“First, What kind of life was lived in this place, that is, Why and how did its builders build as they did?
And second, what rules with general validity and applicability did they follow?”
Carroll William Westfall, Learning From Pompeii.

Monday, February 14, 2011


                                Detail of the Market area from the 1879 Beers Map of Richmond. Shockoe Creek can be seen running to the left of the long Market Hall

Today Urbanismo walked the area of the First Market on Seventeenth Street and the Richmond Slave Trail, a poignant reminder of the nefarious trade in slaves that was based in Richmond. A heritage tour  is being developed around archeological resources connected with Richmond’s slave markets.

Market Square in 1793 (north is to the right) 
Markets, since the earliest times, have been placed on the edge of built-up parts of towns, where access by wagons and animals is easiest and the noise and refuse associated with them can be segregated. The Richmond market, and, presumably, the semi-annual fair which preceded it, was placed just beyond the plat where the bottomlands prevented easy settlement, beside the bridge which connected the original town with the newer suburbs on the hill to the west. Over time edge markets are surrounded by shops and fully incorporated into the town.

As we have detailed elsewhere, the city government laid out a formal market square in 1793. It ran between the town and the creek and extended 123 feet to the north and south of Main Street. A two-story brick Market Hall was built in the following year on the bank of the creek on the north side of Main Street. While the market hall survived for many years and has been succeeded by three more structures in the same location, the original market square layout was abandoned as the former commons was laid out in irregular lots and streets over the following decades.

Former trestle extension into Main Street Station

Our winter afternoon walk, one of a series of explorations begun last year, started at the north end of Main Street Station, in a parking lot located between the elevated railroad tracks that split apart to pass on each side of the station. In 1879, this was the location of the Chesapeake and Ohio Freight depot that stood between Broad and Grace streets (see Beers Map below). When Main Street Station was built in 1901, the tracks were carried over the streets on cast iron trestles and the tracks fanned out in this area to allow six locomotives to enter the great train shed which fronted on Main Street and ran back almost to Grace. Franklin Street ran below the station, although this was blocked off when the shed was enclosed in the 1980s. The iron trestles taken from the north end of the station were used to create decorative gates at the new side entrances to the train shed.

1905 Sanborn Map of the area along Shockoe Creek showing the large train shed (1901) in yellow and the long Market Hall of 1855 to the right. Shockoe Creek can be seen running vertically between buildings in the center. The site of Lumkin's Jail is near the angled building in red and yellow northwest of the train shed

The area where Main Street Station was built, west of the market, was a natural one for construction of a massive new structure and for the interstate highway which would later overshadow it. The area along the curving route of the creek was subject to regular flooding. Except for a continuous streetfronts added in the early nineteenth century along the valuable lots on Main and Franklin streets, the banks of the creek were nearly empty. Between Franklin and the James River the creek had been confined to a straight channel running perpendicular to Main Street, but once north of Franklin it wandered back and forth under the steep eastern slopes of Shockoe Hill.

Main Street Station seen from the Seaboard Depot
Freight wing of the Seaboard Depot sen from the northwest
The Seaboard Freight Depot, built in 1909
Where Franklin Street once ran below the great train shed of Main Street station, seen from the west.
A gently rising terrain extended for about two blocks west of Main Street Station. It was once a tightly settled neighborhood of shops, modest houses, and foundries, but is today a parking lot for state employees and the location of the two-story, early twentieth-century Seaboard Freight Depot, fronting on the short stub of Franklin Street that remains intact on that side of the station. A long freight wing extends to the north. The construction of the Richmond Petersburg Turnpike (Interstate 95) in the late 1950s so altered the eastern slope of Shockoe and Council Chamber hills that it is difficult to see their historic form. The elevated highway, wrapping closely around the southwest corner of the station’s ornate tower, also placed much of the area south and west of the station in shadow below the huge concrete highway spans. The earth fill supporting the highway north of Franklin Street creates a steep edge along the valley.

The site of Lumpkin's Slave Jail, marked with stone blocks, lies here beneath fifteen feet of fill

It is in the area of the state-owned parking lots south of Broad Street that archeologists have found foundations of the infamous Lumpkin Slave Jail, one of several dealers that operated on the fringes of the city's commercial center. Much of the slave jail and associated buildings are buried beneath the slopes of fill added as part of Interstate 95. A trail with signage has been developed around the theme of slavery, including the results of the archeological explorations. A larger program of interpretation, including a museum, is planned. Similarly, a large African-American cemetery, abandoned in about 1816, is located below Interstate 95 and to the north of Broad Street.

The area along the creek was mostly residential by the late nineteenth century. The descent was steep from the hill, as can be seen in the postcard shown below, so that the Egyptian Building housing the Medical College was on the edge of the hill, as were the Brockenbrough House (Confederate White House) and the First Baptist Church (later the First African Baptist Church). The land at the bottom of the hill on Marshall Street was parceled out by the city to secondary public buildings, principally the Lancastrian School and the City Jail.
View east along Marshall Street from Shockoe Hill, Online Postcard Collection, VCU Library

The view from the the top of the hill on Broad Street probably looked similarly steep in the early nineteenth century. After Broad Street was extended to the valley in 1845, Shockoe Creek flowed through a narrow bridge under the road. Parts of this still stand, as seen below, although the creek, uncovered throughout the nineteenth century, is now fully underground. The area between the rail tracks was an ideal one for unloading materials. Hungerford Coal and Oil Company is located here. The huge timber bins into which coal was emptied and sorted remain to this day although no coal has been sold since the major flood of 2004.

