Richmond has been a railroad center since the 1830's.
In 1838, the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad had its main depot and shops at 8th & Byrd streets. A short north-south link, the R&P was the parent company of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. In 1967, the ACL merged with Seaboard Air Line Railroad to form the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad, now part of CSX.
The Richmond & Danville Railroad opened its main depot on the James River below Shockoe Slip in 1850. Its shops were across the River. In 1894, the R&D became the Southern Railway which, through mergers, is now part of Norfolk Southern.
The Richmond & Alleghany Railroad bought the right-of-way of the James River & Kanawha Canal and laid its tracks or the canal's towpath. The first R&A train ran in 1880. In 1888, the R&A was purchased by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway. A C&O freight yard was developed on the site of the Great Basin in the 1880s, and operated until the 1960's. In 1981, as part of the Chessie system, C&0 was merged with Seaboard Coast Line Railroad to form CSX.
The Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac & Richmond & Petersburg Connection Company line linked Byrd Street Station with the RF&P's Broad Street yards from 1867 to 1891. At just over a mile long, it included a 900-foot tunnel under Gambles Hill and was called "the shortest railroad with the longest name in the world."
Until the 1960's, tobacco was the leading Richmond product, and from the early 18th century until 1970, the area around Kanawha Plaza was a center of tobacco business.
Hogsheads of tobacco sent down the Kanawha Canal were received at the Public Warehouse, which occupied the site of Kanawha Plaza from 1809 to 1865. Here tobacco was stored, inspected, and auctioned. Private dealers traded out of nearby warehouses.
Richmond factories began to manufacture tobacco products in the early 19th century and many were in this vicinity. Until the late 1800's, most of the tobacco was made into plug, sweetened and pressed into blocks for chewing. In the 1870's, the Allen & Ginter Company at 6th & Cary streets began making handrolled cigarettes.
The period from the 1890's to the 1920's saw great growth and change in the tobacco industry. Smaller regional firms, including most of the firms in this area, were surpassed by national companies. The American Tobacco Company, in particular, reigned from 1890 to 1911. The cigarette, made by machines, became the main product, and marketing became first national, and then international.
Most of the new Richmond factories in these years were erected along Tobacco Row, to the east of here. One exception came in 1921, when the Allen & Ginter Branch of Liggett & Myers opened a new factory on 7th Street, between Cary and Canal Streets. The Chesterfield Factory remained a Richmond landmark until it closed in 1970. The building has since been renovated for use as offices.
James River & Kanawha Canal
In 1774, George Washington proposed that a canal be built along the James River to promote trade and traffic with the territories to the west. Washington was the first president of the James River Company, which in 1789 opened a sequence of two canals in the Richmond area. This "James River Canal" was the first towpath canal system in North America. James River batteaux navigated the 250 miles of the James River above the Falls and entered Richmond by way of the canals to the Great Basin.
In 1835, the re-organized James River & Kanawha Company, ante-bellum Virginia's largest corporation, continued work up the James River on a towpath canal designed for horse-and-mule-drawn canal boats. The company's plan was to link Richmond with the Kanawha River (in what is now West Virginia), and from there link up with the Ohio River.
In 1837, 3,300 workers were building the Canal. By 1840, the Richmond section was entirely rebuilt, and the Canal reached Lynchburg, Virginia in 1860. A turnpike over the mountains then connected the end of the Canal with the Kanawha River.
In 1854, the Tidewater Connection, a series of locks, allowed boats to pass from the Great Basin and canal down to the Richmond Dock, and thence to the tidewater portion of the James River.
The best days of the Canal were the 1850s. Hard times and railroads weakened the Canal Company after 1865, and it folded in 1880.
The Great Basin
Finished in 1800, the Great Basin was the eastern terminus of the Canal. It was a block wide and three blocks long and was located between Cary and Canal, and 8th and 12th Streets. The Basin was up to 50 feet deep and was probably made by damming a stream valley at its east end (12th Street). Warehouses and trading firms surrounded the Basin and the docks along its stone walls were active. In addition to allowing the long, narrow canalboats to turn around for the trip back up the Canal, the Basin supplied water to various mills around its edge. Railroad yards covered half the Basin in the 1880's. By the 1920s the Basin had been completely covered over. Construction excavation on the site for the James center in 1983-86 yielded the hulls of batteaux, canalboats, and other artifacts of the canal era, some of which have been saved.