Five hats floating in the water meant bad news.
On July 2, 1869, young W. Dudley Powers, skipping dinner at his parents' house, chose instead to amble from the family business at 14th and Cary streets to a political rally and barbecue on Vauxhall Island. About midway across the foot bridge jutting from Mayo's Bridge to the place, Powers caught sight of the five hats bobbing in the current. In a letter written decades later to artist and historian Edward V. Valentine, he recalled, "I suspected an accident immediately."
And Powers was right. But that incident of 145 years ago is just one story attached to this woodsy piece of land just beyond the Flood Wall.
It came across the email transom the other day that Jess DuBoy, whom Richmonders of some vintage recognize as the voice and face of a multitude of commercials, will be auctioning the island next week. Sperry Van Ness/Motley's is handling the business.
If you're heading south on the bridge, you cross over Vauxhall (pronounced fox-hall) Island about midway. Vauxhall is within a cluster of isolated masses that's referred to in planning documents as "The Falls Archipelago." The island's only access is by trespassing on an old Norfolk & Southern Railway trestle or by boat. Due to the few people whole can get there, wildlife is prevalent, including nesting herons. Here, too, are off-the-grid river people who set up camps. Beyond its current situation, Vauxhall served as the scene for a tragic end to what should've been a happy occasion during a get-out-the-vote drive among African-Americans for a Reconstruction Era gubernatorial race.
As this blogger sees it, the best possible outcome for the sale would have the island sewn into the James River Parks System.
But first, something about the present owner.
Jess Duboy's voice in the mid-1970s intoning "Honda … Honda House," sounded, to me, kind of spooky laid over a music bed of crazy bongos. In commercials, he conceived of the concept whereby auto dealers purchased a block of advertising time in which they framed manic, 24-hour “sell-a-thons.” Duboy was at one point used as a pitchman for more than 60 car dealers throughout the country. (His multimarket commercial packages resemble how, today, Robert Vaughn's "You Mean Business," represents law firms across the country, not just Marks & Harrison.
In 1958, Duboy sang the lead in The Rock-A-Teens' most popular single, "Woo-Hoo." You may think you don't know this song, but, if you've been anywhere around media in the past, oh, 30 years-plus, you do. Covered by The 184.108.40.206s, an all-female Japanese band, the infectious rock-a-billy bit was used during a grisly scene involving the sword-wielding Uma Thurman in Kill Bill Vol. 1. "Woo-Hoo" was also appropriated for less violent fare in commercials, memorably for Vonage and Chevrolet. The song's energy and brevity has inspired punk and post-punk and rock-a-billy revivalists. The history of this little tune is somewhat complicated, tinctured with the bittersweet and a little madness — so far, so Richmond. Writer Don Harrison delves well into the circumstances here.
"Woo Hoo" by the Rock-A-Teens
Vauxhall Island is considered "income producing" in large part because it sports a billboard. One message became well known in 2013, when Martin Agency advertising executive Mike Hughes, dying of cancer, utilized one side of the sign to send a message to his widow, who could see it from their condo: "Laughter Joy Love For The Rest of Your Life."
This little spit of land, just over 2 acres, in the James was prior to 1821 known as Buzzard's Island, and afterward received a rather glamorous identification that sought to brush against the renown of London's Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens (though there was also a New York City version). The public space in London was described in literary works of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. Both visited Richmond; Dickens in 1842 and Thackeray a decade later. Dickens, angered by the melancholy situation of slavery, wrote his impressions of the city. "The Boz's" unfavorable views may have influenced the way Thackeray was kept busy with the distractions of meeting-and-greeting during his visit, but not so his personal secretary and artist, Eyre Crowe, who noted and sketched his views of Richmond slave auctions. Crowe's work is seen in the present exhibit at the Library of Virginia, "To Be Sold."
These observers probably didn't set foot on Vauxhall Island, though in those days a footbridge from Mayo's Bridge made getting there possible. Another suspension pedestrian bridge linked Vauxhall to an even smaller island, variously called Bailey's, Barbecue and Kitchen. On Vauxhall was built a Shuffleboard House, a barroom and other entertainments that accommodated social occasions like the gatherings of the volunteer military organization the Richmond Light Infantry Blues (Its 1910 armory stands deteriorating on Sixth Street). Older members of the Quoit Club, composed of distinguished citizens, also enjoyed themselves on Vauxhall, where according to Dudley, "they had their outdoor sports and exercised their camaraderie. Many a bowl of apple toddy, and many a glass of Julep aided and abetted in the festivities of this club."
