All is not lost

Three villages from Charlottesville's past remain entrenched in our history

Frank A. Massie map from 1907 / Courtesy Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society

Throughout Albemarle County history, a number of villages and rural communities have been established, and have grown in importance, only to be abandoned later. All but forgotten, they live on in footnotes, road names and roadside markers.

They’ve disappeared for numerous reasons. Sometimes the inhabitants, following a financial downturn, simply picked up and moved elsewhere. Sometimes Mother Nature brought down her wrath on a hamlet’s feeble man-made structures. And sometimes the ugly hand of war simply erased a town from the map.

Whatever the reason, these lost places can teach us a lot about those who have passed this way before. In better understanding them—who they were, how they lived—we can better understand ourselves.

Rio Mills

In the mid-19th century, Rio Mills was a rather picturesque place. On the South Fork of the Rivanna River north of Charlottesville (which was founded in 1762), the mill complex sat alongside what was then the main road (just west of today’s Route 29 North). There the river runs rapidly between two steep hillsides. Carrying the Harrisonburg-Charlottesville Turnpike across the river was a beautiful covered bridge built atop a mill dam. Just downstream, along the left bank, rose the little industrial hamlet’s pride and joy: three thriving mills noisily grinding corn and wheat, and sawing lumber. Filling out the village were a cooper’s shop, a blacksmith’s shop, a store, the millers’ homes and several other houses. The constant churning of the waterwheels, along with the mill machinery’s steady rhythmic hum, gave Rio Mills an atmosphere of prosperity, permanence.

That idyll was shattered during the Civil War on February 29, 1864.

“Suddenly rapid hoof beats startled” us, wrote Sally N. Burnley, and she heard “the cry, ‘The Yankees are coming!’” A small child in 1864, Burnley penned her account 59 years later. “How our feet did fly down the road to tell the owner, our uncle. …We reached home just in time to see the [Confederate] scouts flying back across the bridge and up the hill firing over their shoulders at the firing men in blue.”

What terrifying thoughts must have raced through her young mind as she watched a “long column” of Federal cavalrymen trot southward “over the bridge and up the winding road” beyond. Would the Northerners capture and burn Charlottesville? What about her home? What would happen to Rio Mills?

The community of Rio Mills was founded when William H. Meriwether built the first mill there in the early 1830s, located downstream from the present-day South Rivanna Reservoir dam. Photo by Stephen Barling

The community was founded when William H. Meriwether built the first mill there in the early 1830s. (This structure stood west of Route 29 North, downstream from the present-day South Rivanna Reservoir dam.) Two other mills soon followed. Constrained by the hillsides, flowing quickly, the Rivanna there was perfect for the powering of waterwheels. When it was determined in 1833 that the Harrisonburg-Charlottesville Turnpike (a major artery connecting Charlottesville with the Shenandoah Valley) would cross the river nearby, fate appeared to be blessing the little industrial endeavor. The covered bridge over the river—Rio Bridge—was completed in 1836, but Meriwether had sold Rio Mills the previous year and moved on to Texas.

The next proprietor was Nathaniel Burnley. Formerly the owner of a Stony Point tavern, Burnley, according to Daily Progress writer Vera V. Via, owned “much of the land along the South Fork of the Rivanna.” In 1829 he had purchased Hydraulic Mills—upriver from Rio Mills—and ran both of the milling villages. Burnley lived nearby at Redbrook on Hydraulic Road, and also owned a plantation he called Mountain View.

Flat-bottom batteau boats (like the boat on the left), propelled by poles, passed up and down the river, bringing materials in and taking out finished products from the mills. Image courtesy of the Virginia State Library and Archives

Perhaps surprisingly, commercial river boats came all the way upriver to Rio Mills (and even beyond to Hydraulic). “The old flat-bottom bateaux,” wrote Via, “passed up and down the river…being propelled by poles. The bateaux were the lifeline…as they brought in material and took out the finished products.” From Rio Mills, flour, cornmeal, sawed lumber and other products were floated down the Rivanna to the James River at Columbia, and from there to Richmond and markets further east.

Rio Mills prospered and grew during the mid-1800s. Then came the fourth winter of the Civil War.

On the afternoon of Leap Day, 1864, a 1,500-man Federal cavalry force under Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer—the same who perished with his command at the Little Big Horn—thundered down the road from Earlysville. Custer was intent on capturing Charlottesville and destroying the Virginia Central Railroad Bridge over the Rivanna. Unbeknownst to the foppish boy general, however, was that just one mile south of Rio Mills, directly along his path to Charlottesville, sat the Confederate camp of Major General J. E. B. Stuart’s Horse Artillery Battalion (numbering about 200 horse artillerymen and 16 cannons).

