By Phil James
Were it not for our nation’s network of functional roadways and bridges, our lives would differ from our ancestors much less than we might imagine. From bridges built to carry one person on foot, to heftier structures allowing passage by horse or automobile, to awe-inspiring spans that support mile-long, fully-loaded freight trains, Americans have constructed bridges from any number of available resources to get them where they were going. Here are three stories that describe our not-too-distant past:
Bettie Via Gochenour grew up during the 1880s and ’90s at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in western Albemarle County. She shared memories of her life in the active community of Sugar Hollow, surrounded by extended family and trusted neighbors.
“Mother was quite a pessimist,” Bettie wrote. “She could always see something to worry about. Father would say, ‘Don’t cross the bridge till you get there.’ Mother crossed lots of bridges she never got to. There was one bridge she fell off that was a real bridge. She loved to fish, and she and Mrs. [John] Wood were fishing one day when the river was up. Mother started across the [footbridge] to come home and got halfway when Mrs. Wood hollered that she had caught a fish. Mother turned around and fell in the river.
“Georgie Wood, a little girl, jumped in and kept her head up until help came. Someone ran to the house for help. A young man by the name of Lynn Chism was there, and they say he didn’t take time to open the yard gate. He went over the top. He and Georgie got Mother out. What a narrow escape, for Mother couldn’t swim and she weighed about 200 lbs. Georgie said that she never touched the bottom of the river. Father said that Georgie reminded him of a wasp because she had such a small waist. We lived just opposite the Woods’, with the river between us.”
Rev. D.G.C. “Alphabet” Butts was appointed to the Albemarle Circuit in 1895. His seven Methodist churches in the western end of the county required dozens of miles of rugged travel by horseback, and more to reach the homes of his charges. He rightly knew the value of a well-placed bridge and the inherent perils of navigating low and high water fords. In his memoir From Saddle to City by Buggy, Boat and Railway, he recollected fifty years of experiences in the Virginia Conference.
He wrote, “Up in the very heart of the Blue Ridge in Sugar Hollow, near the head of Moormans River, lived Oscar Early. He could entertain by the hour with miraculous stories of mountain adventure… of the rushing floods that swept down the Hollow, and cut him and his devoted wife and adopted daughter off from civilization for weeks at a time. Oscar Early was my friend and brother. To get the full value of such a trip, one should leave the parsonage, in summer of course, after an early breakfast, strike out up the banks of Moormans River, crossing that stream 23 times in the ten miles to Mr. Early’s home. See that you let him know that you are coming, and do your utmost to arrive there in time for a bountiful dinner.”
The storied high bridge used by trains to cross the Mechums River in western Albemarle County was the scene of one of the most dramatic events this region has ever witnessed. Completed in 1852, this bridge complemented another placed across the South River in Waynesboro. The two bridges joined the Commonwealth’s 18-mile-long Blue Ridge Railroad with the Virginia Central Railroad’s dream of connecting eastern Virginia with the waters of the Ohio River.
The original wooden high bridge across the Mechums was a spectacle to behold. Roughly 75 feet tall and 300 feet long from bank to bank, its stick-constructed trestles may have mirrored those of its much larger and more historic High Bridge counterpart across the Appomattox River, downstream from the town of Farmville. The two bridge projects were completed the same year.
During the waning days of America’s un-Civil War, a division of Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s Union forces, led by Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer, defeated Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s forces at Waynesboro on 2 March 1865. Having captured most of Early’s forces, armaments and supplies, Custer’s troops pursued a remnant of fleeing Confederate cavalry through Rockfish Gap.
Word of that impending battle had already reached Greenwood, on the eastern mountain slope in Albemarle County. Railroad men and Confederate soldiers had hastily loaded three train cars with commissary supplies stored there in a siding depot. Just as Union cavalry swarmed into the station area, the train began slowly to pull away amid the dangerous confusion and gunfire.
The Virginia Central steam engine “Albemarle” pushed three cars and pulled four others as it slipped away downgrade toward Mechums River. Eight miles later, the train engineer and his remaining crew of two—a frightened, inexperienced brakeman and an assistant depot agent who had managed to escape the fray—carefully drifted across Mechums River’s wooden trestle bridge.
Passing safely over, their relief was short-lived as they started up the hill toward Ivy. The little engine that had weathered enemy bullets not many minutes earlier now struggled for traction on the uphill grade. Its traction sand depleted, the crew frantically dug dirt from the trackside, tossing it onto the rails beneath the drivers in hopes they could get their train over the hump and on to Charlottesville and Richmond.
Their efforts were in vain as the drive wheels refused to bite on the incline, and a painful decision was made to detach the last two loaded supply cars and leave them parked on the grade. They successfully pulled away with their lighter load and finally made it into Charlottesville, a town greatly on edge from reports of approaching enemy troops.
The next morning, Friday March 3, Federal cavalry came upon the two loaded supply cars abandoned on the track. Releasing the wheel brake, they rolled the cars back downgrade and onto the fated trestle. After dowsing the cars and bridge with oil, the cavalry set them afire and then guarded the conflagration while their spoils and the structure were consumed and dropped, flaming and steaming, into the muddy river below.
No better way existed to impede the movements of one’s enemy than to destroy his bridges. The tactic was employed equally well by both sides. When Custer and his troops arrived in Charlottesville later that day, civic leaders met them outside the town under a white flag of surrender. The town and university were spared. Meanwhile, the good people of Mechums River and points west stared with disbelief at the still-smoldering destruction left in the enemy’s wake.
Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2015 Phil James