RVA Legends — Dispatch Building

RVA Legends — Dispatch Building

A look into the history of Richmond places and people that have disappeared from our landscape.

[RVCJ93] — Dispatch Building, circa 1893
[RVCJ93] — Dispatch Building, circa 1893

920-922 East Main Street
Built, after 1865
Demolished, 1962

One of the three.

(Find A Grave) — James A. Cowardin
(Find A Grave) — James A. Cowardin

Richmond supports three daily newspapers: the “Dispatch” and the “Times,” morning issues, and the “State,” an afternoon paper. The Richmond Dispatch is the oldest of the Richmond dailies. It was founded by James A. Cowardin and W. H. Davis, both practical printers, in 1850. Its first appearance was made on the morning of October 19th, of that year. The paper was well received from the beginning, and rapidly attained a good circulation.

(Newspapers.com) — the slightly creepy, Illuminati-inspired logo of the Richmond Enquirer — from the Friday, September 16, 1842 edition
(Newspapers.com) — the slightly creepy, Illuminati-inspired logo of the Richmond Enquirer — from the Friday, September 16, 1842 edition

Owing, however, to the competition of the Whig and the Enquirer, the great political dailies of Richmond at that day, it was not immediately successful as an advertising medium. This fact discouraged Mr. Davis, and in a few months he disposed of his interest to Mr. Cowardin. For some years thereafter the Dispatch was published in the names of James A. Cowardin as proprietor, and Hugh R. Pleasants, editor. The latter was employed as editor when the partnership of Cowardin & Davis was formed.

[CDRVA] — Old Dominion Steamship Company advertisement in Chataigne’s 1881 Directory of Richmond
[CDRVA] — Old Dominion Steamship Company advertisement in Chataigne’s 1881 Directory of Richmond

When success’ at length became a certainty, its plant was moved from the orignal building, on Governor street, just above Main, to the building corner of Thirteenth and Main streets, the site of the present Old Dominion Steamship offices. Here the Dispatch was comfortably housed, and was equipped with the best outfit obtainable at that period. Just in the rear of its place was the “Dispatch Job Office” of J. D. Hammersley & Co. Mr. Hammersley managed the counting-room of the paper, and during the war acquired a half interest in it.

(Library of Congress) — Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Richmond (1905) — Plate 7 — showing the former location of the Dispatch Building
(Library of Congress) — Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Richmond (1905) — Plate 7 — showing the former location of the Dispatch Building

Mr. Oliver P. Baldwin succeeded Mr. Pleasants as editor, though, at one time, both were upon the editorial staff; and Mr. Cowardin also contributed to the editorial columns when his other engagements permitted. During the war the outfit of the Dispatch was worn completely out, and as a new one could not be procured inside the Confederate lines, Mr. Hammersley undertook to run the blockade to England, and supply what was needed. Before sailing, however, he sold half his interest to Mr. James W. Llewellen, who had long been the local editor of the Dispatch.

(Essential Civil War Curriculum) — Harper’s Weekly illustration — The Union Blockade of the Southern States by Robert M. Browning, Jr.
(Essential Civil War Curriculum) — Harper’s Weekly illustration — The Union Blockade of the Southern States by Robert M. Browning, Jr.

Mr. Hammersley was successful in his undertaking to the extent of getting the new outfit through the blockade and into the Dispatch building, but before it could be used it was destroyed, along with the building, in the Evacuation fire, April 3, 1865.

(Find A Grave) — Henry Keeling Ellyson, newspaperman & principal figure in the 1870 Municipal War
(Find A Grave) — Henry Keeling Ellyson, newspaperman & principal figure in the 1870 Municipal War

It was not until the December following that the Dispatch was revived. Mr. Cowardin and Mr. H. K. Ellyson formed a copartnership, (which continued uninterruptedly* until the former’s death) and began anew in the building on Thirteenth street, just in the rear of the present offices of the Postal Telegraph Company. There were seven competitors in the field when the Dispatch was re-established; but by enterprise and good management it forged rapidly to the front again, and is now, in every respect, fulfilling its mission as a first-class newspaper. It has the largest circulation of any paper between Baltimore and New Orleans, and its columns bear ample testimony to the value it has in the opinion of the advertising public.

(Yesteryear Once More) — advertisement for the R. Hoe & Co. printing press
(Yesteryear Once More) — advertisement for the R. Hoe & Co. printing press

In the matter of its mechanical equipment the Dispatch has always been advanced. In November, 1887, it put in a Hoe perfecting press with a capacity of 24,000 copies an hour, and its outfit, from press-room to composing-room, is a model of completeness. It has its own press wire running into the building, a full editorial and local staff, its resident correspondent at Washington, and special correspondents at all important points in Virginia and North Carolina. It issues a Daily and a Weekly, its Sunday edition eighteen or twelve pages, as occasion may require.

(Find A Grave) — William Dallas Chesterman
(Find A Grave) — William Dallas Chesterman

In 1882, a short time before the death of Mr. Cowardin, the copartnership of Cowardin & Ellyson was dissolved and a joint stock company was formed with the former owners as principal officers. The present officers of the Company are: C. O’B. Cowardin, president; H. Theo. Ellyson, secretary and treasurer; W. D. Chesterman, vice-president.

July 2019 — looking towards 920-922 East Main Street
July 2019 — looking towards 920-922 East Main Street

By 1900, the Dispatch was owned by John L. Williams, who also owned the Richmond News. The end of the Gilded Age was a time of consolidation, and Williams, along with Joseph Bryan, owner of the Richmond Times and Manchester Leader, concluded that there were too many newspapers to go around for the available circulation. The Times and the Dispatch were merged in 1903 to become the Richmond Times-Dispatch that we have today.

[MCR] — shaded areas showing Evacuation Fire destruction & future location of the Dispatch Building
[MCR] — shaded areas showing Evacuation Fire destruction & future location of the Dispatch Building
The block on which the Dispatch Building stood was reduced to ashes by the ever-popular Evacuation Fire, and it would be erected in the post-war construction boom that remade the city landscape. It met its doom in 1962 when an addition to the State Planter’s Bank was built, creating today’s Pocahontas Building.

(The Dispatch Building is part of the Atlas RVA! Project)


Print Sources

  • [CDRVA] Chataigne’s Directory of Richmond, Va. J. H. Chataigne. 1881.
  • [MCR] Map of the City of Richmond, Virginia, 1861-65. Richmond Civil War Centennial Committee. 1961. Library of Virginia.
  • [RVCJ93] Richmond, Virginia: The City on the James: The Book of Its Chamber of Commerce and Principal Business Interests. G. W. Engelhardt. 1893.

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