Monday, October 10, 2011

Richmond’s Lost Skyway: The Marshall Street Viaduct

Marshall Street Viaduct as it appeared on a postcard ca. 1920 - the back of the card reads: "This beautiful viaduct spanning Shockoe Valley from Fourteenth to Twenty-first Streets was constructed for the Richmond and Henrico Street Railway, and is open to the public for general traffic connecting the Eastern and Western portions of the city."

Today it is hard to imagine driving a straight and level street from the modern VCU Medical Center campus, through the sky above Shockoe Valley and into the heart of Church Hill, but from the morning of February 12, 1911, until the afternoon of June 26, 1970, the Marshall Street Viaduct served Richmonders as the easiest route between the two hills.  Running from College and Marshall streets, straight through what is now the Massey Cancer Center, the Viaduct carried Marshall Street across the valley to the Twenty-first Street at Jefferson Park, half a mile away.

This view is from the modern intersection of Marshall and
College streets - a view today blocked by the Massey Cancer Center facility.

            The construction of the Viaduct by the Richmond and Henrico Railway as it marched across Shockoe Valley on its tall steel legs was followed with much interest in the Richmond newspapers.  A photograph from the period shows the bridge’s towering path above Marshall Street, striding above the houses in the valley below.  The shadow of the new bridge marked the hours for students at Marshall School at 19th and Marshall Street, and crept over the coal depots, the railroad tracks, the machine shops, and the roofs of warehouses and homes in the valley below.

            The Richmond Times-Dispatch estimated that on the day it opened, thousands of people took advantage of the view from the Viaduct on that February Sunday before the tolls were put in place.  As they stood at the railing, they looked to the south and the green hills of Manchester rose above the river valley, beyond the clock tower of Main Street Station.  To the north, the factories and warehouses of Shockoe Valley gave way to a neighborhood of small houses, mostly populated by African Americans, and beyond them, a busy locomotive factory at the upper end of the valley.

Below the delighted pedestrians who experienced the Marshall Street Viaduct on its opening day, trains moved around the sidings and main lines of Shockoe Valley like toys. Directly under the roadway, they could peer down on the roof of the Richmond City Jail, tucked against the sheer wall of Shockoe Hill below the Egyptian Building of the Medical College.

“The visitors moved leisurely about the viaduct, and many of them were much interested in peering over the high hand-rails for a view below, nearly 200 feet,” reported a Richmond newspaper.  “The dizzying height was too much for many, and one glance below at passing trains was sufficient.”

The Viaduct was also witness to the famous collapse of a railroad tunnel under Church Hill in 1925, whose western portal was very near the base of the Viaduct.  Rescue shafts were sunk into the tunnel from Jefferson Park above, and it was possible to follow their progress from the sidewalk of the eastern end of the Viaduct.


 In the foreground are the shafts sunk in an attempt to rescue the crew of the train buried in the Church Hill railroad tunnel collapse.  In the background is the elevator that allowed transfers
for street car riders with a line in the valley below

The streetcar line that ran down Broad Street Hill had been the scene of many spectacular runaway streetcar accidents, to the point these crashes were sometimes featured in national newspapers.  In the photograph of rescue efforts at the tunnel collapse, it is possible to see an enclosed elevator from the roadway of the Marshall Street Viaduct down to the valley floor.  After 1915 this elevator allowed streetcar passengers such as commuting workers in Shockoe factories to ride up to the level of the Viaduct, and then catch another streetcar east or west to downtown, avoiding the treacherous Broad Street hill.  A ticket for this unique vertical transfer remains one of the most desired items for collectors of American streetcar memorabilia.

This photo of the Viaduct shows the amount of material that was pushed into Shockoe Valley from Jackson Ward and Navy Hill.  In the foreground the supports of the Viaduct have been protected by the flood of debris by concrete walls.  To the right is the area where the highway material covered part of the Burial Ground for Negroes site.

The late 1950s saw the construction of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (now Interstate 95), which tore through Jackson Ward and Navy Hill.  The bricks and debris and even the ground under these two Richmond neighborhood was bulldozed and shoved like a flood into the western edge of Shockoe Valley.  Construction of the highway destroyed hundreds of houses, completely obliterated Navy Hill, and flowed down the valley over the site of the Burying Ground for Negroes and the old City jail, and around the supports of the Marshall Street Viaduct.  Concrete cofferdams preserved the Viaduct’s pilings and, for a time, demonstrated the original level of the valley floor. 

Last car to cross the viaduct.

The end came in 1970, half an hour after City Works Director Wilkinson received a letter from a New York engineering firm which, after surveying the bridge, found, “the margin of structural adequacy of the present viaduct is questionable…the Marshall Street viaduct should be closed to all traffic at once.”  Wilkinson picked up the telephone and had the police immediately reroute traffic away from the Viaduct entrances.

This postcard view from Church Hill shows the Marshall Street Viaduct on the right
where it met the Medical College of Virginia campus.

City Councilman Howard H. Carwile declared, “we’d have to be a real lunatic to open that bridge again and I doubt we will.”  They never did, and today not a trace remains of the massive concrete bases or the steel supports of Richmond’s lost skyway.  It would be six years before the two hills were once again united (this time by Leigh Street) with the opening of the Martin Luther King Memorial Bridge in 1976.


- Selden Richardson. 


Anonymous said...

Interesting, I had no idea about the Marshall St. viaduct. Thank goodness it was replaced by the Leigh St. bridge. It makes biking from Church Hill to the business district a breeze! There's no way I'd do it everyday if I had to go up and down Broad Street.

robsmithiii said...

There are no traces of this Marshall Street viaduct, true. I looked on Google Maps sometime back and found, via satellite view, the ruins of an old building just barely north of Leigh Street viaduct. Any idea what this was?

alton nunn said...

My name is Alton Nunn I worked the car 614 for 5 years I must have crossed that viaduct a 1000 times going to M.C.V, and St. Phillips Hosp to take reports . I worked that beat from 1962 till 1967. I left Richmond and retired from the Henry Co. police Dept.

Valerie Augustson said...

I remember that bridge as a child. It petrified me. There were slats that you could look down through as you drove over it and it made a horrendous noise as you rolled from slat to slat.

Barbara Hartmann said...

When I was a child my mother and I walked across the viaduct from 23rd and Broad to downtown Richmond as a easier way to get to downtown Richmond. I'm so glad someone did take pictures of it. I would like to know where you found that postcard very such a good view of it.