Chatham Bridge Articles from the Free Lance-Star

-        Compiled by Theron P. Keller

-        Updated 10/16/2021


This is a collection of articles I was able to dig up from the Google Newspaper Archive scans of the Free Lance-Star, plus newer direct links to the FLS web page archives of more recent articles (2001 and forward) relating to the Chatham Bridge, and its direct predecessor, the Free Bridge.


The Free Bridge was constructed of iron in 1890 (The History of the City of Fredericksburg, Virginia, by S. J. Quinn, 1908), and was heavily damaged by the flood of April 26, 1937.  It was quickly repaired and returned to one-way service in under three months, and to full two-way service in under four months.  However, since the Free Bridge was already in bad shape, and inadequate for the volume of traffic at the time, work quickly began on a plan to replace it.  This replacement became known as the Chatham Bridge, which has been in place for the past nearly 80 years.


This collection of articles covers four main periods:


o  The flood, damage, and hasty repair of the Free Bridge in 1937

o  The construction of the Chatham Bridge between 1940 and 1941

o  The closure of the Chatham Bridge in 2002 for two weeks for repairs to the concrete piers

o  The early coverage starting in 2015, for the current project, the replacement of the Chatham Bridge deck


I have not done any searching between August 1937 and October 1940. There are undoubtedly many articles during that period of time which describe the debate and planning leading up to the beginning of construction of the current Chatham Bridge, which I first list below starting with October 2, 1940. Unfortunately, the Google Newspaper Archive is not indexed, so the only way to find things is by browsing, or by refence from a third party index to a specific date. Once you get some practice, browsing gets a bit smarter and more targeted than just "random," but it is still a fairly time-intensive activity. Once the CRRL is open again, I may take some time searching through their microfiche index files for bridge references during that missing period, and will hopefully be able to fill in some gaps.


Here are some of the interesting highlights from what I found:


o  The 1937 flood was possibly the first human-recorded "500-year” flood in Fredericksburg history.  FEMA uses this term to describe the likelihood of a flood event above a certain depth. A "100-year" flood event is defined as a 1% probability in any particular year. A "500-year" flood event is defined as a 0.2% probability.  There isn't any literal connection to years elapsed, as we had another, even greater flood just 5 years later in 1942. But the significant fact is that according to the National Weather Service records, the next highest flood event ever recorded up until that time was almost 50 years earlier, and SIX FEET lower. So, there were areas of town, well away from the river, that were completely surprised to be under water for this flood.


o  Three spans of the Free Bridge were washed away by the flood.  They washed down the river, and passed under the RF&P railroad bridge, without hitting it.  They talked about plans to retrieve some of the steel from those parts to use for the repair, but I was not able to confirm that is what they actually did.  There were delays mentioned in obtaining steel and other parts, so they may have had to abandon that plan.


o  A pedestrian ferry was set up within just a few days of the bridge being washed out.  It was a simple scow (which was constructed on the spot for this purpose) that was attached to a cable that was strung across the river.  The operators of the ferry grabbed the cable and pulled the scow back and forth.  The ferry landed at Scott's Island on the city side, and the passengers had to climb the stairs that ran up to the remaining portion of the Free Bridge and finish their walk over to the Fredericksburg end.  The first day of the ferry operation, they carried 100 passengers.  Prior to the ferry starting to run, they had to place watchmen at each end of the RF&P railroad bridge to manage the large numbers of pedestrians who were using it to cross the river.  The only other bridge at that time was the Falmouth bridge, which was apparently too far to walk.  My conclusion: At this time there must have been a relatively large commuter workforce who walked from their homes in Stafford to their jobs in downtown Fredericksburg.  (If they had used cars, they could have driven to the Route 1 bridge at Falmouth without too much inconvenience.)


o  There was quite a bit of controversy over where an eventual replacement bridge would be built. State Highway Department officials seemed to favor a new bridge being built at the foot of Lafayette Boulevard (just north or upstream of the railroad bridge.)  This would have been tied in to a new road to be built to act as a by-pass or "belt line" around the business district of the city, connecting with Route 1 at some point north of Falmouth. Once the local business community realized what this would mean, they, along with the City Council, very strongly opposed any location other than the original site, at the foot of William Street. Some of this debate coverage is likely documented in the window of time between 1937 and 1940, where I stopped searching, so that may yield more interesting things to dig out in the future.


o  The original Chatham Bridge construction project entailed the demolition and removal of the hastily repaired old Free Bridge, and the complete construction of what we have in place now.  (As best I can tell by comparing photographs, and the fact that the width of the new bridge is about twice that of the old bridge, the concrete piers for the Free Bridge were completely removed and replaced by new piers for the Chatham Bridge.) The project started with the closure of the Free Bridge about October 14, 1940.  The newly constructed Chatham Bridge opened two lanes to traffic on July 23, 1941. That's 283 days, or 9 months and 10 days! The remaining two lanes opened three weeks later.  By contrast, the current project is only replacing the bridge deck, reusing the concrete piers that were built in 1941, and is scheduled to take 16 months!


