The incorporation of Urbanna was a dream
It happened 111 years ago
The May 11, 1902 headline of an article on the Town of Urbanna in the Richmond Times stated: “Urbanna, The Central Town of the Rappahannock River.” A sub-headline, placed below the main headline, stated: “A Town In Which No Whiskey is Sold or Handled.”
The main purpose of the article was to announce the incorporation of the Town of Urbanna by an April 2, 1902 act approved by the Virginia State Legislature.
The article also provides a glimpse into the history of Urbanna and Middlesex County.
In 1902, the Town of Urbanna was still reeling from a successful political move by residents of the Saluda area and those in the eastern (lower) half of Middlesex County that resulted in re-locating the county seat from Urbanna to Saluda in 1853.
The article refers to a “county legend” that the decision to move the courthouse came about by a one vote margin. The main argument of the move’s proponents was a “slow moving, inconvenient ferry” that crossed Urbanna Creek. There was no bridge at the time.
“At the time this happened strange to say, none of the town citizens thought for once of building a bridge across the creek,” stated the 1902 article. “Had they done so, Urbanna would still have been the county seat.”
It wasn’t until 1858 that a narrow one-lane bridge was built by the Urbanna Toll Bridge Company across the creek. It had a wide lane situated on the draw portion of the bridge that was used as a passing lane.
The article states, “This bridge is almost new and is a strong and substantial structure. In the center of it is a draw through which vessels loading at the head of the creek (Oakes Landing) pass. The creek is navigable for large loaded vessels a distance of a mile or more up and there are always several schooners in its headwater loading with lumber, cord wood or railroad ties.”
Urbanna not only lost the county seat in 1853, but the Civil War had contributed greatly to a declining economy for both the town and county. However, in 1902, 37 years after the Civil War, there seemed to be some hope of reviving the economy of Urbanna.
The article stated, “Urbanna is the chief town of the county of Middlesex and is fast awakening to a greater commercial life, and is seemingly separated by only a few years from its career as a city of importance.”
About that time, investors from Fredericksburg saw potential in the town and its deep-water creek for business and manufacturing purposes. Fredericksburg investor A. Randolph Howard and other outside investors founded and chartered the Bank of Middlesex in 1900. They built a large brick bank building that still stands today on Cross Street.
Howard also founded the Urbanna Manufacturing Plant (once located near Queen Anne’s Cove Condominiums on Taylor Avenue) and hired female laborers to produce overalls and shirts. The factory opened in 1902 and closed about 1913.
The idea of incorporation most likely came from Howard, who envisioned Urbanna as a city with all the urban amenities.
According to the 1902 article, Howard and others encouraged the citizens of Urbanna to seek incorporation. The article includes a drawing of W. Key Howard as town mayor. Key Howard was the brother of Randolph Howard and was appointed, probably by Randolph, to be the town mayor.
Walter H. Ryland was listed as the city attorney; Robert S. Bristow as president of Urbanna Business Men’s Association, postmaster and merchant; H. Jeter Haydon as the associate editor of the Southside Sentinel; J.O. Walker as town sergeant; and Newton Garland Weaver as town treasurer.
The first Urbanna Town Council was comprised of Russell A. Davis (sailing schooner owner and in the lumber business), George S. Chowning (operated Chowning’s Railway where Port Urbanna is located today), F.A. Bristow (owner of F.A. Bristow and Co., a general mercantile store located where the Exxon station is today); J.W. Hurley (operated a seafood business at the foot of Virginia Street near where Payne’s Crab House is located today); Charles A. Taylor (operated Taylor Hardware in the present-day 51 Cross Street building); and Columbus S. Burton (owner and operator of Burton Steamboat Wharf at the foot of Watling Street).
The article was written before the councilmen took office. “As yet the officers have not been sworn in nor have the town ordinances been adopted, but this will be done as soon as the circuit and county courts are over with, for the city attorney, W.H. Ryland, being too busy to meet with council until then,” stated the article.
The description of the town in the 1902 article describes a growing community. “Within the town limits of Urbanna there are about 400 acres of land . . . and the following industries, business enterprises and social and religious advantages: seven large merchandise stores, a drug store, a flourishing state bank, an ice manufacturing concern, two tomato canning factories, two oyster shucking houses, ship-building yard, sawmill and marine railway combined, a hotel, three handsome churches (Episcopal, Methodist and Baptist), a Masonic lodge, a private and public school, and a blacksmith and several carpenter shops.”
The postal system attempted to change the name of Urbanna to “Urbana” to conform with other Urbanas in other states, stated the article. “There has been some wonder why it is that the many towns in other states having the same name as Urbanna in Virginia spell the same name with only one ‘n’ while this is spelled with two. This is because the Post Office Department changed them. It made an effort to change this, but the people . . . kicked and the name remained unchanged. The people of Urbanna claimed their way of spelling the name is the only right way and the old-time way.”
The Richmond Times article stated “that while the mail facilities of Urbanna are very convenient indeed, a well-kept telephone system is its greatest convenience. The entire system, which connects all of the counties south of the Rappahannock with the Western Union at West Point, is owned by the Tidewater Telephone Company.”
For a few decades, the town surged ahead with the Bank of Middlesex being the main financial thrust. The shirt factory and an excelsior plant lasted for only about 10 years along with several other of Howard’s manufacturing endeavors.
The town never became the manufacturing center of Howard’s dreams but, by incorporating the town in 1902, he and others established Urbanna as a special community with some municipal advantages.
Urbanna (population 470) remains the only incorporated town in Middlesex County.