steamboat:

blog Wallis a 2 final
Continue reading

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. Continue reading