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Richmond's Rib-Rattling Roadways
By Meredith Baker
Posted: 2021-03-11T23:06:00Z

Richmond's Rib-Rattling Roadways


In Samuel Mordecai's breezy tour of early 19th century Richmond, he painted pictures of the city's quirky personalities, favorite pastimes, atypical architecture… and shocking streets. Richmond’s roadways were unpaved, potholed, pitted, and perilous. Here's Mordecai:


“Main street was not a smooth road to travel either on horseback or on foot. No portion of the carriage-way was paved, and the sidewalks only here and there, and with ups and downs. The dealers who wished to entice the ladies to their shops (stores, I beg pardon,) would present a paved entrance; those who sought rougher customers offered a rough reception, over gravel or cobble stone. Dust in summer was insufferable, and in winter the mud would be ankle deep, and in some places "up to the hub." By way of making crossings, a narrow mound of ashes and cinders would be raised across the street, and wo to him or her who, on a dark night, deviated from the right path.”

Richmond, from the hill above the waterworks. New York: Published by Lewis P. Clover, c. 1834., public domain, Library of Congress

Historian Virginius Dabney noted that main roads in the capital remained unpaved through the Civil War, and pedestrians had to keep an eye out for the vast potholes, "deep enough to receive a hogshead of tobacco!" Why were the roads so astoundingly terrible? There are two likely reasons.

First, little attention was paid to improving road transportation because the gleaming vision of the future was (fanfare, please) canal travel.  Waterways were the planned transportation thoroughfares of the Commonwealth.  In fact, in 1812, John Marshall supported an expedition to further survey Virginia and decide how to extend the James and other rivers well into the West.  The vast network of canals would--they hoped--connect the James and Potomac to the Ohio River.  However, train advances made canals irrelevant in subsequent decades.  The modern traveler can still uncover remnants of those old canals in places like Shockhoe Bottom.  (Virginia Canals & Navigations Society offers resources for interested canal detectives, as does Virginia Places!)


The ruins of a Richmond Canal, James River & Kanawha Canal, Locks 1-5, Tenth to Thirteenth Streets, north of Canal Street, Richmond, Richmond (Independent City), VA, 1968, public domain, Library of Congress.


One visitor joked about the highways and byways in the Commonwealth. “With the exception of the roads between the principal cities, or immediately adjacent, any thoroughfare might, without a pun, have been termed thorough-foul. This was owing to so much of the communication being carried on by water.” He added,  “A mile’s ride was about the most powerful experiment on one’s anatomy a man could desire.” Visitors arrived in Richmond usually via stagecoaches or ships, and by 1816, a steamboat offered service between Richmond and Norfolk. Visiting businessman John Melish noted another consequence of Virginia's reliance on water travel around 1806:


"There are no towns of any material consequence in Virginia, which has been attributed, and probably with reason, to the circumstance of the state being so completely intersected with navigable rivers, that a market is brought almost to every man's door, and they have no inducement to establish large cities."


Melish, whose journals include scientific observations on geography, oceanography, and who was hot or not, noted, "The inhabitants here, like those in the sea-ports, are mostly dressed in British manufactures, and are very gay. They look remarkably well, and the ladies, of whom we only had a glance as we passed through the city, appeared very handsome.” Apparently, having Atlantic trade routes at your back door not only made for dodgy road systems, but stylish citizens.


Secondly, terrible roads were a price Virginians were willing to pay to keep themselves closed off from the outside world, claims historian Susan Dunn. She expands on this thesis in her fascinating book on 19th century Virginia: Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison & the Decline of Virginia. After discussing the poor quality of even the turnpike toll roads in the Old Dominion, Dunn notes that Virginia shot down every proposal from 1796 on to execute federal surveys and create national roads through the Commonwealth. The Old Dominion preferred estrangement from the North, which was at this time investing heavily in transportation infrastructure improvements and a diversified economy. Connecting with the outside world via clear roadways and efficient interstate transportation threatened to bring potential federal control Virginians simply didn't want. After all, a stronger federalist government meant greater national power, and wouldn’t this threaten their way of life and the system of slavery they insisted on upholding? Entrenched positions that preserved the status quo came at a cost not only to the soul of Virginia, but to every coach, buggy, and traveler who attempted to navigate its roadways.


Notes: Travelers and tourists to Richmond in the early years of the 19th century share fascinating observations that are readily available in digitized form through the Library of Congress Travels in America collection.

Meredith Henne Baker’s award-winning book The Richmond Theater Fire: Early America’s First Great Disaster (LSU Press, 2012) explored the fallout of a fatal 1811 theater fire and was a recent RSV book club read.  She received her graduate degree in US History and certificate in Museum Studies from William & Mary and is a 2021 research fellow with Virginia Humanities. She has run educational programs at a living history museum, worked at a haunted boarding school, and currently teaches high school history. A new member of the RSV, she and her family look forward to future activities with the group.


Bernard, John. Retrospections of America, 1797–1811. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1887.

Dabney, Virginius. Richmond: The Story of a City. New York: Doubleday, 1976.

Dunn, Susan. Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison and the Decline of Virginia. New York: Basic Books, 2007.

Melish, John. Travels through the United States of America, in the years 1806 & 1807, and 1809, 1810, & 1811; including an account of passages betwixt America and Britain, and travels through various parts of Britain, Ireland, & Canada. With corrections and improvements till 1815. Philadelphia: Printed for the Author, 1818. Library of Congress.

Mordecai, Samuel. Richmond in By-Gone Days. Republished from the Second Edition of 1860. Richmond, VA: Dietz, 1946.

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