Style guide: I generally provide a main subject or text of the headline, the date of the article, the link to the Google Archive or FLS web page, and then a description, which is sometimes quotes, and sometimes my paraphrased comments or notes added.  For days when there are multiple articles, I start with the date and then list the articles separately.  Days are separated by the markers (===).  If the day of the week is particularly interesting or relative to the story, I included it with the date.


Links:  The links usually point to the headline of the scanned article, so sometimes you have to look around a little bit to find the part of the article that I’m talking about.  Many of the articles, such as for City Council Meetings, cover multiple subjects, so keep reading!  I tried to include all the “Page 2” links, when the article was split. There may be one or two for which the linked headline is not directly over the referenced article, for those I tried to include some direction on where to find it from the link landing spot.



April 26, 1937 (Monday)



Falmouth bridge closed at 2 o'clock and soon afterwards the Free Bridge was likewise closed.  The floorways of both bridges were separated from the top of the water by less than a foot at 3 o'clock and debris was beginning to pile up beside the framework. Grave fear was voiced that the structures may not be able to withstand the pounding...



The water began breaking over the floor of the Free Bridge at almost exactly 4 p.m. Hundreds of persons gathered on each end of the span stood breathless, momentarily expecting to see it buckle and collapse.



April 27, 1937 (Tuesday)


Free Bridge Destroyed


"Ole Man Rappahannock" Goes on Rampage

Photo of Free Bridge under water a few hours before it collapsed.


Large Section Is Damaged; Free Bridge Washed Out (Right Column)

The Free Bridge at the foot of William Street is hopelessly wrecked and many months will elapse before it can be replaced.


[City's first time hit with "500-year flood"]


Canal Overflows, Flooding Large Area in Northern Part of City

Several score of Fredericksburg homes, well back from the river and which no one ever thought of as being in danger from flood waters, were washed last night by the overflow from the power company canal which came out of its banks at Charles, Princess Anne and Prince Edward streets.  Dozens of basements were flooded, some first-floor rooms were under water, and many homes were deserted as families sought refuge...  In other casts (cases?) people remained in their homes but spent a harried night with fears that they might be trapped before dawn.

The canal first overflowed its banks about 6:30 last night and from then on until after 11 the water rose higher and higher and rushed in a surging current down Charles Street from Ford Street as far as Hawke, a distance of four blocks, covering almost the entire area from Princess Anne to Prince Edward and beyond, more than two blocks in width.

At its deepest points, the flood water came up about two feet.


Note:  According to National Weather Service history of flood events at Fredericksburg, the 1937 flood was almost SIX FEET higher than the previously recorded highest flood, so it would have been exactly as described, completely unexpected that water would reach some of these areas so far from the river:

Historic Crests

(1) 42.60 ft on 10/16/1942

(2) 39.10 ft on 06/22/1972

(3) 38.10 ft on 04/26/1937  <----

(4) 32.20 ft on 06/01/1889  <----


If anyone knows of other records besides the list provided by this NWS website that might indicate a previous flood event greater than the 1937 event, please let me know.



April 28, 1937


Total Losses In This Section Near Million

Wreckage Surveyed

The Free Bridge between Fredericksburg and Stafford leading to the Northern Neck had three spans near its center town away and it is expected that months will elapse before a new bridge can be built at an estimated cost of $200,000. Hundreds of people have walked out on the existing framework to see where it was smashed.


Saw Bridge Wreckage Float Under Trestles

More than 15 persons who stood on the R. F. & P. railroad bridge Monday night watching the Rappahannock river, saw three spans of the Free Bridge go out.  Five minutes later the wrecked sections passed beneath them, clearing the openings in the railroad bridge without touching.



Discuss Plans for New Bridge Here

April 29, 1937

May Build Footway

The possibility of constructing a temporary foot-bridge across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg pending replacement of flood-demolished Free Bridge was reported under consideration today by the State Highway Department.

