The June term of the Pittsylvania County Court was in progress on the 21st in 1824 with “Gentlemen Justices” Daniel Coleman, Col. Nathaniel Wilson, William Shelton and James Soyers presiding. Coleman was a former member of the Virginia General Assembly, and Wilson was a member of the Board of Directors of the Roanoke Navigation Co.
Few people viewing the procedure, including the Justices themselves, could have recognized the historical importance of the petition about to be presented by a prominent, enormously wealthy Pittsylvania citizen who was also a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates.
Walter Coles was the son of Col. Isaac Coles, a Revolutionary War soldier, who represented Pittsylvania County in the First U.S. Congress in 1789. Walter inherited his family's politically progressive nature and recognized the importance of the role of transportation in the economic development of the county.
With the exception of a few arteries such as the Halifax Road, the Hickey Road, Ward's Road, Henry Road, Chalk Level Road, etc., most county roads were little more than aborigine trails.
After the War of 1812, the phrase “Internal Improvements” became a catchy political term that captured the attention of state and federal governments.
Responding to the impetus of the mood, the Virginia General Assembly created the Board of Public Works in 1816. This agency, with General Assembly approval, was authorized to purchase two-fifths of the common stock of any newly created Virginia transportation company. This included canals, turnpikes and eventually — railroads.
With that setting as a backdrop, it is not surprising that the progressive Walter Coles rose in the Pittsylvania Court that morning to submit a petition. Portions of the court record reads as follows:
Upon the motion of Walter Coles and others who filed their petition praying that viewers may be appointed to view, survey, and report to this court, the most eligible route for a road from the Town of Danville to the Washington Iron Works in the County of Franklin at the same time of said Court. The Court is in consideration for the petition and order of the Franklin Court aforesaid….
Thus was born what is commonly called the “Franklin Turnpike” — which remains as one of Pittsylvania's most valuable roads to this day. Sufficient sale of common stock followed along the 93 mile route stretching from Danville to Fincastle in Botetourt County, to enable the General Assembly and the Board of Public Works to issue a charter to the Pittsylvania, Franklin and Botetourt Turnpike.
Members of the Board of Directors were proportioned among the various counties and towns along the route. Pittsylvania Courthouse was allotted eleven members of the thirty authorized. They included George Gilmer, Coleman Bennett, James Whittle, William Rison, Jeremiah Johnson, William Tunstall and others. Interestingly enough, an area called “Jabez Smith's Store” was allotted three members. This was called Callands of course, where Smith operated a store. The three included Smith plus the politically powerful Vincent Witcher and the wealthy Captain James A. Mitchell — all prominent county men.
Along the route lay several tobacco factories, some iron foundries, a shoe factory at the Village of Chestnut Grove (later renamed Whitmell), Rocky Mount, and many villages including Swansonville and Callands.
The route was surveyed by the famous French engineer, Claudius Crozet, who saw to it that some of the following specifications were adhered to: Roadway width - 40'; Width of Carriageway - 18'-24' and number of toll gates - 6, at 15 mile intervals. Tolls were set at six cents per score of hogs; twenty cents per score of cattle; five cents for a horse or mule; fifteen cents for a four-wheel riding carriage and twelve cents per animal for a cart or wagon.
Latter day observers wrote that travel along the Franklin Pike was slow, being “dusty in the morning and miry in the winter.” Moreover, travel was hampered by herds of turkeys, cattle, hogs and sheep on their way to market.
The turnpike had a checkered financial history. Its backers lost money, since it never paid a dividend throughout its twenty-five year history. However, by today's standards, the cost of construction seems miniscule. Records show that its cost of construction was only $299 per mile.
The Franklin Turnpike as a toll road barely survived the Civil War — an event that must have caused havoc as far as upkeep and efficient operation were concerned. It was abandoned by its backers during the Reconstruction and then taken over by the various counties along the route between 1876 and 1880.
Its failure as a financial institution notwithstanding, who is to say that it should never have been built? Its contributions to the economic development of Pittsylvania County are immeasurable.
Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills
Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills
Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On
Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse
Clement: History of Pittsylvania County
Fitzgerald: Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past
Hurt: Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County
Hurt: An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County
Dodson: Footprints from the Old Survey Books
Byrd: Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina
Jones: Tales About People in a Small Town
Herman Melton's online articles are posted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.
Copyright © 1995–2005 Herman E. Melton.