In the ensuing “battle” of Rio Hill—just a skirmish, actually—Custer’s men successfully overran and burned the Confederate log cabin camp, until a massive ammunition explosion and a friendly-fire incident caused confusion among their ranks. A plucky Southern counterattack forced them back over Rio Bridge.

“The men with axes had chopped holes in the sides of the bridge,” remembered Burnley. “Torches had been stuck in every available place, and tongues of flame soon devoured the structure. …The flour mill was [then] set afire in spite of the pleadings of my aunt. …Columns of smoke from burning grain filled the air. …Soon all was quiet, and so quickly had it transpired it might have seemed a dream but for the rude scene of desolation on every hand, which kindly night soon hid from view.”

Shortly after the Rio Mills battle, in its March 26, 1864, edition, Harper’s Weekly published steel engravings showing scenes from the warfront by Alfred Waud, one of the Civil War’s most famous illustrators. Waud accompanied General George Custer on the battlefield and sketched what he witnessed. Image courtesy Harper’s Weekly

Rio Mills and Rio Bridge were rebuilt in 1865. Under the direction of Nathaniel Burnley’s son, W. Rice Burnley, and Frederick M. Wills, the new enterprise—the Charlottesville Milling and Manufacturing Company—produced plaster and fertilizer along with flour and cornmeal. Their circular sawmill, according to historian John Hammond Moore, processed “up to 6,000 feet of lumber per day.”

But disaster struck Rio Mills again in 1870. A September flood, one of the worst in central Virginia history, caused heavy damage to the mill town, almost destroying it. Five of the millers lost their lives in the rushing waters. “Rice Burnley, trying to save property and lives,” wrote Via, “was swept down the river until he managed to lodge in a tree.”

Rebuilt again, Rio Mills continued operating just into the 20th century, but never again prospered as it had 50 years earlier. Now, all that remains is a few heavily overgrown riverside foundations and a state historical marker on Route 29 North southbound.

Free State

Free State—one of Virginia’s first free black communities—once sat just two miles south of Rio Mills, between Rio Road and the Rivanna. Until recently little was known of this rural neighborhood’s history. Just 40 years ago, for example, historian Moore placed Free State in the realm of legend, writing it was “said to be in existence even before the Revolutionary War [and] was located near the Carr family estate of Dunlora.” Free State did indeed sit near Dunlora—the large estate once owned by Dabney Carr, Thomas Jefferson’s brother-in-law—but thanks to the work of local historian Bob Vernon and many others, we now know much more about the community.

The community that would come to be known as Free State was begun in 1788 when Amy Bowles Farrow, a free black woman, bought 224 acres of rolling hill farmland just off the Rivanna. Her son, Zachariah Bowles, born in 1769—a free black man because his mother was free—inherited 96 acres of her land when she passed away.

Zachariah married Critta Hemings, an older sister to Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved mistress. Also born in 1769, Critta—sometimes spelled “Critty” or “Cretty”—lived on Monticello’s Mulberry Row, the mountaintop’s slave quarter. Most likely she worked as a house maid. Zachariah, too, labored at Monticello, being listed as helping raise a barn and occasionally working the harvest.

When Critta was 33 years old, in 1802, Jefferson’s youngest daughter, Maria, took her to Chesterfield County as nurse to her new son, Francis Wayles Eppes. In 1827, when Eppes purchased her freedom, Critta was no doubt happy to move in with her husband on his 96-acre farm. She was a free woman, finally, at age 58.

An 1833 census titled “List of Free Negroes & Mulattoes in Fredericksville Parish, Albemarle County” reveals 16 individuals—ranging in age from 10 months to 64 years—living in the immediate vicinity of the future Free State. Their surnames are recorded as either Cole or Bowles. The oldest individuals listed—the two 64-year-olds—were Critta and Zachariah. According to that census, two-thirds of the county’s free blacks lived outside of the towns. Most were farmers, of course, but some were also carpenters, coopers, bakers, shoemakers and weavers.

This off-year census was taken due to Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, and the resultant deaths of as many as 65 whites. When support grew quickly for the colonization of Virginia’s free blacks to West Africa, the General Assembly ordered the census. (One of the census questions was whether the free black individual was willing to emigrate—the Virginia Legislature was trying to determine how many could be moved out of the state.)