… the department is considering erection of a walkway in the near future because of the large number of pedestrians who are now required to walk across the R. F. and P. Railroad bridge daily to reach their places of employment in the city.

Trains have been slowed down because of the pedestrians.

Bridge lost three of its spans in Monday's flood.



Just Before the Rappahannock Reached Its Crest

May 1, 1937

Photograph of Free Bridge



Highway Department to Run Ferry Across Rappahannock

May 3, 1937

Boat Service To Begin This Week

Temporary Repairs To Free Bridge Expected To Be Completed in 90 Days

Stafford Supervisors Urge Bridge Replacement At Present Location

Stafford Board of Supervisors passes resolution urging immediate replacement, including a new pedestrian path

City Council will meet tonight to take action regarding bridge replacement

Seek Future Plans - Efforts were made today to ascertain what plans the Highway Department has for a permanent bridge over the Rappahannock to replace the damaged Free Bridge, which for years has been considered inadequate for present traffic volume. [Talk about new site for a replacement bridge, south, near the railroad bridge, connecting with Route 1 north of Falmouth, bypassing Fredericksburg and most of Falmouth.]


Shirley Tells of Free Bridge Plans



Council Opposes Bridge Site Shift

May 4, 1937 (Tuesday)

Council votes to urge rebuilding in the same place, and to add capability for pedestrians as well.

Pronounced opposition was evident ... to changing the location of the bridge.  Moving the bridge was feared by some as perhaps paving the way for a by-pass or belt line around the city, the effects of which were held to be adverse to local business interests.

Several possibilities were mentioned... desirable to make temporary repairs to the Free Bridge at once and that subsequently the Falmouth Bridge be dismantled and set up to replace the Free Bridge, with a larger and more substantial bridge being erected to carry the Route One traffic at Falmouth.

Highway workmen were going forward with preparations to provide ferry service from Scott's Island to the Stafford shore to accommodate the large number of people desiring to cross each day.  The ferry boat is expected to be in operation by Wednesday morning. [The next day!] It will carry passengers only and they will be required to use the steps leading from the bridge to the island and to walk across the remaining spans of the bridge to the Fredericksburg shore.

Page 2:

The Highway Department will make temporary repairs to the bridge as rapidly as possible so that vehicular and pedestrian use can be resumed. Parts of the broken spans are expected to be salvaged and used in making repairs to the bridge.  It was at first believed that repair would be delayed not less than six months owing to inability to secure steel.  Later it was learned that steel adequate for temporary repairs was available immediately.



May 5, 1937


Ferry Service On River Is Started

One Hundred Persons Conveyed During First Day's Operation

A new ferry boat to supplant the one now in use was under construction this morning and will probably be put into use tomorrow.  The present boat, it was said, draws too much water and is too hard to handle in the shallow stream.  The new boat will have no motor.

A wharf was built extending approximately 75 feet into the river from Scott's Island this morning because of the shallow water, which failed to allow the boat to get close to shore. The new ferry boat is expected to be towed by a cable, stretching from the wharf on the island to that on the Stafford side.  Ferry is operated continuously throughout the day and night.


Bridge Action

Fifty Fredericksburg business leaders and officials: More discussion on building replacement bridge at a new site, allowing a by-pass of Fredericksburg.



Making Surveys For Bridge Site

[New scow for ferry]

May 6, 1937

Preliminary surveys were being made for a possible bridge site by a party of State Highway Department engineers... a few yards north of the R. F. & P. railroad bridge on both sides of the river, as well as at the foot of Lafayette Boulevard.

City Council strongly in favor of rebuilding on current site.

Scow expected momentarily to replace the present craft. At present, persons are being taken across the river in a rowboat, the motorboat having been abandoned because of its size and the amount of water it drew.  No oars will be used, the operators pulling it across on the cable. Lights will be placed across the river for use at night. The ferry is being operated 24 hours daily.



To Repair Bridge Within 45 Days

May 7, 1937

Updated estimates, due to materials on hand, ready for use within 45 days.  Spans will be replaced, not been determined whether it will be permanent or temporary because of the probability of the construction of a new bridge.

Surveys continue at several points along the Rappahannock river with view to determining other possible sites.



Many Subjects Up For City Council - Discusses Bridge Question

May 10, 1937 (Monday)

Discusses Bridge Question... Discussion will also be heard of the status of the Free Bridge question.  Council has already voted in favor of rebuilding the bridge at its present location...



(City Council) Act on Bridge Issue

May 11, 1937 (Tuesday)

... tentative surveys were being made of other possible bridge sites but no change would be made until all interests concerned had been given...

