Antebellum Period (1830-1860)
The Antebellum period in Virginia is marked by significant internal improvements funded by the Virginia Board of Public Works. Large-scale construction of railroads and turnpikes trumped the growth of the waterway system, upon which Fredericksburg's prosperity was heavily dependent. Despite the improvements in roads and the transition to the railroad as the dominant form of transportation, Fredericksburg held to its vision of a series of canals, locks, and dams that would improve transportation routes to and from the city. Funds, however, proved difficult to raise, and not until 1849 was the first in the series of canals complete. By this time, the canal was made obsolete by the railroad. The city was bypassed on the railroad line from Washington, D.C., to Richmond, severely curtailing the prosperity of area merchants (Armstrong 1974; Littlefield 1999).
Circa 1854 view of Fredericksburg from Ferry Farm
Despite a decline in commercial prosperity, the growth of flour mills and gristmills was still vital within Fredericksburg. A number of large commercial mills, one of which gained international recognition, emerged along the canal and the canal raceways that were constructed around the perimeter of Fredericksburg. While slavery was at its peak in Virginia during this period, a number of free blacks settled in neighborhoods within Fredericksburg and worked on the docks, and in the warehouses and mills (FATD 2002). The prosperity of the mills, the settlement of free blacks, and the speculation on an increased trade from the improved canal system stimulated the growth of the city, which reached a population of 5,000 by 1860 (Goolrick 1922).
Goolrick, John T., 1922
Historic Fredericksburg: The Story of an Old Town.
Whittet and Sheperson, Richmond, Virginia.