Zachariah died in 1835, leaving Critta a life interest in his acreage. But he had amassed so much more, including livestock, a horse and cart, abundant diverse crops and other houses, two of which were occupied by his nephews. He also left furniture to another woman living on his farm, Martha Ann Colbert, who might have been the daughter of Jefferson’s enslaved butler, Burwell Colbert.

Critta died in 1850 at age 81. Her little rural neighborhood first became known as Free State more than 20 years later in the 1870s. It had grown significantly since the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865, at the end of the Civil War. A 1915 University of Virginia report stated that most of Albemarle’s African-Americans resided in small country neighborhoods “a bit off the main road.” That holds true for Free State, which appears on the 1907 Frank A. Massie map of Albemarle County. On the map it sits about a half-mile northeast of Rio Road, the nearest main road, but no connector road is shown.

The Rivanna Archaeological Services team conducted a dig at the Free State site in 2005. Courtesy subject

The Rivanna Archaeological Services uncovered the headstone of Mary Bowles’ grave in 2005 during a dig. The Bowles family cemetery, which lies behind a row of townhomes in the present-day Belvedere community, was the nucleus of the Free State community. Staff photo

The Free State community continued growing into the early years of the 20th century, but unfortunately little evidence of it survived into the 21st. Enter Rivanna Archaeological Services and its principals, Ben Ford and Steve Thompson. Called upon to perform an archaeological study prior to the development of the Belvedere subdivision—a 300-acre property that they believed overlapped Free State—they began their dig in 2005.

“The community had disappeared,” says Thompson, “it didn’t really exist anymore. …We were trying to identify archaeological sites, including a cemetery.” When a Free State descendant pointed out its possible location, the archaeologists began stripping off the topsoil looking for grave shafts. Nothing.

“We were standing around scratching our heads,” says Thompson. “We wandered 50 yards up a hill to where a large trash pile was. We were shuffling around, and at the base of a small tree I saw a stone sticking up out of the ground covered in vines. It was regularly shaped, hand cut. As I pulled it up, the people on the other side [saw that it was] inscribed: ‘Mary Bowles, died Dec. 6, 1882.’” Mary was the wife of Edward Bowles, a relative of Zachariah Bowles’ nephews.

Finding the Bowles family cemetery tied the whole area together—it was clearly the nucleus of the Free State community.

Now, 11 years later—in the midst of the Belvedere subdivision—the cemetery is marked off in a little spot behind a row of townhouses. It contains, according to its informational kiosk, “at least 53 systematically spaced gravesites.” A wooden bench suggests its use as a place for peaceful reflection.


The town of Milton grew up along the right bank of the Rivanna River, approximately five miles east of Charlottesville. There—at a place known as “the Shallows”—the stream, after pushing through the Southwest Mountains, stretches eastward before turning south. The famous Three Notched Road, central Virginia’s main east-west thoroughfare, was across the river only a half-mile away.

Bennett Henderson first developed the site in the 1740s, building a large flour mill, a tobacco warehouse and a lengthy wharf. In 1747, Peter Jefferson, the president’s father, constructed a dam, a good-sized mill and a half-mile millrace (the channel that carries the water that drives the mill wheel) at Shadwell, a short distance upstream from what was already known as Henderson’s Wharf.

As the central Virginia tobacco economy grew, the need for better transportation down the Rivanna River became obvious. That need was met in 1763 when 20-year-old Thomas Jefferson and a group of investors raised the money necessary to have the water channel perfected via dredging. Business immediately picked up.

Thanks to Henderson’s proximity to the well-traveled Three Notched Road, farmers from all across the Piedmont started hauling their tobacco and wheat there for transshipment. In 1789, Henderson’s Wharf was designated one of two official tobacco inspection stations in Albemarle County. That same year, on December 9, the Virginia General Assembly officially transformed the busy river site into the town of Milton (most likely a variation of “Mill-town”).

The town of Milton prospered as the transportation trade for tobacco and wheat grew along the Rivanna River. State Route 729—North Milton Road—crosses the Rivanna and connects Milton Road to Richmond Road in the Shadwell neighborhood. Photo by Stephen Barling

“The village was soon in a thriving state,” wrote historian Edgar Woods. Of the 200 half-acre lots laid out, more than 20 were sold within 10 years. “[I]t was the chief commercial center of the county…the head of navigation on the Rivanna, and became the shipping port of perhaps three-fourths of the county, and of a large section of the [Shenandoah] Valley.”

