A rock and a hard place

December 6, 2012 · 10 minute read

Richmond would not exist were it not for the particular combination of the James River and the granite outcroppings of the Fall Line. That much is obvious. The river’s rocky bottom is a spawning ground for a multitude of fish that attracted the very first human inhabitants, Native Americans, to our fair environs. Later those rocks presented an obstruction to navigation for English colonists. They had to stop here – at least for a while. They did not have much choice. They soon figured out that anyone seeking passage to the western reaches of Virginia would have to negotiate a way around those boulders. This was accomplished through the creation of canals and later railroads. Thus, a hub of transportation and commerce was born.

What is not so obvious is exactly who built the “stuff” of the city in its early days. Richmond and the James River abound with prehistoric and historic works that still form the very structure of the city today. Many bridges, canals, streets and buildings still bear the marks of nameless laborers who toiled to fashion a metropolis out of the cold, hard substance that stopped colonists in their tracks – granite. Significant among these works is a large and impressive but, often overlooked retaining wall on the north bank of the James near the Pipeline Trail. It begins at the end of 12th Street and extends passed 14th Street under the Mayo Bridge. Large sections of the wall can be seen today and still support the bank on which sections of downtown are built. Our modern city literally rests on the work created by forgotten stonemasons nearly two hundred years ago.

This nineteenth century photograph shows the wall under the Mayo Bridge and stretching out of the frame in both directions. Credit: Cook Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center.

I have always been intrigued by this wall. Its construction must have been a major undertaking for laborers who largely worked by hand and did not have the aid of today’s machinery. This is especially impressive when considering the wall’s monolithic scale. It is nearly a half-mile long and made of rock that weighs an average of 150 pounds per cubic foot. When viewed at its highest point from Norfolk Southern Railroad Bridge, one can see an old, bronze U.S. Weather Bureau flood gauge that puts the wall’s height at 25 feet.  Historic photographs indicate that it was even longer in the nineteenth century and stood higher before the river silted in to current depth.

I have long believed that this wall is associated with the Kanawha Canal and its docks in Shockoe Bottom. Even though the wall is about 150 yards away from the canal and docks, it would have provided flood protection for the businesses there. The first phase of the canal and its docks in the Bottom was completed in the 1820s. It was subject to frequent flooding and damage. The James River and Kanawha Canal Company continually spent huge sums of money to keep this section of the canal in good enough repair to operate. The JR & K Co. was a partnership between the state and local governments and private investors. The canal it created is one of the earliest public works projects in the country. There was great incentive to protect the Commonwealth’s investment in Richmond as it promised to connect Virginia commerce to the interior of the continent and the rest of the world.

Another problem with the original Richmond Dock was that the lock that connected it to the tidal James was too small to accommodate the largest ocean-going ships of the day. Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, the JR & K Co. was under great pressure to improve the Richmond Dock in order to receive larger vessels and replace the old wood locks that connected it to the turning basin upriver at 11th Street and the rest of the canal west of Richmond. Such improvements would have been wasted if measures were not taken to protect them from the frequent floods of the James.

So, I set out on a mission to link the building of this wall with the canal and dock improvements that occurred in the 1840s and 1850s. My thought is that as the dock and canal were widened and deepened, excavated spoils were deposited behind the retaining wall along the James. The wall, standing 25 feet over the normal level of the James, would have provided a good deal of flood protection and as earth was piled behind it new real estate would have been created along the south side of the dock and canal. One would think that there would be some kind of documentation (engineering drawings, construction records, newspaper stories) of a construction project of this magnitude. So far, I haven’t found records of this kind.

However, my main objective is to put names and faces on the anonymous workers whose handiwork forms the foundation of a long stretch of the city. Indeed, modern warehouses, condominiums, restaurants and parks depend on the integrity of this stonework built two centuries ago. As a matter of fact this ancient wall supports the modern floodwall that guards downtown from the occasional rages of the James River.

The modern Richmond Floodwall sits on the shoulders of its much older brother. Photo by author.

I have visited the Valentine Richmond History Center and the Library of Virginia and looked through boxes and files of yellowed and fragile documents. I have read volumes written by historians about the history of the canal. The records of the JR & K Co. and the Virginia Board of Public Works are stuffed with receipts and invoices related to the sale of company shares, property transfers and occasional mentions of payments to contractors. There is precious little related to the building of specific structures – and nothing that details the construction of a retaining wall along the James.

However, there are some documents that provide a tantalizing hint about when the wall was built and perhaps even who financed it. Period survey maps show a great amount of detail about the Richmond riverfront during the first half of the nineteenth century. I found several maps from the 1820s to 1840s on the state library’s website that show a natural and sloping riverfront where the wall is today. So, the wall was not there then. I was very excited when I found an 1829 JR & K Co. map that shows the land around the north end of the Mayo Bridge. This map shows a straight line in the river channel where the stone wall is today and next to it, an inscription that reads, “abutment proposed by Mr. E.C. Mayo.”  Edward C. Mayo was a tobacco merchant who owned the land on the north-east side of the Mayo Bridge. He later built a warehouse on the site and shipped his wares from the Richmond Dock. So, the Canal Company and one of its largest tenants were at least discussing the creation of an “abutment” in 1829.

