A bridge with history

Mark Tenaranda, left, and Dave Melander, both of Manassas, fish along the Shenandoah River at Morgan Ford on a recent morning. Rich Cooley/Daily

A state legislator has asked Gov. Terry McAuliffe to delay the Morgan Ford Bridge project in Warren County.

Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, made the request in a letter dated March 22 after meeting with Barbara Frank, a representative of the Preserve Morgan’s Ford Consulting Group, in February. The group and others have fought the Virginia Department of Transportation’s plans to replace the single-lane, low-water bridge with a much taller and wider crossing over the Shenandoah River.

However, work already has begun on the project. VDOT entered into a $4.9 million construction contract with ORDERS Construction Company on Feb. 3 after acquiring the land needed for the project along the route.

But construction would destroy the site and, specifically, the possible remnants of the historic community set up near the bridge known as Smoketown, McEachin warns in the letter. Historians say Smoketown was a community at the ford in the river created by freed slaves.

Whether or not McAuliffe sides with McEachin and the preservation group remains uncertain. A spokesman for the governor’s office did not respond to an email asking for comment Tuesday.

Frank shared information to the senator, said Jediah Jones, McEachin’s legislative and constituent services director.

“Sen. McEachin, of course being a history buff, was very interested to learn more about it and also he said that he would be glad to send a letter to the governor in support of halting the construction and moving forward with some type of, I guess, exploration of the site to see what exactly what is there,” Jones said on Tuesday.

“I think that he would like to think that he has the ear of the governor and it seemed as (if) these folks, from what Mrs. Frank shared, have not been able to get the attention of the governor on this issue,” Jones added, noting that they have tried to gain support from other legislators and congressmen. “I think Sen. McEachin’s main goal was to help out where he could and he was more than glad to write the letter.”

Since the signing of the agreement to proceed with the construction, new information about the site of Smoketown has come to light, McEachin states in the release. Information includes the identities of the former slaves who lived in Smoketown once owned by Robert Carter III, of Nomony Hall, Westmoreland County, McEachin adds.

“The Department of Historic Resources is aware of the new evidence, recently placed on record during the 2015 nomination and approval process of the Rockland Rural … Historic District, yet there has been no move to delay construction,” McEachin states. “Moreover, VDOT has misidentified the actual Smoketown site, as clearly documented by a number of early maps, including Civil War era maps prepared by military engineers. If construction proceeds as planned, the site would be destroyed.”

McEachin noted that he met Frank on Feb. 11 when she traveled to Richmond to attend Preservation Virginia’s reception. McEachin adds that McAuliffe might have met members of the consulting group after the governor spoke at the reception on the importance of preserving Virginia’s historic sites.

McEachin points out that the ford served as a community gathering place and the south bank is the location of the late 18th century settlement known as Smoketown, which he notes is an African-American heritage site of national significance. McEachin adds that Smoketown is linked to the largest manumission in the country before the end of the Civil War.

“Smoketown could prove an important destination for heritage tourism, its preservation an acknowledgment of Virginia’s programs dedicated to honoring African American history,” McEachin states.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com