Looking Upstream

I come from Hopewell. Hopewell, Virginia – to be precise – at the confluence of the James and Appomattox rivers in a region I refer to as “Upper Tidewater”. I have always had a fascination with the Appomattox River. As a boy, I played along its banks and roamed the streets in the Mansion Hills section of Hopewell trying to see the river from a different perspective. I always dreamed of having a boat that I could take up and down the navigable portion of the river between Petersburg and Hopewell. This did not sit too well with my mother for her brother had drowned in the river a few years before I was born.

This was not the only tragedy along my portion of the river. In 1935, a Greyhound bus returning from Richmond, VA on Route 10 approached the bridge. In those days, the span was a drawbridge and on this particular day, at that particular moment, the draw was open to allow a boat or two to pass through. There were no cars waiting at the barrier ahead of the bus and the driver suffered a heart attack. The bus broke through the barrier and plunged into the cold waters of the river. It was said that the sound of the chassis scrapping against the steel lip of the bridge could be heard all over town. Of the 15 people on board the bus, only one survived. Among the dead was the wife of a long time family friend.* (See Comment)

Looking Downstream

About 14 years ago, I took my canoe on the waters of Swift Creek and on out into the river. There are a series of long wooded islands in that portion of the river, built upon the silt and gravel of all the years that the river has crossed the Fall Line from the Piedmont into the Tidewater and dropped its burden as the current slowed. I made it to one of those islands and thus only paddled part way across the Appomattox. I guess that making my way along and across the Appomattox remains on my ‘Bucket list”.

My father once told me that he had been up near the headwaters of the Appomattox; so far up that the river was narrow enough for him to step across. Now, I generally believed what my father told me at that age in spite of the fact that he liked to prey upon the gullibility of childhood and lay some whoppers on me. I suppose that today, he would have run afoul of the child protective services and I would be the recipient of years of psycho-therapy. Since kids of that ancient era were apparently made of more sterner stuff, I survived the leg-pulling and today smile inwardly whenever I think of my father’s tall tales.


The First Bridge Over The Appomattox

Nonetheless, it has been my ambition ever since that tender age to go upstream to the point where I, too, could step across the Appomattox River. This past weekend, I finally made that ambition come true though at this stage of my life, the expedition had something of an air of “Mythbusters”.

As Hopewell is the site of the last bridge over the Appomattox, so the former village of Appomattox Courthouse is the site of the first bridge. For those of you who happened to be awake during that portion of American History in high school, Appomattox Courthouse was the scene of  General Grant’s surrender to Robert E. Lee  Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Grant at the close of the war of  Northern Aggression Civil War.

Virginia Route 24 follows the route of the old Richmond to Lynchburg stage road that the Army of Northern Virginia took as it made its way towards Appomattox Station and the hope of resupply from three Confederate trains sent from Lynchburg. Lee’s army never made it to the station and found its way blocked at Appomattox Courthouse. The stage road crossed the river at roughly the same point that the highway bridge does today.

A Wee Dam

At that point, the river is lined with green, grassy banks and Sycamore trees. Picnic tables sit beneath the trees on both sides of the road. The headwaters of the Appomattox lie roughly 1 & 3/4 miles west of the bride and outside of the National Park Service property. It would be theoretically possible to bushwhack my way upstream – over private property – to where the nascent river is narrow enough for a child to step over but that is something for another day or another lifetime. Therefore, I must conclude that if my father indeed was able to step over the Appomattox, it was here at the bridge.

On this day, I was not able to step across for the National Park Service has placed a (very) wee dam across the stream where the river re-enters the. woods. Composed of a few flat and small blocks of granite, the dam is a landscaping trick to create a small, shallow pool beneath the bridge and gives the impression of a somewhat more substantial river than exists at this point. That, combined with the sand and gravel that has accumulated above the (very) wee dam over the years as well as springs flush with winter rains, makes the Appomattox River a bit too wide to step across at that point. Maybe two steps and a pair of duck shoes would do it.

The paternal “Myth” is not completely busted, though. In a couple of months, the river will have narrowed in the summer’s heat and you can indeed step across it. Perhaps, I will come back at that time.

One Response to Crossing The Appomattox

  • Howard says:

    Over the months since this story was originally posted, I have observed a number of search terms and phrases that mention this tragedy. Here are a few links that will provide additional information:

    • Criticalpast.com – This site contains newsreel footage of recovering the bus.
    • GenDisasters.com – Aggregated newspaper reports from around the country.
    • RareNewspapers.com – A copy for sale of the Leominster (MA) Daily Enterprise – Dec. 23, 2012. Shows a bit of the story as well as what else was happening in the world then.

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