However, an 1841 survey map shows that nothing had been built there as the natural shoreline still matched that of the 1820s maps. I pushed on. The next map I found is from a Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad survey made some time in the 1850s. It is much different from the older maps. It illustrates the canal and dock improvements that began in the 1840s and finished in 1854. It also shows a clear and deliberate straightening of the riverfront – parallel to the south side of canal dock and uniform in width from 14th Street all the way down the Tidewater Connection locks just passed 28th Street. It is clear that something caused the straightening of the shoreline and the map shows that thing is exactly where my stone wall is today. Moreover photographs of the wall taken at the end of the Civil War show it extending downstream beyond the Mayo Bridge. And the icing on the cake, an 1872 atlas of Richmond by F.W. Beers shows a “HIGH WALL” in the same place Edward Mayo proposed his abutment in 1829 – the same place where the wall is today.

I am now sure the wall was built between 1841 and 1854 and it is at least contemporaneous if not connected to the improvements made to the canal and dock at that time.         

That leads me to the main point of this story. I was only able to figure out when the wall was created by looking at old maps so the human element is still woefully under-documented. It is clear that an immense labor force was necessary to undertake such a project. It is known that the JR & K Co. hired contractors that employed immigrants and leased slaves from private owners. Little has been written about the use of slavery in public works projects but one can imagine the protests of Virginia abolitionists who objected to their tax dollars spent on an enterprise that relied on forced servitude. This wall on the James is probably one of the few remaining edifices that can be attributed to slave labor. It is appropriate that part of today’s Richmond Slave Trail follows the Mayo Bridge that spans the wall. Perhaps there should be a marker there.

The method of splitting stone in the early 1800s merits some description because it vividly illustrates the arduous occupation of these unnamed masons. First, a series of holes must be drilled. The drill was typically a steel pole with a star or spoon shaped auger at one end. It was driven into the stone with a heavy hammer. Bit by painstaking bit, little pieces of stone were extracted with this “drill” until a long series of holes, each about three inches deep, was reamed along the line where the mason wanted the rock to split. Second, two shoe-horn pieces of iron called “feathers” were placed in each hole. Next, iron wedges were placed between the feathers and carefully hammered. As the feathers were slowly separated by the hammered wedge they transferred pressure outward and the stone eventually split. It might have taken an hour or more to split one large stone. There are thousands of split stones in the wall by the James River. Many of them still bear the distinct drill marks made by the “feather and wedge” method of cutting rock.

The work of an unknown nineteenth century mason can be seen in the drill marks of this stone. Photo by author.

The experience of a 19th century stonemason was not entirely an endeavor of drudgery. Many, if not most, projects of the day required elements of style. The wall on the James is no exception. It is crowned with carefully sculpted capstones that add a touch of grace to its otherwise coarse utilitarian appearance. Such well-hewn ornaments were made by workmen of considerable skill. Perhaps the opportunity to work on these specialty pieces was a relief for laborers who might otherwise stand knee deep in the mud of the riverbank to lay giant blocks. It is clear that the capstones were shaped with care and even affection. The numerous fine grooves that mark their surface attest to that. It is easy to see how a craftsman, with his hammer and chisel, patiently and proudly rendered beauty from rock with every loving slice.

The supple texture of this rock was accomplished through the careful hand of a now silent craftsman. Photo by author.

In my opinion, there are few things worse than not feeling appreciated for your hard work. Centuries ago untold numbers of laborers worked to build the foundation that supports my hometown – the place where I play, live and work hard. Whether they were immigrants who labored out of necessity or slaves who suffered under duress, I believe they would have wanted a “thank you.” Here it is. They deserve it.

Where to go

The wall can be viewed from two good locations:

1. The Pipeline Trail. Park at the Pipeline Overlook parking lot at the intersection of 12th and Byrd Streets. Walk east (downstream) to the steps and ladder that lead down the Pipeline Trail. The wall can be seen from the pipe.    

2. 14th Street Canoe and Kayak Steps. At the north end of the Mayo Bridge, take the driveway to the gravel parking lot. Walk down to the bottom of the steps. The wall can be viewed from the river bank.  Be sure to read the historical signs I wrote when I worked for James River Park!

I would like to thank a number of local history experts who helped in the research of this piece.

Thanks to: Dr. Bill Trout III, Langhorne Gibson Jr., Lyn Lanier, Ralph White, Kelly Kerney, and Meghan Hughes.