In the meantime, temporary repairs are being made to the damaged Free Bridge to permit limited use.



Bridge Materials Due This Month

May 17, 1937 (One story below linked headline)

Materials for repair of Free Bridge due in Fredericksburg before the end of May.  ...estimated that it would require about three or four weeks to restore the structure to traffic after the materials arrive.



No Bridge Hearing Likely Tomorrow

May 26, 1937 (Wednesday)

No plans for a local delegation to appear before the State Highway Commission... Decision deferred until a full hearing can be held.

Work of repairing the damaged bridge is going on but some time will elapse before traffic over the Free Bridge can be resumed due to delay in obtaining steel and other supplies for the repair work.



Read through May 31.

Skipped to July 1.

(Hole in my searching here, I figured unlikely to have any significant developments.)


Free Bridge Open To 1-Way Traffic

July 10, 1937 (Saturday)

Spans washed out in Spring Flood Have Been Replaced

The Free Bridge was opened to one-way traffic at noon today following the partial replacement of three spans of the bridge...  The bridge would be open to two-way traffic the latter part of next week.  Although work will not be complete, traffic will be able to move over the structure and work will continue until the bridge is completed.

Ferry service ends. The ferry boat which has been in service since the spans were swept away from the Stafford side of the river was abandoned at noon today and its operators placed at work on the bridge.

Traffic will be handled in single file.  Flagmen at each end will control traffic.

More notes on survey of sites for eventual replacement bridge.

[Never found an article that mentioned the opening of two-way traffic.]



Indirect reference to bridge opening

Action Suggested On Highway Route

August 11, 1937

City Council Urged To Exert Itself In Matter Of New Bridge - Change In Highway Feared If New Site Is Chosen For Span Over Rappahannock

The Free Bridge has been restored to use by means of temporary repairs, the work being done by highway forces.



No more searches until 1940.



Stumbled across this article by accident:

Truck Route West of City Proposed at Hearing Today

May 22, 1939

NEW FREE BRIDGE OUT: ... neither the government nor the state would build a new bridge at that point unless it was elevated safely above high water which would require raising it to a point that would be injurious to the city. Mr. Shirley repeated his belief that the best disposition of the highway problem from Fredericksburg's standpoint would be building a bridge at Lafeyette Street with a new road across Stafford Heights but this was opposed by some committee members who feared wholesale diversion of passenger cars.




Work on Bridge to Start Soon

October 2, 1940

Bowers Construction Company, Raleigh, NC

Work of dismantling the Free Bridge over the Rappahannock Rover at the foot of William Street is expected to get underway within the next few days.

... it was very likely that the bridge would be closed to traffic and pedestrians as soon as work towards dismantling the structure gets underway.  The Falmouth Bridge will be used thereafter.



Bridge Work Here One of 8 Big Highway Jobs

Free Bridge Closes to Vehicle Traffic Monday [Would be October 14, 1941] (Headline next article below)

October 12, 1940 (Saturday)

Dismantling of Free Bridge expected to take about two months.

Completion expected in May or June.



Marker is Moved Until New Bridge is Built

October 26, 1940

Temporarily moving Lease Land Marker at west end of the Free Bridge. Marks the boundary line of the original corporate limits of Fredericksburg.

[THIS is the article that started my quest to find out where the marker is now!]



Pouring Concrete on Last Abutment

April 1, 1941

Work began in October 1940.  Expected to finish by May 1, 1941.  Cost $288,364.03



Discuss Bridges

May 7, 1941

Plans for a ceremony to mark the opening of the new bridge ... about mid-June ... were discussed at the May meeting of the Chamber of Commerce last night.



Council Covers Various Subjects

May 14, 1941

Authorized payment of $3,800 for property damage in connection with approach to William Street bridge.

Ordered negotiation for purchase of condemnation of Limerick lot and Wallace warehouse at entrance to new bridge.

Heard from Mr. Houston that William Street bridge would be completed by last of June.


Skip to Wednesday June 11 (after next council meeting) Small mention of damage to approach to bridge.


Skip to

Bridge Dedication Plans Being Made

June 18, 1941

Tentative plans... No date has been set for the event... Expected between July 15 and August 1.



Skip to

Span to Open for Two-Way Traffic

July 1, 1941

Partial use to start July 25th, four-way traffic about August 7th, completed by August 15th.



Open New Bridge to Traffic Today

July 23, 1941

Two lanes of structure put in use.  All four lanes will be opened within two weeks.