Stone wall on the south side of Broad Street The stone wall marks the spot where Shockoe Creek passes beneath Broad Street.
Stone abutments on the north side of Broad Street. Rutherford's Row, a continuous line of small
 dwellings described on late nineteenth-century maps as "negro tenements," once lined the north side
 of Broad Street in this area.

Ornamental coping on the top of the walls on each side of Broad Street
Coal unloading facilities at Hungerford. Coal was bagged in the small shed until 2004 
A well-preserved, cobbled section of N 16th St. north of Broad Street, west of the tracks
View looking north from Broad Street under the pylons of the railroad.

The area east of the tracks and north of Franklin Street has been used for parking for many years, but in the early twentieth century it was full of tightly spaced shops. Of these only one large building on the northwest corner of Grace and Ambler (formerly Union) streets remain. This housed Loving’s Produce, a wholesale company, until c. 2008. In 1905, it was the warehouse of the Richmond Branch of Armour and Company meat suppliers.

Loving's Produce Building facade facing Ambler (Union) Street

Continuing with the tour, we visited the area between the Market and Main Street Station. The YMCA Hotel, which corresponds to the French Renaissance detailing of the station in style and material, replaced a block of nineteenth-century shops in the early twentieth century. It sits back from the street to match the setback of the station, permitting a corner view of the market shed. Shockoe Creek once ran uncovered in a narrow straight channel just west of the YMCA Hotel. It then curved to the west and ran under the station. It is now entirely underground.

The Main Street front of the YMCA Hotel Building, east of Main Street Station

Arch or Walnut Alley from the above the path of Shockoe Creek looking east to the existing Market Shed

Early buildings between the Market and the railroad station relate to the market function of the area. include the fine, three-story commercial building on the northeast corner of Seventeenth and Franklin streets. The one-story Acme Tomato Company Building, dating from before the Second World War, occupies the space between the three-story building and Main Street Station. 
The well-preserved three-story commercial building with the Acme Tomato Co Bldg.  beyond

The desert-like parking area north of the market bore the brunt of the 2004 flood, which washed
 away much of the paving. It was, however, the site of a full block of shops in the early twentieth
 century, of which the Loving's Produce Building is the only remaining example.
Here we ended our tour of the fragmentary urban tissue along Shockoe Creek with a visit to Havana '59 for some much needed refreshment.


  1. What a coincidence! I had thought to map Shockoe Creek in Google this week and I just finished it when I googled "Shockoe Creek" for more resources and found this! I wish Shockoe Creek got some recognition. Perhaps signs could be erected along its route as well as the areas where it still flows (I-64, Magnolia St, and Mechanicsville Tnpk). I considering retracing the creek like in your tour to add to what I have already of the creek in pictures. I have the new "mouth," the underground entry, and spots near Mechanicsville Tnpk to its end at Carlton and Harvie roads. I believe too that the creek should be unearthed with landscaping from Valley Road to at least Cary St. Maybe there can be a Shockoe Park in the valley from along Rady St to Broad St. Richmond used to be capable of doing anything. Taming the creek was one of them. We can do it again.

  2. I'm glad you found us. Shockoe Creek, like the creeks that run through most American towns, was gradually buried as land values increased and water quality decreased and as the ordered urban form took precedence over any reminders of its rural underlay. It has been largely invisible since 1900. Today, it's exciting to imagine the creek sparkling between the foundations of brick buildings, as it once did between Main Street and Franklin.

    A good example of how a creek can be integrated between buildings in an urban environment can be seen in Petersburg, where Brickhouse Run passes through well-made stone arches under Market and Bank streets and mostly open to the sky. We would suggest that Shockoe Creek's best use might be as an element fully integrated into the urban tissue. We are sure that urban parks, in order to be useful and used, are best planned as responses to essentially urban activities. It should be possible for a renewed creek to support the city's urban order rather than be set apart as an example of the "natural."

    We appreciate your comments and look forward to hearing from you in the future.

  3. Gibson, I'd like to see a posting on following Shockoe Creek to its origin and perhaps your readers could hike vicariously up the valley with you. As an example of my ignorance on the subject, I don't know where the creek goes underground. Perhaps if you could just take us to that point and report on what you see.

    Likewise, I have always looked at the concrete-enclosed walls of the creek in Fulton Valley and wondered where it went and what it would be like to follow it north.

    Both Shockoe and Gillie's creeks have been bent to man's will, with occasional eruptions from their bounds, like during tropical storm Gastone. I, for one, would like to learn more about them and how they shaped and continue to shape our city.

  4. Claymont- We will do our best to take on the search for the headwaters as a task, one that Gibson's uncle once undertook in a very real sense. His mother was crossing the Barton Heights viaduct on a streetcar in the 1920s and was astonished to see young Ralston and a friend in a box or tub floating downstream in Bacon's Quarter Branch (a tributary of Shockoe Creek) heading toward the James.

  5. If you want to know why a stadium in Shockoe and particularly on top of the creek then ask yourself "Where can we contain the flood water?" The ball park is a BMP.

  6. This article is extremely helpful to me - thank you!! When on break from work, I mosey down through this area, almost daily. A fascination began in me, trying to locate Shockoe Creek. (So my initial hunch was correct - those ornamental croppings on either side of Broad marks the spot). In desperation. I decided to try Google and I found this. Thank you!.