Evidence of Fredericksburg’s past lies just below the surface of what will soon become the city’s newly designed Riverfront Park.
Most of the 3.5-acre site on Sophia Street used to be a mixed residential neighborhood of tenements and single-family homes. Two Fredericksburg mayors once lived here, and it was also the site of John Ferneyhough’s Ice House, the city’s first formally established commercial ice house.
Dovetail Cultural Resource Group began excavations Tuesday to document the remains of these archaeologically sensitive sites, which will be affected when work on the park begins this spring. It didn’t take long for a backhoe to scrape away enough topsoil to expose the foundation of a duplex that had stood at 717–719 Sophia St.
One of the rental property’s distinctive features, clearly visible in a photograph taken years ago, was a brick double chimney. Tenants living on both sides of the house would have used it.
“To have a central chimney is very unique for our area,” said Kerri Barile, who owns Dovetail.
That design is typically found farther north, because the climate is colder and people want to keep the heat inside, she explained. In the South, chimneys are usually built at the ends of buildings.
Dovetail has researched the Riverfront Park site and conducted digs there for the city since 2013, when planning for the park began. The city called on the Spotsylvania County firm’s expertise again in 2015 after the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge was torn down and part of the mound that it had stood on was accidentally removed. Partial remains of Union soldiers and other artifacts were found.
Dovetail came back in 2017 to investigate the rest of the mound, and uncovered evidence of a previously unknown Civil War trench. Since then, Dovetail has been working with Rhodeside & Harwell, an Alexandria landscape architectural firm, to figure out where features of the park, such as trees, a pavilion and park benches, would overlay areas of archaeological interest if they couldn’t be moved elsewhere.
“We’ve really honed in on those areas to make sure artifacts are removed before the park is developed,” Barile said.
Dovetail’s work, which will take four weeks, is divided into three tiers based on their level of importance. Tier 1 locations include the duplex at 717–719 Sophia St., and the Rowe–Goolrick House at the opposite end of the property. That house had been the home of Absalom P. Rowe and Peter Goolrick, who were mayors of Fredericksburg in the 1800s.
It was used as a hospital during the Civil War. Barile said it’s possible additional remains of soldiers treated there could be found.
Tier 1 also includes Ferneyhough’s Ice House, which was one of a number of ice houses in the city in the days before refrigeration. Dovetail studied the privately owned one at Sentry Box, an historic home on Caroline Street, in 2008; and Barile said she’s interested in comparing it to the remains of Ferneyhough’s.
“That could put Fredericksburg on the map,” she said, since little research has been done about commercial ice houses.
Tier 2 locations include areas where the data may not be as highly sensitive as those in Tier 1. They include the antebellum duplex that once stood at 701–703 Sophia St.
Tier 3 includes areas where data may be present that can provide information on area history, but similar deposits may be found elsewhere in the region. They include remains of the postbellum dwellings at 711 and 713 Sophia St.
Dovetail will map all the architectural details that it uncovers, including fences and privies, and then cover them back up. Any artifacts that are found will be conserved.
It will use all information gathered, including archival research, to paint a picture of what life was like in that area, according to the data recovery plan presented to the city. Among other things, it will examine how architecture and landscape served to reinforce social and racial barriers in this section of the city during the antebellum and postbellum periods.