Bridge Ceremony Set for August 14 (corrected the next day to 15th)

August 9, 1941

To be turned over to the State Highway Department. ...the other two lanes will be thrown open within the next few days.



Dedicate Bridge Friday Afternoon

August 11, 1941

Exercises to dedicate the new bridge will be held Friday afternoon at 4 o'clock.



Norris Will Make Bridge Response

August 13, 1941 (Wednesday)

State Senator Robert O. Norris will at 4 o'clock Friday afternoon.  The bridge was cleared of barricades and other obstacles early this morning and all four lanes of the structure were in use by traffic for the first time.



$288,000 Bridge Opens Tomorrow

August 14, 1940 (Thursday)

Parade, speakers, it was a very big deal!



Dedicate New Bridge With Ceremony Here

August 16, 1941

Page 1:

Page 2:

Big ceremony! "dedication of the $325,000 William Street bridge."

State Highway Commissioner James A. Anderson said the Federal government had contributed $150,000 from its flood relief fund, the state a like amount and the city the remaining portion to finance the structure.

End of article: The new bridge replaces the temporary span which was constructed after the flood of April 1937 carried away several spans of the old Free Bridge, erected shortly before the turn of the century.

[Unsure on the discrepancy in cost reporting.  I assume the $288K is the contract for the bridge itself, while the $325K is the total costs for all aspects.  This was the only article in which I saw $325K reported.]



Skipping WAY ahead to 2001!



Uncovering Secrets (Stone Warehouse)

August 4, 2001

Before Sophia Street was raised in 1939 and 1941 to accommodate the new Chatham Bridge...




Bridge may close for repair

May 4, 2002



Bridge repairs backed

May 10, 2002



Close it and fix it

May 13, 2002

Close the bridge in the fall, fix it quickly, and be happy you won't have to worry about it again for another 60 years. (!!!)



Chatham Bridge closure set

May 15, 2002

The 61-year-old Chatham Bridge will shut down for three weeks in July while crews make necessary repairs...



Bridge to close July 8

June 12, 2002

The Chatham Bridge will close for repairs on July 8 after the morning rush hour and remain that way until July 29.



Repairs close Chatham Bridge Tuesday

July 7, 2002



Chatham Bridge re-opens today

July 17, 2002

The Chatham Bridge opens for business today at 9 a.m.--13 days ahead of schedule.

The city also offered an added incentive: The firm could earn an extra $2,500 a day for each day the bridge was opened before July 30.

That's a $32,500 bonus for Lanford Brothers.



Potholes force closure of Chatham Bridge lane

February 22, 2003

The eastbound, right lane of Chatham Bridge is closed indefinitely while local road crews try to fix potholes left behind by the recent heavy snow.



State reduces weight limits on Chatham Bridge

May 6, 2014

The four-lane State Route 3 span, built in 1941 and already listed as structurally deficient, will have a posted weight limit of 21 tons for single vehicles and 26 tons for tractor–trailers.



Editorial: Keep an eye on two key, yet deteriorating Fredericksburg-area bridges over Rappahannock

March 26, 2015

Last fall, the state set aside $3 million to accelerate planning for the rehab of the Chatham Bridge. The money will allow preliminary engineering to start this year. There also are plans to improve access for pedestrians and bicyclists.  That money is a down payment, however. Complete rehabilitation of the bridge is estimated at $20 million.

VDOT also has long-range plans to replace the Falmouth Bridge, which opened about two years after Chatham, in 1943. Today, the Falmouth Bridge is considered “functionally obsolete,” because of the amount of traffic it carries. No surprises there to anyone who drives over it regularly. Engineering would start in 2020, and the replacement cost is estimated at $50 million.



Editorial: Welcome progress on Chatham Bridge

May 25, 2016



Chatham Bridge repair work to begin

February 18, 2017

Those red marks on the Chatham Bridge between Fredericksburg and Stafford County are indicators of work to come on sections of the decrepit concrete structure.



VDOT eyes two options for rehabbing Chatham Bridge

November 15, 2017

The Virginia Department of Transportation considers the 76-year-old structure structurally deficient, and is proposing two options for rehabilitating it.



VDOT moves up start of Chatham Bridge repair

March 26, 2019

When given an estimated cost of about $2 million to keep the pavement in driveable shape until the bridge work could begin, VDOT officials looked for a way to get started sooner, Hannon said.

As a result, work on the project could start in the latter half of 2020 and wrap up in early 2022. The completion originally was expected to come at the end of 2022.



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