Small Scale Westward Expansion

Tyler Potterfield’s tour of Richmond was informative about the history of the city, while at the same time it created a lot of questions. In general, he did a great job of explaining how and when events occurred, but left me wondering why such developments in the city’s history took place. For example, Potterfield spent a lot of time discussing the city’s history of destroying what had existed, namely the landscape and historical sites. He also addressed how the suburbs, came to be. However, since I go to the University of Richmond, I wanted to know more about the West End, and why this area in particular developed into the upscale suburb that it is today. Why here in the rolling Western part of the countryside, rather than moving to the east? The reason is due to the loss of rural space and access to the river, as well as an overly urbanized downtown that in no way resembled its original state.

The development of Westham Village was closely tied to the development of downtown Richmond. Potterfield explained that throughout the nineteenth century, Richmond went through a phase of rapid urbanization during which industries expanded, polluted the river and the air, and created a stench throughout the city. This period of time destroyed Richmond’s natural beauty. The city’s designers built the city in a tight, grid-like manner because they envisioned it to be a walking city. Thus, houses sprang up with very little space between them, creating a crowded feel for the people. However, the combination of the dirt streets filled with dust and raw sewage made it disgusting to walk through. The city no longer resembled its natural landscape for which it was founded, and dubbed “nonesuch place,” leaving the people with no option but to try and recreate a new organic place.

Since Richmond was founded for its natural beauty, it is not surprising that its people would once again seek refuge in an untouched landscape. One option Richmonders had for escaping the city was to go to Westham Village, which already existed in the rural western boundaries of the city. Located at the end of the James River Canal, Westham Village was also was at a crossroads of turnpikes and railroads, and a crossing point of the James River. This meant that the area was crucial to trade, yet was still a natural and peaceful area. As Richmond became crowded and polluted, wealthier Richmonders bought land out here to build villas, where they could escape the noise, masses, and smells of the city[1].

Potterfield noted that the addition of the streetcar in 1883 proved to be the most important event in the development of Westham Village. Suddenly, this far removed space in the countryside was accessible to the masses. Parks began to spring up for summertime walks, providing polite society places to convene. In 1914, the University of Richmond relocated to the old Westhampton Park, which went bankrupt a few years earlier. For the first time, the area had an institution, attracting far more people for the prestige associated with being in this part of the city. Westham Village officially began transitioning into what would become the modern-day West End.

Why, however, was it this western part of the countryside that would develop into such an important suburb? Moving west provided the people with two important opportunities: first, they could start fresh and develop a new area of the city just for its natural beauty, and they had access to the James once again. The people transformed downtown Richmond into an urban center without any semblance of its former natural landscape. Despite the fact that the wealthy Victorians looked upon the smokestacks spitting out black clouds into the air as a sign of money and power, they were the first to retreat to the country to escape the filth. Developers “created long blocks with many lots on a block face and generous lot frontages,” where homeowners would maintain private lawns and gardens[2]. Parks and roads were designed with the intention of maintaining the natural contours of the land. Most notably, the Windsor farms development was “a dramatic arrangement of green spaces, radiating and curved streets and avenues and a diverse and extensive placement of shade and ornamental street trees,”.[3] The preservation of the natural landscape was the most crucial feature of the move to the west, signifying the fact that Richmonders wanted nature in their lives.

The West End, just like Richmond, was founded based on its accessibility to the James River. Since Westham Village was upstream from the pollution and industrialization of downtown Richmond, the people could once again access the river for recreation and admiration, such as afternoon walks along the canal[4]. Another feature of the West End was the absence of buildings blocking the view of the river. It could not always be seen due to the hilly terrain of the area, but it was accessible once again due to the lack of factories along its banks. The people of Richmond’s connection and affinity with the James River inevitably meant that they would find a way to reclaim it for all of its natural beauty in the end.

Westham Village physically transformed in a matter of decades. While it once was a rural retreat for the wealthy Victorians of the city, it grew into a major suburb of the city. Despite the area’s growth, however, it remained peaceful and continued to resemble a natural landscape. People could idealize the “smell of money” bellowing from smokestacks in the city, while still being able to escape to and appreciate a natural and beautiful landscape[5]. The desire for a quiet escape from the city highlights an important theme in the history of Richmond: while the people always foresee the city as the next great metropolis of the United States, they also cannot stand living in a crowded, unnatural place. A struggle might exist between the desire for development and the desire for a peaceful, rural landscape. Since all places have one defining characteristic, perhaps this resistance to transforming into an urban hub is what has shaped the development of the entire city of Richmond for all of its existence.

[1] Potterfield, Tyler, Nonesuch Place: A History of the Richmond Landscape (Charlseton, S.C.: The History Press, 2009), 102.

[2] Potterfield, Nonesuch Place, 123.

[3] Potterfield, Nonesuch Place, 126.

[4] Potterfield, Nonesuch Place, 104.

[5] Potterfield, Nonesuch Place, 72.

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4 Responses to Small Scale Westward Expansion

  1. urpl4ut says:

    I agree that it would have been nice to hear more about the land closer to the University of Richmond campus. The questions you pose are thought-provoking and the explanations you provide are effective and supported well by Potterfield’s book. Were there any questions that you proposed that the book cannot answer?

    I really like the end, the mention of the struggle between the ideal of the great metropolis versus the desire of a natural place. I think that speaks to human progress in general…do we expand technology that revolutionizes our way of life, at the expense of the “natural” life, the nostalgia of life that involves enjoying nature? Today, thanks to technological advances, most Americans could live inside their entire lives if they so choose. In modern society, it takes a conscious effort to incorporate nature into one’s daily life, whereas a century ago, it was more of an effort to use technology. I wonder what society will look like in another hundred years.

  2. urzb6hx says:

    I think the juxtaposition that is present in your post between the desire to be surrounded by nature and the necessity for railroad, canal and street car access. While the people came West of the city to have a place for the wealthiest of Richmonders to escape downtown urban Richmond, you also noted that the area was a hub for many forms of transportation. I think that says a lot about the people settling and establishing the city’s necessity for industry and proximity to resources. This explains why when downtown Richmond was first created they did not value the land and essentially industrialized the area around the James. People settled this land to make a city and have industry, but were able to keep the West End as an opportunity to escape from the hustle and bustle of day to day life.

  3. urch2wa says:

    I like the difference that you display in your essay between the different sides of the river. With great imagery you were able to bring out the fact that the two sides can be completely different. There is a certain part of the river where on one side there are train tracks that are used often while on the other side there are a series of parks and houses. This part of the river is slightly more narrow than other parts so the juxtaposition is very evident.

    I enjoyed how the West End side of Richmond was fleshed out. Potterfield throughly covered the downtown side but you are right in saying that you wanted more history on the UR side of the river. Due to the fact that it was all upstream from downtown and was therefor preserved gave the area a sense of a safe haven from all the industry far down the way.It allows for a sense of perspective, where we are, relative to the rest of Richmond and where it has all come from.

  4. urmk8sk says:

    I too share you interest for Westham Village and the existing areas around the University. I like your mention of the advancement of the streetcar in 1883 as a pivotal point for the neighborhood, however, I feel that this should be stressed even more. Prior to this event, the area was a wonderful idea but it was unattainable. Once the streetcar came to use, it opened up the possibilities of people being able to accomplish both their desires – living in a clean place and working in an environment with high earning potential. I see this as the critical shift which pushed Westham Village, along with other places like it, to transform in value.

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