470 Tredegar Street
The Confederacy’s indispensable industry.
Virginia was a major producer of coal and pig iron during the eighteenth century. Such industries, essentially extractive and technologically primitive, were compatible with a rural and agricultural social order. Existing foundry production was limited to the proverbial swords and plowshares, But an industrial future was predicted, by men like Tench Coxe in 1794, for the seaport at the falls off James River.
Richmond had abundant water power and was adjacent to the major-working-coal fields of America. Access to the sea would be complemented by the James River and Kanawha Canal, which reached .to the iron furnaces of the Valley by 1851. By the early nineteenth century, the city was thriving on the basis of flour mills and tobacco factories, commission-merchant houses and banks, and the coal trade.
Two indices of her ante-bellum prosperity were population growth and the many stately residences constructed during that period, Richmond now had the business acumen and capital, as well as the raw materials necessary to sustain a modern-iron industry. The puddling and rolling mills which rose in the city during the 1830’s were a response to the market created by the new railroad industry, as well as the tooling and re-tooling needs of established factories and mills. The Tredegar Iron Works–named for the famous works at Tredegar, Wales–were chartered in 1837.
The Tredegar’s rise to preeminence began in 1841, when Joseph Reid Anderson first became associated with the, then nearly bankrupt, company. During a period of severe depression in the American iron industry, Anderson brought Tredegar a measure of prosperity–something which his predecessor as commission-sales agent had been unable to accomplish under more favorable economic conditions. Having no viable alternative, the directors permitted him to assume operation of the Works, first as lessee then as owner, in November 1843.
Anderson paid his final installment for the Tredegar in January 1854. The Tredegar Iron Company was then dissolved debt free and with capital – remaining for division among the shareholders. J. R. Anderson and Co., the successor firm, was one of the largest and best-equipped ironworks in America. The Company had the capacity to produce, in quantity, nearly any conceivable type of finish iron – for peace or wartime use.
Charles B. Dew epitomizes the tragic flaws of Confederate heavy industry: “Beginning as early as 1862, increasingly acute shortages of raw materials and skilled labor cut Tredegar output sharply.” Anderson had no native pool of skilled labor to draw upon when foreign and Northern workers withdrew their services. Severe shortages or raw materials – inevitable once the blockade was effective, given the poorly developed domestic sources of supply and transportation – kept Tredegar production at, or below, one-third of capacity for most of the War, At that, Anderson & Co. outproduced every northern ordnance foundry except one. (Virginia Department of Historic Resources)
Tredegar proved invaluable to the Confederacy. Despite shortages in labor and raw materials, nearly 1100 cannon were produced in its foundries, while the rolling mills turned out iron plating for Confederate naval gunboats. Although numerous efforts were made to capture Richmond, and many battles fought on the city’s doorstep, it never fell to Union hands, and Tredegar never ceased operation until April 2, 1865.
That evening, the Confederate government and army abandoned the city.
Evacuation fires swept through the business district, rapidly approaching Tredegar, but Anderson’s workers stayed at their posts and made sure that the facility did not fall to rampaging looters or the flames that were consuming the city. Anderson’s efforts to save Tredegar succeeded and in the months and years following the city’s collapse, the Iron Works played an instrumental role in rebuilding the defeated South. (National Parks Service)
The Company survived the War, but the Works desperately needed to be reconditioned if they were to be of material assistance in the physical reconstruction of the South. Anderson raised desperately needed fluid capital by the sale of coal mines, and ultimately through dissolution of the partnership in favor of a joint-stock venture.
The Tredegar Company incorporated in 1867, successfully attracted Northern capital, while Anderson and his old partners retained control of the firm. The company had more than regained its prewar capacity when, during the Panic of 1873, several of its leading rail customers went bankrupt, The railroads which had made the old company now broke the new.
Iron gave way to steel, but the Tredegar, lacking funds, was unable to make the transition. Richmond gave way to Birmingham; Southern industry to Northern capital; the largest industrial plant of the South became a small local concern. The Tredegar remained in operation until fire gutted the old plant in 1952. The firm, still controlled by the descendants of Joseph Anderson, removed to Chesterfield County at that time.
In ruins, the old Tredegar represents not only a nineteenth-century industrial complex but also a contemporary expression of the Picturesque spirit of that century which thrived on romantic ruins as well as standing structures. The walls which once supported the broad roof spans are now free-standing arcades and their Romanesque manner conjures up the images a far earlier age. The old Tredegar Works have a tremendous potential as a part of Richmond’s redeveloped riverfront. (Virginia Department of Historic Resources)
Bold prophetic words for 1971. Who would have then wagered that the site would rise to become the American Civil War Museum, a western anchor to the larger Brown’s Island complex?
For those whose familiarity with the Late Unpleasantness could use some polish, you could do much worse than a visit here. There are actually two separate museums on the campus, one for the Tredegar factory, and one for the National Park Service. There’s a modest fee for Tredegar, but the NPS is free, so why not check ‘em out?
(Tredegar Iron Works is part of the Atlas RVA! Project)
Must-See RVA! is a regular series
appearing on rocket werks – check it out!