Waterfront Story

Beneath the silt of the Rappahannock and its shores lie objects and structural remains related to the earliest periods of Leaseland and Fredericksburg activity.

The ships that anchored at the William Street, Wolfe Street, and Dockside wharfs, the ferries, taverns, warehouses, shipbuilding structures and the varieties of other daily activities left voluminous deposits of late 17th to mid-18th century objects. They are now important historical artifacts.

Bronze shipbuilding nails; slipwares; coins; buttons; military items; mallet, onion and Hogarth type wine bottles; tools, ad infinitum - all of them could tell us much of early waterfront activity. Even the wharfs themselves remain partly intact. Pine logs, four feet on center, are filled between with oyster shells, a common practice during the 18th century. All lie imprisoned beneath many feet of silt and fill, waiting to be exposed.

The wharf at the foot of William Street, long covered and forgotten, is historically documented on several occasions. Paula Felder's Forgotten Companions indicates that in 1730 Susanna Livingston applied for a license "to operate a ferry from the north bank of the Rappahannock to the wharf at the base of William Street." The wharf for the upper warehouses was located at this site in the mid-18th century.

Susanna Fitzhugh in 1722 "made inquiry of the Virginia Assembly concerning a ferry from the north bank of the Rappahannock to the Wharf on the Leaseland." It is reasonable to assume that this was the same wharf mentioned later and perhaps originally built by Royston and Buckner or Capt. Lawrence Smith in the fourth quarter of the 17th century. This concentrated area of activity, now under eight to 10 feet of silt and fill, was directly related to the existing tobacco warehouse though in a vastly different context from our present concept of its structure and time frame. A subsequent article will deal with this phenomenon.

Of course, the question of operating a ferry to William Street is intriguing considering that the island extends to Lewis Street today. Apparently the island was much smaller during the 18th century as indicated on early maps of this area. Siltation seems to have extended its length northward as well as having added considerably to its height.

The Civil War must have left every conceivable category of relics on the river bottom in view of the pontoon crossings and heavy military activity. The technology exists today to recover and expose river and earth bound artifacts and structures.

One hundred fifty years of siltation and fill have placed these historic objects in storage. A historical bonanza awaits those with the ability to recover them.

This article originally appeared in Fredericksburg Underground, pp. 39-40. It is reprinted here with the permission of Mrs. Elizabeth Butler.