Historic Sites Along the Dan River
in Halifax County, Virginia
'the Richmond & Danville Railroad' across Birch Creek
By Kenneth H. Cook
Two events are generally accepted as having been most important to the growth of the South Boston-Halifax County area in the decade preceeding the Civil War. One was the construction of the covered bridge across Dan River; the other was the coming of the Richmond & Danville Railroad, completed to what is now South Boston in 1854.
The covered bridge, built by James Traver and completed in 1858, met with no recorded opposition. Trade between areas north and south of Dan River, previously accomplished by ferry, was greatly enhanced by the bridge. It was loudly praised as a "boon" to the area.
A much different reception was earlier met by the railroad, however. Tobacco, cotton, produce and other goods were being shipped by batteaux or overland, and one would think such an improvement would have been wholly welcomed. Not so.
The very existence of the Richmond & Danville Railroad (now a part of the Southern system) is due to the efforts of one man, Whitmell P. Tunstall of Pittsylvania County. As a member of the Virginia Senate he worked tirelessly in obtaining its charter, and was rewarded by being made its first president.
A railroad was a revolutionary idea in the 1830's. Many people had no confidence in them and considered Mr. Tunstall a vain dreamer. They opposed him, yes, but his greatest opposition came from those who ran the Roanoke Navigation Company and its system of canals. They feared a rival in the transportation business if his dreams were realized.
Mr. Tunstall, a lawyer by profession, pursued his fight for a railroad with persuasive eloquence. He was a member of the Railroad Convention that met at Danville October 5, 1835, and at Richmond June 11, 1836.
He introduced a bill in the Virginia Senate on April 13, 1838, to charter the Richmond & Danville Railroad, with an impassioned speech. No action was taken, however, and it was not until 1845 that petitions were again introduced. Finally, after a struggle of nine years, the charter was granted on March 9, 1847.
All along its route, agents seeking right-of-way for the roadbed frequently met with strong opposition from landowners who did not want their land disturbed or who did not consider the fee to be paid them adequate. There were numerous court suits to settle the disputes.
When faced with such opposition, Mr. Tunstall frequently sent word to the recalcitrant landowners that, if a satisfactory settlement could not be reached, the builders would be obliged to "tunnel under" the objectors' farms. Objections quickly faded away.
Here in Halifax County, one of those most strongly opposed to the Richmond & Danville Railroad was Nathaniel Ragsdale of "Riverside," a plantation of nearly a thousand acres on the River Road. He fought it "tooth and nail." The company wanted to build a station on Mr. Ragsdale's property at Reedy Bottom, a river crossing at the western edge of "Riverside," at the mouth of Little Toby Creek. There were already several warehouses there, along with some other buildings. In the past it had been a good settlement, with a church and post office.
Mr. Ragsdale didn't want the railroad to pass through his property at all, but he was determined the station would not be built on it. He went to Richmond in an effort to persuade the company not to do so, but the company, having already had the site surveyed, was as equally determined to build it.
Finally a compromise was reached whereby Mr. Ragsdale agreed to buy a couple of acres of land from Mr. New, operator of New's Ferry, which was located to the east of the "Riverside" estate and deed it to the railroad. He reluctantly let the railroad have the strip of land for their right-of-way, but sent word that any worker who so much as set foot off the right-of-way onto "Riverside" land would be shot!
To carry the railroad across Birch Creek, a handsome, arched stone bridge was built just at the eastern edge of Mr. Ragsdale's land. Nearby there was a fine spring that was used by his hands to get drinking water. When Mr. Ragsdale found out that the railroad workers were using the spring, he immediately dispatched some of his men to fill it in with rocks so that it couldn't be used.
The railroad was built just above the flood line along Dan River through "Riverside," and this cut Mr. Ragsdale's barn off from the stable. The company tried to mollify him by giving him and his family a lifetime railroad pass, but he never allowed any of them to use it.
The Richmond & Danville Railroad was completed to Danville in 1856, with the first train entering the city on June 19. Three years later, in 1859, Nathaniel Ragsdale died at his home at "Riverside." He was buried in the garden at "Creekside," the home of his daughter, Mrs. E.A. Coleman, within sight of the railroad and its graceful stone bridge that he had so opposed.
Appreciation - to Miss Anne Page Brydon of Charlottesville, the great-great-granddaughter of Nathaniel Ragsdale; and to Robert E. Winters, Jr., of High Point, N.C.
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