Stafford's Coal Landing: Center of Commerce
By 1900 the forests had recovered sufficiently from the ravages of the Civil War to support a lumber business again. Long boats sailed from Coal Landing to Aquia Creek, up the Potomac and on to Baltimore.
Between 1890 and World War I, wood provided one of the few available cash incomes in Stafford. The locals would cut what timber they could and haul it to Coal Landing by wagon or boat to sell for pulpwood. The stacks of logs waiting at the docks were often forty feet high. Because the docks at Coal Landing were fairly extensive, there were a number of fishing boats that worked out of here, also.
An 1872 U.S. Engineers’ report provides us with a glimpse of the activities around Aquia Creek. The report cites the presence of “6 steam saw mills, 10 grist mills, 24 farms, 33 sailing vessels, 4 steamers, and 2 tugs with barges daily to Washington 12 months a year carrying immense quantities of wood, barrel staves, stone, corn, wheat, rye. The boat building yard at Coal Landing builds steamboats for the excursion trade from D.C.”
During this time, one of the largest general stores in the county was at Coal Landing. The store was built in the early 1800s and was first owned by a Captain Thomas Towson. It served for many years as a fishermen’s store. Thomas Towson owned well over 1,000 acres in Stafford County when he died in 1867, including Coal Landing, the quarries at Rock Ramore, and the Robertson tract. Thomas’ son, James, inherited his father’s property and Coal Landing was sold at public auction on December 16, 1896. The poster announcing the auction described Coal Landing as “a valuable piece of Wharf Property, containing one-quarter of an acre, more or less.”
In 1936 the store was owned by Captain Wesley Knight (then 91) who gave a description of the activity around Coal Landing when he was a young man. According to Captain Knight, the landing was a very busy place during those days. Thirty to forty cords of wood were shipped by boat each day; it was common to see as much as two thousand cords of wood stacked in the yard awaiting shipment.
Knight was an accomplished captain and operated many vessels on the Potomac during his sailing days. For many years he hauled lumber from Coal Landing to Alexandria on the schooner Ipsawasson. Knight commented on the warming of the winters on the Potomac since his childhood, saying that in the late 1800s it was normal for ice on the river to be eight or nine inches thick.
“Now, it stays warm all the year around, or the winters are not as cold as they were. One December, more than fifty years ago, I can recall setting sail with some friends for Alexandria. So fiercely did the wind spring up we were forced to anchor for the night in Chichamaxen Creek on the Maryland side of the river, opposite Quantico. By morning, the river was frozen solid. Our ship was completely ice-bound, the whole party had to walk back over the ice. Not until March did a warm spell release the vessel from its prison.”
Knight was a small boy when the Civil War broke out but he recalled the Union troops coming onto his family’s farm and shooting the guineas, turkeys, chickens, sheep, and cattle. The family finally begged some of the soldiers to camp there to prevent total ruin.
Economic depression in the 1930s brought an end to most activity at Coal Landing as well as in the rest of the county.
This writing originally appeared in They Called Stafford Home: The Development of Stafford County, Virginia, from 1600 until 1865, by Jerrilynn Eby, on pages 96-98, and appears here with the author’s permission.