- Jerrilynn Eby
Aquia Creek would have so many tales to tell if only that were possible. The creek has been a vital part of the development of the county since Giles Brent established his home there in the late 1640s.
Development along the Atlantic coast during the nineteenth century required adequate rail service for the transportation of people and goods. By the early 1800s travel between north and south was accomplished by jumping from rail to stage to boat and back again. Stage passengers reaching Aquia Creek in 1815 boarded the 186-ton New York-made side paddle steamer Washington, in order to journey elsewhere along the Atlantic coast.
In 1837 passengers traveling north rode the train from Petersburg to Fredericksburg. They then boarded a stage that carried them as far as the mouth of the Potomac Creek, where there was a steamboat landing. Just three miles north was another steamboat landing at the mouth of Aquia Creek (now Aquapo)*. Because the water in Aquia Creek was much deeper than the water in Potomac Creek (allowing for connections with large steamboats), the decision was made in 1837 to extend the train tracks to that point. Aquia Creek became the northern terminus of the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad. Thus, trains began running in and out of Aquia Landing in 1842.
Travel by steamboat had, prior to this time, been difficult during the winter months due to the ice in the river. By the time R, F, & P reached Aquia, however, new steamboats, called “ice boats,” had been developed that could break through the heavy ice on the river, even in the coldest weather.
On April 17, 1861, Virginia seceded from the Union. Almost immediately, the four steamboats forming the connection between Aquia and Washington were seized in Washington and converted into armored gunboats. Realizing that the railhead at Aquia would be a prime target for Union occupation, steps were taken to fortify the terminal. General Daniel Ruggles was assigned to protect the terminal. Under his direction gun pits were dug into the hill at the mouth of the creek. On May 31 five Union gunboats appeared on the river and attempted to take the terminal. They were repelled by Ruggles’ troops. These were the first shots fired by the United States Navy during the Civil War. The next day, a second attempt was made and this, too, was repelled. A letter tells of the Union troops shelling the fortifications on the hill above the terminal for two days, killing nothing but someone’s old white mule.
Union forces made a third unsuccessful attempt to take the railhead. In response, the Confederates fastened an explosive charge to two empty wooden barrels, lit the fuse, and sent it out into the creek. A soldier on one of the gunboats spotted the barrels floating in his direction. Fortunately or unfortunately, the fuse had gotten wet and gone out. This was the first attempted use of a torpedo.
In April 162, however, Union forces were dangerously close to a takeover of the entire R, F, & P system. In an attempt to protect the crucial rail link between the southern states, Major T. H. Holmes burned the wharf and buildings at Aquia and destroyed the bridges at Accakeek Creek, Potomac Creek, and the Rappahannock River. Due to the lack of a bridge, McDowell’s Union forces were forced to stop at the edge of the Rappahannock and could only look at Fredericksburg. Without a supply line, McDowell and his men could go no further.
Herman Haupt, an engineering genius, was chosen by Union forces to make the necessary repairs to restore rail service from Aquia to Fredericksburg. Not only had Holmes burned almost one acre of wharf at Aquia, he had completely removed about three miles of track south of the terminal and had burned the ties. The bridge over the gorge at Potomac Creek had been totally destroyed. To cross there required a bridge four hundred feet long and eighty feet high, and the original structure had take R, F, & P almost one year to build.
Haupt was made a colonel and superintendent of the Construction Corps of the United States Military Railroad. Actually, there was n o such thing. Haupt was provided with a handful of experienced railroad men and three companies of soldiers. By working in twenty-four hour shifts, the crew laid three miles of track in three days. Upon reaching Accakeek Creek, Haupt had a bridge one hundred fifty feet long and thirty feet high built in sixteen hours. With only crude hand tools and unskilled labor the crew took on the gorge at Potomac Creek. Twelve days later, a train crossed the bridge. In another four days, trains were running from Aquia to Fredericksburg. The stone abutments may still be seen next to the present-day R, F, & P bridge. Abraham Lincoln, who was touring the area, remarked, “I have seen the most remarkable structure human eyes ever rested upon. That man Haupt has built a bridge across Potomac Creek four hundred feet long and nearly one hundred feet high, over which loaded trains are running every hour and, upon my word, there is nothing in it but beanpoles and cornstalks.” Tom Moncure, clerk of the circuit court and local historian, feels certain that the bricks and stones from Potomac Church were also used in this bridge. Although the bridge appeared rickety, it actually contained almost two million feet of lumber, most of which had not even been stripped of bark. Haupt’s crew had rebuilt the northern section of the railroad in less than one month. By restoring the supply line, Union forces were then able to push into the South.
