The Heritage of Sophia Street

By Roy Butler

The late archaeologist Roy Butler explored the historical significance of this early street, believed to have been named for Sophia Dorothea, sister of George II and mother of Frederick the Great of Prussia.

When we think of Fredericksburg history as it relates to Sophia Street, we immediately bring to mind a few specific remaining structures and sites as we see them today: The Toll House at the foot of Rocky Lane; the present Half Way house at Wolfe and Sophia Streets, once an early tavern*; The Center for the Creative Arts, referred to as the Silversmith's House; and the Sandstone Warehouse at the bridge at Sophia and William Streets.

If any other structure of eighteenth-century vintage stood on Sophia Street, it no longer stands today. For that matter, did any eighteenth-century structure ever face Sophia Street?

The Toll House in its relationship to the ferry served a special purpose and may have faced the river, but it was remote from primary areas of warehouse activity.

The present Half Way House (523 Sophia Street), which could be Fredericksburg's earliest standing structure, obviously faced upriver and for good reason. A visit to its basement level reveals huge sandstone fireplaces at either end of the building. The riverside fireplace is filled in while the Sophia Street or west end has been converted to an entrance necessitating the removal of the chimney. This magnificent eighteenth-century tavern no doubt once resounded with the then nearby activity of the wharf and the warehouses that packed in merchants, sailors, and warehousemen. Perhaps someday it may be restored to its original splendor and play an informative role in Sophia Street and waterfront history.

The Center for the Creative Arts, or Silversmith's House, obviously faced George Street for practical access to the commercial activity of the river and the more negotiable George Street. Assuming that the tunnel beneath George Street was there during the late eighteenth century, ships must have anchored at the river entrance to the tunnel in order to load and unload merchandise or slaves.

The gable end of the Center for Creative Arts now fronts on Sophia Street as does the Half Way House. With the nineteenth century development of Sophia Street, new structures naturally fronted on this growing area of activity and those of the eighteenth century converted their front entrances to the now more practical approach to the town--Sophia Street.

The Center, a very important historical attraction, has many fine historical features. Its sandstone basement floor and walls, its ghost story, its silversmith relationship - all contributed to its historic value. As time went by, the sandstone warehouse at William and Sophia Streets no longer used its riverfront loading areas at the lower and earlier levels of the building. Instead, the William and Sophia Street entrances served the upper levels as these were constructed later.

It appears that Caroline Street was the more heavily urbanized area of eighteenth-century Fredericksburg as commerce and development bypassed Sophia Street until it was sufficiently filled and broadened to serve as a negotiable street. The precipitous Sophia Street banks resulted from incessant fill which covered up much early riverfront history.

The transition of commerce from the riverfront to Caroline Street and then, to a degree, back to Sophia Street, presents an intriguing picture of early Fredericksburg history. Other structures that may have paralleled those still standing are lost beneath fill and time. The sandstone structure beneath the Briar Patch Antiques* on Sophia Street, supporting the frame building above, is a unique example of early riverfront warehouse activity. Its recent exposure, while remodeling was taking place, revealed large riverfront entrances with huge sandstone lintels, characteristic of such riverfront warehouses. The building erected on it actually saved it from total oblivion and its brief appearance presented a fascinating glimpse into early waterfront history.

We must remember that even though Sophia Street was mapped in the early eighteenth century, structures at that time faced the river which was the practical and negotiable route of commerce.

This article originally appeared in the Fredericksburg Times magazine and was later reprinted in Fredericksburg Underground: Archaeological History, with Roy G. Butler, pp. 118-121.
*The Briar Patch Antiques was a few doors down from the Old Stone Warehouse at 915 Sophia Street.