The 1790s were Milton’s boom years. The 1797 American Gazetteer described it as about half the size of nearby Charlottesville which, during the same period, contained about 45 structures. “The brook on the north side of the river…became at this time Camping Branch,” wrote Woods, “from the multitude of wagoners who camped with their teams along its banks.” It’s easy to imagine the evening congregations of travel-weary farmers gathered around their campfires, spinning whoppers and arguing over whose wheat was superior.

Prosperity, of course, begat more growth. A free ferry began operating at Milton in 1794. A town post office opened in 1798. Eight years later, Milton had its own school.

More businesses were set up. James Brown and his partner Robert Rives—who ran a successful shipping enterprise downriver—established Rives, Brown & Co. Martin Dawson, an associate of Rives and Brown, “amassed a considerable fortune,” according to Woods. Dawson’s Row at the University of Virginia was later named in his honor because of land he’d given the institution. David Michie, the son of Michie Tavern founder William, was also a merchant in Milton.

In 1801, then-president Jefferson began purchasing lots in Milton, as well as land that eventually completely encircled it. He also bought shares in several of Milton’s busy tobacco warehouses.

The Rivanna’s often unpredictable waters were Milton’s lifeblood. As more and more products were being shipped downriver, it was inevitable that a percentage would be lost to accidents. To address this situation, the Rivanna Navigation Company was formed in 1805. In exchange for charging tolls the organization created sluices, or artificial channels, and dug out and perfected existing ones. The company also took over the maintenance of the river’s numerous, privately owned mill dams and their locks. By 1818, navigation on the Rivanna incorporated seven wooden locks and numerous short canals.

But that same year, Milton’s prospects were declining. Six years earlier the Rivanna River had been improved upstream—past Milton—as far as Moore’s Ford near Charlottesville. The channel was widened and dredged, and fallen trees and other obstructions were removed. The new port at Charlottesville was dubbed Pireus after the port of Athens. More upriver improvements followed, and Charlottesville grew as a shipping center largely at Milton’s expense.

In 1818, Scott’s Ferry—on the James River in southern Albemarle—was incorporated and named Scottsville. Within a short time the roads connecting it to Charlottesville were upgraded, and the port at Scottsville was enlarged. Scottsville then became Milton’s direct competitor. Soon more produce was being hauled in wagons to Scottsville than was being loaded into bateaux at Milton.

By the time the University of Virginia opened its doors in 1825, according to historians Geoffrey B. Henry and Stephen G. Del Sordo, “Charlottesville was a thriving and prosperous community; Milton was a struggling village barely able to keep up with outside economic trends.”

Milton's Central Hotel, third building from the left, was relocated—hauled atop wagons—to the McKee block in downtown Charlottesville (alongside today's Jackson Park). Rufus W. Holsinger photo courtesy of Holsinger's Charlottesville

Amazingly, as residents began moving elsewhere, a number took their structures with them. Milton’s Central Hotel, for example, was relocated—hauled atop wagons—to the McKee Block in downtown Charlottesville (alongside today’s Jackson Park). Another Milton structure still stands in Charlottesville, however, at 213 Seventh Street NE. It’s an unusual-looking “vernacular cottage” with its window and door placement, according to the Department of Community Development, “determined from need rather than symmetry.”

Milton was born by the river—and by the river it died. The final blow came from the same 1870 flood that severely damaged Rio Mills. The September deluge carried away what was left of the old mills and warehouses. The remaining dams and locks were wrecked beyond repair.

Today, the town site is practically nonexistent, just a small group of modern-day houses. Nearby, however, one 200-year-old stalwart remains: the Locust Grove Tavern. Originally erected as a one-story building in 1812—with its foundation set into a hill—its cellar once served as a jail. A larger frame house was attached in 1857, but by then, Milton’s heyday was long gone. “Once a thriving commercial center,” wrote former Monticello curator James A. Bear Jr., “[Milton] is today little more than a geographical expression.”

These three communities—Rio Mills, Free State and Milton—once appeared on central Virginia maps but have since faded from existence. They were destinations, places where people longed to be. Established by dreamers, they were built up by hardworkers—the ancestors of many of our present-day neighbors.

The Locust Grove Tavern, still standing today on Milton Road, was originally built in 1812 as a one-story building, and its cellar once served as a jail. The larger frame house was attached in 1857, the year this photo was taken. Photo courtesy Edward Lay, from The Architecture of Jefferson Country