RVA 5X5 | The History of The Mayo Bridge

by | May 24, 2024 | COMMUNITY

The city and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) are undertaking the early stages of planning to replace the Mayo Bridge (14th Street bridge) that connects Hull Street in Manchester and 14th Street in Shockoe Bottom. The four lanes of bridge traffic often resemble the races at Richmond Raceway and the low (and crumbling) sidewalks offer zero protection for people on foot or bikes or hanging out fishing the James. While the state is looking for the public’s feedback on the current condition of the bridge and the priorities for the replacement, the history of the bridge goes back a long way.

The current iteration of the bridge was built in 1913, but a bridge has been there since the Constitution was written. Richmonder William Mayo , who laid out the city’s original street grid in 1737 always planned such a bridge, and his grandson later saw the plan to fruition with a floating pontoon bridge that was built in 1787.

The toll in the late 1700’s was 6.25 cents per person (about $2.11 in today’s money) and per horse, but the bridge kept getting wiped out. The bridge was destroyed a few months after it opened when the river froze and when the ice melted it took out the structure and wiped out again in 1802. It also was destroyed in floods in 1814, 1816, 1823, 1870, and 1877 and a blizzard in 1899 also did it in (and of course, it was burned by retreating Confederates in April 1865).

According to the Valentine, competing bridges appeared in various forms over the years.

In 1814, Edward Trent gained permission to build a toll bridge at about 9th Street. By the 1830s, the Mayo family was operating Trent’s bridge. City officials began to discuss a free bridge between Manchester and Richmond in the early 1870s, using the site of Trent’s bridge. In June 1873, the James River Free Bridge opened to traffic. Despite public complaints of its safety and usefulness, the Free Bridge remained in use until 1973, when the Virginia State Highway Department completed the current 9th Street (or Manchester) Bridge.

The City of Richmond purchased the older Mayo Bridge in 1905, and when the merger took place with the City of Manchester in 1910, Richmond promised to build a sturdier bridge. The new (and still existing) bridge was modeled in an early art deco style based on the Pont Neuf over the Seine River in Paris with concrete arches set on piers that follow the river flow.

But perhaps one of the most interesting pieces of history about the bridge comes from one of the early rebuilds. According to one of the historical marker’s on Richmond’s Slave Trail, the 1802 rebuild was done with a workforce that was (literally) an all-hands on deck affair.

To rebuild, [Mayo] relied on a workforce often available for large scale construction projects, a group of free and enslaved, black and white, local and regional workers contributed brute muscle as well as highly skilled craftsman.

When construction was in full swing, seventy men could be working on the bridge at once – “highly skilled free Black artisans, like blacksmiths Samuel Redd and Claiborne Evans, supplied metalwork at the same time that ‘Frank Sheppard the yellow man’ was tarring timbers, Frederick Ayton, a white craftsman, was plastering the toll house.” Gangs of enslaved men were also involved with the construction of the Mayo Bridge, and its successful completion depended on the coordination between all of these groups regardless of race, trade or social status.

In return for their efforts, Mayo provided meals and whiskey for all of the workers. After a long day of labor, the men would often eat and drink together, creating a social network that could strengthen their ties as laborers as well as communicate the news of the day. While most of the workers on the bridge were native to Richmond, the size of the project demanded temporary immigrant labor from Williamsburg and beyond, bringing men and their experiences to the capital city. 

Through word of mouth enslaved laborers could seek out news of long lost family members or learn of other events, such as troubles experienced by held by other bondspeople or of brewing conflicts. There is speculation that Gabriel of the Prosser plantation, who spent his life in Henrico County and the city of Richmond, included Africans as far away as Jamestown in his plans for rebellion through such communication networks.

VDOT invites residents and travelers to learn more about the project and take the online survey until June 9th.

Read more from Jon Baliles and RVA 5×5 HERE

Jon Baliles

Jon Baliles

Jon Baliles is the founder and editor of the Substack RVA 5x5 newsletter (https://rva5x5.substack.com). He spent a decade in City Hall as a member of City Council and also served as an advisor to Mayors Wilder and Stoney and also served as the Executive Assistant to the Director of the Planning Department.




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