Cannonballs fired by Union and Confederate forces hit it during the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Earth piled against it when Sophia Street was raised during the reconstruction of the Chatham Bridge in 1941, which caused the building to shift more than a foot toward the Rappahannock River.
Now, Fredericksburg officials are concerned about the impact the latest work on the bridge could have on the historic warehouse at the corner of William and Sophia streets.
“An assessment of the building was completed last year and determined that the structural integrity of the building is compromised to the point that extra precautions should be made during the bridge project, including the installation of brace beams and vibration monitors to help ensure the protection of the building,” said Fredericksburg Public Works Director Dave King.
The city owns the four-story building, which businessman Thomas Goodwin built around 1813 on top of a 1754 tobacco warehouse that had been destroyed in the fire of 1807. Jack Edlund leases the building and has been digging for artifacts and giving tours of the property off and on for years.
The city has asked him to leave by the end of October, and he plans to close Oct. 6 and move to Florida. Preparations for the Chatham Bridge rehabilitation project are underway, although work on the bridge isn’t expected to begin until May.
“While there’s no expectation or concern for any serious impacts upon the building during the bridge work, out of an abundance of caution, we do not want the building to be occupied during the project,” King said.
The warehouse is one of the city’s few remaining old working-class buildings, and has been used as everything from a brewery to a salt herring factory, Edlund said. Salt water dripping from barrels packed with fish from its herring factory days in the early 1900s seeped into the warehouse’s American chestnut beams and helped to preserve and bug-proof them.
“It makes the wood look soft and rotten, but it’s not,” Edlund said during a recent tour. “You try pounding a nail into this and it’s like nailing into petrified wood.
“Fortunately that happened. The city had it sitting empty for 40 years, and termites and powder post beetles would have eaten this place alive.”
No one wanted to use the building during those years because it didn’t have heat or running water. But Edlund, who helped found the local chapter of the Virginia Archaeological Society, said that he’d always admired it. He first leased the warehouse in 1980 at the request of the late Lillian Reed, who was active in preservation efforts in Fredericksburg. He let the lease expire after six years, and then leased it again on April 1, 2001, at the city’s urging.
“I have friends who say April Fool’s Day seems most appropriate, but basically we’re just opening it up, digging it out and clearing out the backyard,” Edlund said. “We don’t own this stuff. We’re just managing it. We’re going to die and somebody else is going to manage it. Do we leave it better or worse? If we manage it in the right direction, it should be good for another 200 years.”
He’ll continue to give tours Fridays through Sundays until he closes, as well as dig through the river mud in the building’s basement. There he and volunteers have found shards of porcelain, broken bottles and other objects—including old coins and equipment left behind by Civil War soldiers. Each has been coded to show where it was found and at which level of excavated mud, and the information has been recorded in an excavation register book. He said he intends to talk to the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc. to see if they’ll take them.
One of his favorite finds is half of a 1773 Virginia half penny, which a young boy helping him dig discovered. People used to clip off parts of a coin to pay for things that cost less than the entire coin, and he has several similar examples on display.
Another treasure was an old Coca–Cola bottle that someone wrapped in newspaper years ago, stored over the doorway and then forgot. That person likely couldn’t afford a Thermos, and used the newspaper to keep the bottle cold. He probably planned to turn the bottle in for the deposit after finishing the soda, Edlund said.
A tourist offered to pay $75 for the bottle, explaining that the patent information on the front showed it was from the first run of the curvy Mae West style of Coca-Cola bottle in 1915.
“I turned him down,” Edlund said, “but I’ve had $1,000 of fun telling this story.”
He also has fun giving visitors tours of the building, pointing out places where cannonballs hit during the Battle of Fredericksburg and taking them out the basement door leading to the river so they can view all four stories of the warehouse.
The Sophia Street side of the two bottom floors was covered up when the street level was raised so the Chatham Bridge could be rebuilt. When that caused the building to shift, the city, HFFI, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the National Trust chipped in $179,000 for a concrete retaining wall and to add an I-beam in the attic and run metal tie rods through the building for additional support.
“I tell everybody we may be dirty and crooked, but we’re not falling into the river anymore,” Edlund said.
City Manager Tim Baroody said he has toured the Old Stone Warehouse with his staff and Virginia Department of Transportation officials, and is planning to arrange a tour for City Council members in September.
“We are discussing the future of the Old Stone Warehouse,” he said, “but there is no definitive plan at this point.”