After a series of Union losses ending with the Battle of Manassas, there was concern that the Confederates might try to take Washington. Burnside’s troops, stationed at Aquia Landing, burned the wharves and facilities at Aquia as well as Haupt’s three bridges over the Rappahannock River and Potomac and Accakeek Creeks. It turned out that Confederate forces were stopped at Antietam, and Haupt was ordered to replace what had needlessly been destroyed. Haupt replied to McClellan,
The destruction of this road was an unfortunate piece of vandalism on the part of our troops. I reported to General Halleck that the destruction of this road was unnecessary and highly censurable. The Potomac Creek bridge was nearly eighty feet high and four hundred feet long. Nearly all available timber within reach was used in its construction. The bridge was blown down, then burned. [The] wharf at Aquia Creek was very complete covering 1 ½ acres with double track and commodious buildings. Will take four months to rebuilt. Sixty cars all destroyed.
While facilities at Aquia were being improvised, Haupt was in Alexandria creating a prefabricated truss bridge that could be towed to its destination on barges. The landing and railroad formed the primary supply line for Union forces pushing south and, thus, had to remain open.
In June of 1863 Confederate General Robert E. Lee set out for Pennsylvania. Aquia Landing was heavily populated with Union forces and camp followers, and they had to be quickly evacuated to Washington. Once again, the facilities were destroyed, on June 22.
As a result of Lee’s advancements, Union forces had been ordered to retreat from Falmouth and Aquia Creek. In their wake Confederate Major C. R. Collins burned all the buildings and tracks at the landing. The following day Mrs. George Whiting of Richland (diagonally across the mouth of the creek from the landing) wrote to her daughter describing the incidents of the night before: “The Northern troops have again left Aquia Creek, last night all their fine buildings and the bridge were destroyed. The illumination was magnificent—there were sixty new buildings burnt to the ground.”
One final restoration of the lines between Aquia and Fredericksburg was undertaken in May 1864. By the end of the war, however, the tracks were in horrible condition. Most of the bridges were down, the facilities at Aquia were destroyed and what cars were left were damaged or worn out. The facilities at Aquia Landing were never rebuilt. It was not practical to have to unload the trains at Aquia and transfer to a boat to get to Washington. A new line was opened between Fredericksburg and Quantico and began operating on May 1, 1872. The old ten-mile stretch between Brooke and Aquia became State Route 608.
An event which took place after the war brought national attention to Widewater. On the night of October 12, 1894, two armed men climbed onto an R, F, & P train as it slowed to cross the drawbridge over Aquia Creek. To give the impression to passengers and crew that this was a large gang, the men ran back and forth along the train, firing their guns into the air. The train was brought to a stop and the engineer was forced to detach the locomotive. The robbers blew the door off of the express car and took about $150,000 in money and valuables. The New York Herald reported, “the ‘hold-up’ of a train at Aquia Creek, Virginia, forty-one miles from Washington, on the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, and the robbery of a sum estimated at one hundred and fifty thousand dollars from the Adams express car, is putting train robbery a little too near home.”
R, F, & P put up $1000 for the capture of the robbers. The governor added another $1000, and the two men were quickly apprehended.
*Aquapo has since been renamed Aquia Landing.
This article originally appeared in They Called Stafford Home: The Development of Stafford County, Virginia, from 1600 until 1865, by Jerrilynn Eby, and appears here with the author’s gracious permission.