Petersburg, Virginia: Civil War History and Classic Southern Spirit

Steam engine

Tourists at the Appomattox Iron Works admire a large steam engine.

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In a city filled with attractions spanning more than three centuries, including abundant Civil War historic sites, Petersburg these days is celebrating an industry that may have been this city's saving grace.

Surrounded by important Civil War battlefields, elegant architecture and abundant shopping opportunities, including some of the finest antique shopping on the East Coast, the newly restored Appomattox Iron Works brings back memories of post-Civil War Petersburg and the age of Reconstruction.

Before the Civil War, Petersburg had been an industrial and trade center for the Southern states. Wealthy, prosperous and ideally positioned for commercial activity, the city grew to become the seventh largest in the South. Then came the Civil War.

Located near the James River and less than 30 miles from Richmond, the Confederate capital, Petersburg played a pivotal part in determining the outcome of the war. A 10-month-long siege devastated the town, destroying fine old homes, closing off vital railroad lines and all but stopping Petersburg's commercial and industrial activity. After the war Petersburg, along with the rest of the South, faced the rigorous task of reconstruction.

One of the few bright spots was Appomattox Iron Works, which emerged as an industrial force in leading the South from its agricultural past to a mechanized future. The iron works built and repaired everything from peanut harvesters to boot scrapers, and from lampposts to steam engines. It prospered, as did much of the rest of the reunited country at the turn of the century, and Petersburg's recovery continued into the 20th century.

Eventually, however, as technology raced ahead, the pre-Civil War machinery lost ground to modern industrial giants, and the iron works finally closed in the 1970s.

Appomattox Iron Works is now restored and operating as if its shops had closed only momentarily. The original machines that once tooled and built an era, now hum and whir for visitors in the same buildings where skilled craftsmen reported to work for more than 100 years.

Visitors to the Appomattox Iron Works see a working heavy equipment shop where a giant line shaft of spinning wheels and belts introduces the wonders of an iron foundry. Costumed interpreters explain the iron casting process in which molten iron flowed into ladles and then poured into wooden flasks. The crushing tower, with its original iron ball, stands guard over the complex, ready to destroy any imperfect products. A working blacksmith shop, sawmill, machine shop and pattern shop complete the complex that demonstrates each step of the iron casting process. At the end of the tour, visitors can stop in at the What's It Shop and guess the identity of hundreds of iron products actually manufactured on the premises.

The Appomattox Iron Works, located in Old Town, is surrounded by delightful antique shops, boutiques and federal-era buildings. Just up the street is the Mcllwaine House, built in 1815 and now used as the Petersburg Visitors Center, and the Farmers Bank, the second oldest bank building in the country. The bank still has the original teller booths and a secret hideaway for the vault.

A few blocks away the peaceful Appomattox River will feature tour boats beginning in spring 1992, taking visitors from Petersburg to the James River to view elegant plantations lining the river banks. The boats will meander past Shirley Plantation, home of the Carter family since 1723, and Berkeley Plantation, site of the first Thanksgiving celebration in America, just to name two.

When touring Petersburg, visitors will notice the abundance of fine old homes, many from the 19th century and some even dating to the 1700s. Petersburg's dedication to preserving its heritage can best be seen at Battersea. Located on what was then the Appomattox Canal, the 1700 Palladian-style mansion with expansive lawn, was built by Petersburg's first mayor, John Battersea. The home offers glimpses of slave life and commercial activity at that time. Now undergoing restoration, Battersea is open for tours with prior notice requested.

Another beautiful historical home is Center Hill Mansion, which serves as an excellent example of Petersburg's pre-Civil War sense of style and refinement. Built in 1823 by the prominent Boiling family, the mansion showcases glittering chandeliers, handsome Italian marble mantels and authentic antiques of the period.

The Trapezium House is a house made to order for Halloween. Legend has it that eccentric owner Charles O'Hara built the trapezoid-shaped townhouse to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. O'Hara was perhaps influenced by his West Indies house servant, who believed that right angles attracted unwanted spirits. Whatever the legend's origins, the house's peculiar construction makes for a fascinating tour.

A visit to Petersburg wouldn't be complete without touring its famous Civil War sites. The Siege Museum, one block behind the Appomattox Iron Works, offers a different perspective of the Civil War than many military history museums. In addition to describing the regional battles, the film and exhibits tell of the sad toll the long battle took on Petersburg's citizens. Personal accounts from diaries and books dramatize the contrast between romantic, antebellum Petersburg and the city under siege.

At the Petersburg National Battlefield, the park visitors center features an 18-minute map presentation showing troop movements during the six major battles. Audio tapes stationed along the self guided route provide valuable information about key sites, including the Battle of the Crater. Living history programs and encampments during summer months portray the grim conditions soldiers endured for 10 long months.

Other sites of interest in and around Petersburg include the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum at Fort-Lee, and the U.S. Hall of Fame Museum of the U.S. Slo-Pitch Softball Association. Anglers will be rewarded with rich bass fishing spots along the Appomattox River and in nearby Lake Chesdin.

Travelers who enjoy planning a vacation around a major event should take note of the Historic Petersburg Foundation Home Tours in October, and the Old Town Christmas celebration the first Friday in December.

For more information on Virginia's historic attractions, contact the Virginia Division of Tourism, 1021 E. Cary Street, Richmond, Virginia 23219. Telephone (804) 786-4484 or toll-free 1-800-932-5827 for a free copy of the Virginia is For Lovers Travel Guide.