Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Fan District

In order to establish a full perspective to tell the story about the evolution of Richmond Va's "Fan District", it is best to begin with the James River, which is only natural since the city's origins begin with the river as well. The James River flows eastward from the Appalachian mountains & across the Piedmont plateau before continuing it's descent at the top of the falls just west of Richmond, near the Huguenot bridge. The river falls descend 80 feet over a seven mile stretch past the city to reach sea level in the Tidewater basin. It was here at the bottom of the falls where the ocean going vessels would shuttle cargo in & out of Richmond at Rocketts Landing. From here, cargo interchanges in Norfolk & Nassau in the Bahamas were routine points of commerce along the trade routes to & from Europe & South America.

Captain John Smith
Christopher Newport
Shortly after the establishment of Jamestown in 1607, It was here at the bottom of the falls where Captain John Smith & Christopher Newport & an exploration party of 300 men struggled arduously on their westward exploratory quest, battling the current & slippery boulders before abandoning their expedition in frustration and planting a wooden cross somewhere in the vicinity of today's Brown's island before returning to Jamestown.

William Byrd II
The area was called Shacco or Shockoe, a word in the Algonquian language spoken by the local Indians that described the rocks in the river or possibly one particular large boulder, long since submerged & disappeared, that was favored for hunting & fishing. Shockoe, as we spell it now, would evolve over the years from a prime hunting & fishing spot for the Powhatan Indians to a trading post for the white settlers until finally being chartered as a town named Richmond, after Richmond on the Thames River, now a suburb outside of London, by William Byrd II, in 1742, 135 years after Jamestown was founded in 1607.

Before the American Revolutionary War & the development of the James River Canal system, farmers used cargo boats or "batteaus" to navigate down the river towards Richmond & pull over at the top of the falls & unload their cargo on to wagons instead of risking disaster trying to navigate the boulders on the river. The port was called "Westham", which generally means "westernmost point" & the road that weaved up the hills to the high ground & wove through the wilderness into town was called the "Westham" road. The road would then intersect with the "Three Chopt" or "Three Notched" Road & continue eastward towards Richmond, past the area we call the "fan district" to eventually arrive & unload their wagon cargo at Rocketts Landing, past the falls, to be loaded on ships.

In Colonial days, the port of Westham was a tiny bustling town that has vanished today. After the James River Canal was developed in the early 1800's most of the cargo bypassed the port when they entered the canal system & years later, the railroad eventually superseded the canal system and tracks were laid on the old towpaths, which can be seen today, underneath the elevated rails.

Colonel Benjamin Simcoe

But back in Revolutionary War days, Westham was where the gunpowder, weapons & the iron works were located. So when Benedict Arnold invaded Richmond in the winter 1781 with his army of deserters, mercenaries & a detachment of "Queen’s Rangers" cavalry commanded by Captain Benjamin Simcoe, Arnold sent foot soldiers westward to set up a picket line in the vicinity of today's Mulberry & Grove avenue to serve as a rear guard while Simcoe's Rangers galloped out to Westham to destroy the powder & weapons & hopefully capture Thomas Jefferson, who had fled town to avoid capture.

At Westham, the colonist soldiers managed to avoid capture by wading across the river with their muskets with as much powder as they could carry while Simcoe's men dumped the remaining powder stores in the river & damaged the iron works before returning to Richmond. On their return, after passing the pickets covering their passage, a few of the locals apparently fired a few pot shots at the pickets as they withdrew back into town. This incident, which some doubt ever even happened, was the so called skirmish that has been commemorated by a tiny monument & plaque that stands on the northeast corner of Mulberry & Grove, near Retreat Hospital. This monument, which stands less than three feet tall, is inscribed "Arnold's Picket driven in". In the following years after this "skirmish" or "scuffle", the Westham road was bypassed by alternative routes into the city like Route 250, or Broad Street & the old "plank" road that led from the iron works that was used to allow heavily laden wagons to traverse the terrain without sinking in the mud. This road would have been alongside or part of today's Cary Street.

As a result, the original Westham road route to the "Fan District" was bypassed & eventually overgrown, reclaimed by nature or turned into farmland. The sector of the remaining Westham road that led into Richmond through the "fan" became a utility road and was renamed the "Scuffletown" road, possibly originating from the "skirmish" & also the name of an Inn located around today's Park Avenue & Addison (renamed Strawberry Street). The Scuffletown Inn was a favorite stopover for weary travelers to rest before finishing their trek into Richmond & the area around the Inn was called "Scuffletown"

Frank Julian Sprague
After the war of 1812, the land in Henrico county west of the city that we call the fan district today, long before the city eventually annexed it, was bought by a local entrepreneur named Jacquelin Harvie & some associates, who wanted to build their own town & call it Sydney, as in Australia. It turned into a fiasco. They surveyed the land & laid out the streets which terminated at a sharp angle along the Scuffletown road, which was the northern boundary. The town never materialized because of the devastating 1819 financial panic although the street plans were never dissolved. Sydney, instead of becoming a town, simply became a suburb. After the successful demonstration of Frank Julian Sprague's electric trolley car here in 1888, Richmond Va became the first city in the world to have a "commercially viable" electric trolley car system. Sprague's invention mechanized suburbanization & expedited the retirement of horses & mules off the streets. Consequently, trolley lines running down Broad & Main streets spurred development of housing in the Sydney suburb & the barren fields & streets began to take shape.


The advent of mechanized suburbanization initiated by the trolley car was soon accelerated by automobiles in the 20th century & ultimately populated the remote country suburbs that we see today. As the Sydney suburb developed, the angular street platte resulted in leaving several triangular lots that were not conducive to home building & were turned into small community parks instead. Eventually, the road that had once been called the Westham road, then the Scuffletown Road, was renamed Park Avenue, as we know it today.

As the city continued to annex westward, the Sydney suburb became known as the "west end", before finally being coined as the "fan district" during the 1970's by a local newspaper article because of the fanning street patterns west of Monroe Park, located just west of Belvidere street, which is a segment of US route 1. The city of Richmond, expanded after successive annexations into Henrico County in 1915,1944 & 1970, now posts it's boundaries approximately 2 miles beyond the "Fan".

The Fan


  1. Michael Maurice GarrettJune 3, 2018 at 9:58 AM

    It wasn't called The Fan until the 70s?!?
    That doesn't seem right.

    1. Michael Maurice GarrettJune 3, 2018 at 10:00 AM

      I enjoyed the article.

    2. Thanks for the reply Michael!
      I will inquire about the origins of the "coining" of the "fan" among my more knowledgeable contacts. I learned of the newspaper article in a newspaper article myself. Lol
      I speculate that the article only publicized & popularized the name after it was coined. I might be able to find out if the author coined it or not after some snooping around. Someone else speculated that it may have originated from the trolley lines that fanned around & about before disappearing.
      Thanks again!
      All comments, criticisms & especially corrections are welcome here so that these articles can be continuously edited & improved on the blog.
      Hope you check out some of my original songs while you're visiting the blog too.
      🎶 Music is medicine 🎶

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