Petersburg, Virginia: Civil War History and Classic Southern Spirit

By Staff
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Tourists at the Appomattox Iron Works admire a large steam engine.
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A part of the Heavy Machinery Shop at the Appomattox Iron Works in Petersburg, Virginia.

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.

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