The RF&P train starting out from Richmond in October 1865, near the Richmond Theater at 701 E. Broad St. J.R. Hamilton illustration courtesy Hibbs Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center
Flags snapped in the wind and a band played a suitable fanfare on Feb. 13, 1836, to salute the first railway train to ever chuff out of Richmond. The six handsome passenger cars and a baggage car that set out from the depot on Eighth and H (Broad) streets were drawn up H Street in a striking procession by the locomotive, a splendid steamer built in Liverpool, England, for $6,000. Most of the 150 passengers belonged to the Virginia General Assembly. The train went 20 miles, to within a half-mile of South Anna.
An immense crowd lined the track for nearly a mile to gaze upon this representative of things to come. In his assemblage of newspaper cullings titled Richmond, Her Past and Present , William Asbury Christian quotes a story: "Politics for a while were forgotten. … One describing it said, ‘We, too, have seen the light of the age burst upon us; we, too, have seen a railroad which has pierced our city and is open to the public service.' "
As Gregg Kimball notes in his book American City, Southern Place , "The city became the southernmost outpost of a Northern railroad complex in the 1830s. The earliest line from the city, the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad [RF&P], integrated Richmond into the emerging rail system that eventually connected the major Eastern cities from Boston to Washington, although it required a steamship connection from Aquia Creek to Washington."
From its 1834 charter, the RF&P ran trains between Richmond and the nation's capital. The RF&P track ran more than a mile down the middle of H Street, a country road with cornfields and cow pastures on both sides and an occasional house until it reached the intersection with Seventh Street. The remoteness of Richmond's western marches was such that Judge Dabney Carr, who resided between Broad and Clay streets, named his mansion "Elba," because his place seemed as distant from the city as Napoleon's isle of exile.
The combined passenger and freight station, and the shops and headquarters of the RF&P, became established at the corner of Eighth and H streets. From here on the morning of March 23, 1849, slave Henry "Box" Brown affected an ingenious but unpleasant escape from Richmond by getting himself crated up and shipped to Philadelphia.
After the 1865 Evacuation Fire, the retail trade of the city spread north and west to Broad Street. The intention was to create a great commercial thoroughfare, though this proved difficult with trains steaming down the middle of Broad.
"One of the most notable fights in which the city was ever engaged" broiled during four years after the Civil War, Christian says, concerning the Broad Street trains. The matter came before City Council at almost every meeting. On May 1, 1872, the council passed an ordinance prohibiting locomotives on Broad Street after June 1, under penalty of $500. The RF&P offered to sell its Broad Street property to Richmond for $113,000, but the city balked.
The first fatality occurred in September 1873. A passing train caused a horse hitched to a streetcar near Broad and Eighth to panic and gallop off while still attached to the car. The animal trampled a man named Thomas Clemmitt and injured several women bystanders. The accident brought a crowd of some 400 people; they piled wood on the track and threatened to kill the engineer who removed the barricade.
Lawyer James Lyons' Broad Street Association waged a vehement anti-train campaign that resulted in the RF&P being hauled into Police Court on Jan. 7, 1874, and fined $500 for running a locomotive on Broad Street. An appeal went to Circuit Court, and the judge upheld the decision. An appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeals was rejected.
RF&P then used horses to pull its cars. This worked for a while. The company later moved the depot to the upper end of Broad and established a passenger station at Broad and Pine, calling it Elba, for the old estate between Broad and Clay. Some residents — perhaps because of the now-almost-vanished Richmond accent, perhaps due to its shape — called it "Elbow" station. On its site will rise Virginia Commonwealth University's Institute for Contemporary Art in 2015.
In 1887, both the RF&P and the Richmond & Petersburg (later the Atlantic Coast Line) railroads combined to build the new Byrd Station, which opened on April 11 at the corner of Seventh and Byrd streets. Richmond hotelier A.J. Ford remodeled the Eighth and Broad depot for an "opera house" that presented vaudeville and variety acts. This ultimately became the Colonial movie theater (1921 to 1981), the façade of which forms a state office building.
The continuing challenges and controversies surrounding rail lines in the city were alleviated by the construction by the RF&P of Union (colloquially known as Broad Street) Station, designed by New York architect John Russell Pope, whose other work includes Washington's National Gallery of Art. The domed building opened Jan. 6, 1919, six months late and almost $2 million over budget. The station closed in 1975 and is today's Science Museum of Virginia.