Little hands make heavy work

October 22, 2014 · 5 minute read

The Appomattox riverfront between Chesterfield and Petersburg was crowded with mills, canals and hundreds of laborers – many of them children. This photograph shows Chesterfield Avenue rising through the village of Ettrick in the background. Credit: Timothy H. O’Sullivan, 1865, Library of Congress

The Appomattox River, like the James, crashes quickly over the Fall Line and provides a frothy spectacle for visitors and a challenging obstacle for boaters. It drops 126 feet in the five miles above Petersburg. This plunge presented an opportunity for dozens of industries — mills and factories that sprang up in the 1800s and drew on the energy of the river, transporting their wares along the canal system that bypassed the rocks and rapids. Today, the river looks mostly natural – a beautiful, seemingly untouched ribbon of wilderness that winds between Chesterfield and Petersburg. A close look reveals the remains of the many mills that operated there.

The businesses that operated along the river thrived by capitalizing on cheap energy and cheap labor. The mill workers, mostly under-educated and illiterate, toiled long hours under dangerous conditions. Men, women and many children were huddled together among clanging machinery and spinning gears for upwards of twelve hours a day. Period photographs of cavernous buildings and the workers that occupied them are a stark contrast to the beautiful scenery along the Appomattox River today.

Children were often put to work in mills and textile factories throughout the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Mill families were usually large, and the wage of one parent was not enough to support the household. It was not unusual for both parents and their children to be employed in the same vocation. The average wage for an adult was fifty cents per day, while children might earn ten cents per day. The low pay was barely enough for families to afford housing. Many rented cabins from the mill company and lived in crowded factory villages.


Lawrence Purdy (right) had been working in the Matoaca Mill spinning room for two years when this picture was taken. His brother standing next to him also “helped” in the mill. Credit: Lewis Hine, 1911, courtesy of

Inside the mills children were given the task of changing spindles and bobbins and other jobs in which small hands were advantageous. Injuries to bare feet (many families could not afford shoes) and hands were common. So were amputations. One doctor in a southern mill town reported the he had personally performed amputations on more than one hundred children injured by mill machinery. The fate of many young women was especially tough. Many girls, after being injured or because their hands grew too large to fit inside the machinery, could no longer work in the mills. It was not unusual for teenage girls to work as prostitutes in mill villages.

Historian William Henderson wrote about the lives of mill workers in Virginia Cavalcade Magazine in 1981. His article, A Great Deal of Enterprise, vividly describes the experience of millers along the Appomattox River. “Often the children who worked the twelve hour shifts fell asleep while eating and the children who worked the night shift fell asleep on the floor of the mill.” He also describes the concerns of a spokesman for national child labor legislation when addressing the educational opportunities for mill children. “There is sometimes a night-school for the little workers but they often topple over with sleep at their desks, after the long grind of the day. Indeed they must not spend too many wakeful hours in the night-school, shortening their sleep time: for the ogre of the mill must have all their strength at full head in the early morning.”


Staked stone arches and a few walls hidden in the overgrowth are all that remain of the Battersea Mill. The ruins can be found on the Lower Appomattox River Heritage Trail starting on Fleet Street in Petersburg. Credit: Lorne Field

Their experience did not go undocumented. Photographer Lewis Hine worked for the National Child Labor Committee in the early twentieth century. He captured images of juvenile laborers across America. He made a few stops in Chesterfield in Petersburg. His emotional portraits of miners, mill workers and farmers helped fuel the push for reform and the abolition of child labor.

The villages of Ettrick and Matoaca in Chesterfield and the riverfront neighborhoods of Petersburg have many surviving examples of mill worker homes. Standing since the 1800s and early 1900s, most of the homes are still occupied, some by descendants of mill families. The banks of Appomattox River bear the foundations of innumerable mills – nearly obscured by dense vegetation. Some obvious remains demand attention. The stone arches of the Battersea Manufacturing Company in Petersburg are particularly impressive. The mill drew water from a canal to power its machinery. The water was discharged into the river through the arches.

The milling industry in Chesterfield and Petersburg began to decline after the Civil War. War-time damage to property and the local the economy were difficult to overcome. The industries saw brief periods of prosperity followed by tough economic times again and again in the second half of the nineteenth century. The milling industry along the Appomattox River finally ended when the last mill, the Battersea Mill, closed in 1918.


Worker homes in the mill village at Matoaca. By Lewis Hine, 1911, courtesy of

The Friends of the Lower Appomattox River have worked for years to create trails and access points along the river. The Lower Appomattox River Heritage Trail links Appomattox Riverside Park in Dinwiddie County to a parking area at Campbell’s Bridge on Fleet Street in Petersburg. A number of dams, canals and foundations will remind a hiker of the river’s milling history. The most impressive feature of this part of the river however, is its striking beauty. The scenery masks its industrial past and the hard-bitten lives of the mill workers who labored along its banks.

A collection of more than five thousand Lewis Hine child labor photos can be viewed on the Library of Congress Website.

View of the river today on the Lower Appomattox River Heritage Trail. Credit: Lorne Field

View of the river today on the Lower Appomattox River Heritage Trail. Credit: Lorne Field