After the Civil War, Virginia came under military occupation due to the undertakings of the Congressional Acts of Reconstruction. Civil order was restored under this regime and effort made to purge the political system of former Confederates. Those states once in the Southern cause were required to rewrite their constitutions before rejoining the Union and federal troops were removed.
Fear of social integration and black suffrage became the common ground for factions of Virginians who normally had political differences; the groups congealed to form the statewide Conservative Party.
Its platform admitted that slavery and secession were over, though whites needed to retain control of the state; the party called for immediate readmission to the Union without restrictions on former Confederates.
On Oct. 22, 1867, blacks voted, many for the first time as free men, to send delegates to the Virginia Constitutional convention that would draft a document to govern the state that reflected the post-war realities. Some two dozen black representatives were seated in the convention that met in Richmond from Dec. 3, 1867, to April 17, 1868.
The Conservatives wouldn't make the task of redesigning the Virginia Constitution less arduous, nor could they completely halt its passage if they wanted Virginia's members of Congress to be seated. Cantankerousness was their only option.
The document that emerged from this unusual convention would be called "The Underwood Constitution," because of its chair, the federal judge and Radical Republican John Curtiss Underwood. He wanted the document to include universal suffrage for white and black men — and white women. Giving blacks the vote was one controversial matter, giving it to women — whatever their color — wasn't imaginable.
Virginia's military governor Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield, delayed passage of the Constitution because he felt its voting eligibility restrictions might render the state ungovernable.
Into this mix entered Richmond Confederate veteran, banker and enterprising businessman, James Read Branch. Though without prior political experience, he was made secretary to the Conservative Party's executive committee. He was in 1869 nominated to run for the Virginia Senate. Also that year, the Conservatives allied with moderate Republicans to get elected as governor Glibert Carlton Walker. Walker opposed the Underwood Constitution's clauses that required test-oaths for those with a prior Confederate record, though he was willing to acknowledge the right of blacks to vote. Walker's opponent was Radical Republican Henry H. Wells. Wells, a brigadier general during the war, proved instrumental in the pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth. A friend of Schofield, the general appointed Wells as Virginia governor and he would stand for election to keep his job.
Branch entered into the 1869 campaign to gin up support for Walker, which meant working the hustings with black leaders for his own Virginia Senate race and to decide the gubernatorial election. Hence, on July 2, 1869, with financial support by his father Thomas Branch, a barbecue festivity took place on Vauxhall Island. Some 250 men, black and white, gathered for barbecue eating and political speechifying.
As Dudley Powers recalled, "The invitations to the barbecue were somewhat restricted and consequently a crowd of uninvited guests gathered at Vauxall [sic.] end of the bridge, rather violently demanding admission, but held back by a policeman stationed there." The situation escalated beyond what Officer Thomas Kirkham could handle alone. Thomas Branch, seeing the potential for a political mess, urged his son James to let in the whole crowd. According to a newspaper account the next day, Branch went across the bridge and urged all at the other end to come across, "Dinner is nearly ready! There is enough room!"
The hungry crowd surged forward and a great crash heard all over the island ensued. The bridge fell, carrying those on it into the rushing river, where many were in danger of drowning while getting crushed under timbers, chains and ropes. At least 15 men plummeted into the water, along with Branch and the policeman. Most of those managed to grab hold of dangling chains or leap-frogged from timber to timber, shaken, perhaps cut and bruised, but alive.
Polimceman Kirkham's head was smashed between two falling beams. Branch received a blow to back of the neck by an iron chain, but he struggled in the wreckage, calling for help. Those trying to reach him worsened his plight by sinking debris he sought to use to extricate himself. They dragged him onto a slope, where Dudley reached him. Bystanders thought him dead. Dudley placed his hand on Branch's chest, bared due to his ripped shirt, where he felt a heartbeat. He and the men hauled Branch to the Shuffleboard House, where Branch was placed with his head in Dudley's lap. Dr. James B. McCaw, who was called to the scene, had administrated the massive Chimborazo Hospital during the war, but there was nothing he or other physicians could do for Branch, who soon expired.
The new Virginia Constitution was passed a few days later on July 6. Gilbert Walker became governor. The restrictive clauses that would have prevented political participation by former Confederates (as happened in other Southern states) were struck down, which prevented some of the civil unrest that occurred elsewhere. The stage was set for Walker supporter and former Confederate general and railroad executive William Mahone to break off from the Conservatives to head up his own party that encouraged black membership and spawned great reforms, especially in education.
This is a big story for a little island.