The South Side Rail Road and Station in Petersburg

The South Side Rail Road (as it was known originally) was chartered in March 1846, two months before the United States declared war on Mexico.  This rail line ran 124 miles west to Lynchburg.  It eventually superseded the Upper Appomattox Canal, which had long provided continuous waterborne freight traffic from Farmville east to Petersburg.  The South Side rail was a 5-foot gauge made in Wales.  The railroad crossed the Appomattox River near Farmville over High Bridge.  Built in 1852, it may have been the longest bridge in the world at that time.  It was over 2,500 feet long and 126 feet high and was supported by 26 brick piers.

The South Side Station was built in Petersburg in 1854, the same year the City Point Rail Road merged into the South Side Rail Road.  The station is likely the oldest extant railroad station in Virginia.  The two-story center section was the passenger depot, and the east and west wings were used for freight.  The passenger depot had a total of 3286 square feet on both floors, with four rooms on each floor.  Each of the freight wings was 13,000 square feet.  Architecturally, the station was designed with a gable roof, Greek Revival doorway, Italianate sawn brackets, three bays, five-course American bond brick, and paired round-arched windows.

When the Civil War began in April 1861, Henry D. Bird was the superintendent of the South Side Rail Road.  By late 1861, the railroad employed 378 workers, 80% of whom were African-American.  The South Side Rail Road operated one of the city’s five ironworks.  Its ironworks included a foundry, car shop, and engine repair shop; it built railroad cars and repaired both engines and cars.  After the war began, the ironworks in Richmond and Petersburg responded exclusively to military orders and no new rails, cars, or locomotives were built.

In June 1862, the South Side Rail Road transported Union prisoners of war from Jackson’s Valley Campaign though Petersburg en route to the prisoner of war camp at Salisbury, North Carolina and Confederate reinforcements north to General Robert E. Lee’s Army for what became the Seven Days Battles from June 25 to July 1.  None of the five rail lines coming into Petersburg before the war connected to other rail lines- that inefficiency was fixed in 1863.  Throughout the war the South Side Rail Road brought many troops to its Petersburg station, including wounded and sick soldiers to be treated in the several military hospitals in the city.

The station was a high-value target for the Union forces, and the frequency of shells landing in and around the station often caused trains coming from the west to stop at the Fleet Street crossing near Campbell’s Bridge.  Three major Federal cavalry raids targeted the South Side Rail Road.  To mitigate this threat to the railroad, the South Side Rail Road Guards were formed from Captain Henry D. Bird’s Company, Hood’s Battalion, Virginia Reserves, on August 6, 1864.

The South Side Rail Road was the last of the five Petersburg rail lines to remain under Confederate control.  During the Siege of Petersburg that began on June 15, 1864, Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant continually attempted to get around Lee’s right flank and cut the South Side Rail Road.  This was his objective for the attack at Peebles’ (or Jones’s) Farm from September 30 to October 2, 1864, but it was unsuccessful.

In late March 1865, Grant ordered Major General Phillip H. Sheridan to capture the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Rail Road.  Lee’s missive to Major General George E. Pickett late on March 31 stated, “Hold Five Forks at all hazards.  Protect road to Ford’s Depot and prevent Union forces from striking the Southside Rail Road.”  Sheridan’s successful attack against Confederate forces under Pickett on April 1 at Five Forks opened the way for the railroad to be severed the following day at the battle of Sutherland Station.  When Lee learned that his last supply line into Petersburg had been cut, he informed Confederate President Jefferson Davis that Petersburg and Richmond had to be evacuated that night.  To support the pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as it fled Petersburg to the west, Grant ordered that the South Side Rail Road be repaired to Burkeville.  The Federals had to change its gauge to 4 feet, 8 ½ inches to allow its rolling stock to operate on this rail line.  The 60 miles were completed during the week of the retreat.

After the end of the war, the railroad was returned to the control of the South Side Rail Road on July 24, 1865.  By 1870, former Confederate Major General William “Billy” Mahone was the President of the Atlantic, Mississippi, and Ohio Railroad, which included the South Side Rail Road.  His office was located on the second floor of the passenger depot.  Inside the western freight wing one can view where a 30-pound shell fired during the war lodged in a roof support beam.  The station’s original cupola, photographed during the Civil War, was lost at some point in its history.

On August 6, 1993, the F4 tornado that hit Old Towne Petersburg severely damaged the station.  It blew the roofs off the west freight wing and the center passenger depot, and destroyed the east wing.  In its restoration, the cupola was reconstructed along with the roofs.  Only the foundation of the 13,000-square-foot east wing remains, so currently the station has 16,286 square feet, which includes the west wing and the passenger depot.  Located at 37 River Street, the currently vacant South Side Station occupies 2.94 acres.

The National Park Service is pursuing a plan to acquire and preserve the South Side Station through a Congressionally Authorized Boundary Adjustment.  On March 14, 2008, the Petersburg National Battlefield held a meeting in Petersburg to obtain public input on the proposal to have the National Park Service acquire the South Side Station to rehabilitate it and use it to interpret the Civil War in Petersburg.  Twenty-eight of the 29 individuals who commented on the proposal supported the acquisition.  Final bids for the rehabilitation of the South Side Station as a visitors center were due to the National Park Service in October 2014.

In the meantime, the station has appeared in numerous recent movies and television mini-series.  The movies Lincoln (2012) and Ithaca (filmed in the summer of 2014 and directed by Meg Ryan) and the Revolutionary War mini-series Turn and Point of Honor (filmed in September 2014) have or will include shots of the South Side Station.  It remains one of the most historically significant and iconic structures in Petersburg, surviving not only the 9 1/2-month siege in 1864 and 1865 but also the destructive tornado in 1993.