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Petersburg courthouse Civil War
Streetscape of Petersburg, Virginia, looking at the courthouse, late spring 1865. Photographer unknown; collection of Library of Congress

An 1865 picture of Petersburg shows a delightful hodgepodge of paving and other details of a streetscape in a 19th century small American city. All was constructed with manual labor. In pre-Emancipation South, slaves often did the job, though this is not a given. Hired laborers, white and black, had a place in the urban economy.

Petersburg being a granite town, the street itself looks to be paved with packed grout, here not mortar but granite chips–the waste of granite quarries. A line of larger stone makes a “spine” down the middle of the street leading to the courthouse, and near the corners (at the crossing) the orderly laying of the stones makes a gutter. Drainage was as essential then as now, to prevent ice and water (and horse urine) from destroying the street and endangering two- and four-footed pedestrians. On paving with granite and cobblestones

A manhole is in the center of the street. Sewage in a land where indoor plumbing is more the exception than the rule? The necessity for waste water management was known long before flush toilets, and urban sewage systems took away human and industrial waste water–and dumped it in rivers–so that it would not taint wells.

Streets weren’t always paved, but sidewalks were a must. The left and right sidewalks are brick-paved in the usual herringbone pattern, as is the sidewalk within the courthouse gate. The right sidewalk looks muddy. The missing patches of brick on the left indicate that the bricks were probably unmortared. The front sidewalk is laid with what appear to be square granite paving stones, but (on the right) only up to the merchant’s door. Once you leave the tin shop and cross over to the wholesale shoe house it’s back to brick.

The crossing, made of granite slabs, and the ramped transition from sidewalk to street are not to accomodate the handicapped, but rather for handcarts and wheelbarrows. Granite curbing, seen here, endures in many cities including Richmond. More granite: the steps inside the courthouse gate and the retaining wall.

A single telegraph wire cuts the scene. No trash, not even cigarette butts, except maybe under one of the shutters. Note the sign: Tin Ware House–maybe Tinware House, rather than Tin Warehouse. I wonder what was in the barrels against the buildings and the retaining wall. Garbage? “Recycling”–for example, rags? At the right, folded shutters lay on the ground, ready to cover the windows at closing time. The picture dates from after the Federals took Petersburg, and it’s known that they shot at the statue of justice atop the courthouse; still, the missing windows are a puzzle in that the rest of the building is perfectly intact.

At the front corner of the Wholesale Shoe House, a blur indicates motion. Is that the “ghost” of a little girl sitting on the ground? Or it could just be a package with a covering blowing in the wind that blurs the trees in the background.

Photograph collection of Library of Congress. For a super close-up view, go to Shorpy, click on the photo


  1. Becky in VA

    You have such a good eye for anaylizing this fabulous old photo! I had to zoom in to see the details you observed in the photo, then I noticed the clock at 3:50. Thank you and I look forward to your next post.

    • Jean Huets

      I had to zoom way in to see all those details, but it was fun. I missed the time on the clock though!

  2. Scott in Illinois

    Nice analysis and detail Jean Huets!

    I have never seen that kind of fine sliced herringbone brickwork like that before! It must be extremely tediously laid, maintained and expensive to use!

    I would add answer to your sewer question referring to that manhole cover noting it is probably in association with the rain drain spouts that plunge into the ground nearby on the sides of the buildings on either side of it!

    I know even forty five – fifty years ago in my city the neighbors were told to disconnect the rain drain pipes from the sewer system so not to overload the sewer system during storms. They called it a closed system and it was not allowed.

    Back in 1865 I don’t think they had water overload problems like we do today especially considering in 1865 there were no sewerage treatment plants to be inundated with excess water like today because as you say they dumped it directly into the streams and rivers.

    I kind of think that item you may be referring to as trash under the shutter to the left of the corner looks like it might be a piece of limestone rock with a darker rock behind it propping up the shutter from sliding down if we are on the same page on this.

    The ghostly image on the left is strange! I don’t think it blurred because there are no consistent transitional blurs between the two images. The one image is very ghostly like she is sitting upright kneeling on the sidewalk holding a dark package or purse in front of her and you can see what looks like a hand and fingers holding that package or purse in front of her and her head and upper torso is visibly superimposed against the dark brick but the other image to the left is a more normal exposure with the girl’s face: eyes, cheek, upper lip, nose and hair clearly visible as if she is leaning sideways down against the corner of the building. The material / baggage / trash below her seems to be unconnected to her presence excepting that it might be a baby wrapped up next to the girl. There is no other really solid exposure of this person other than the face and hair on the left most image where you think there would be. One thing for sure she is a very small person at least in the original photo context but the left most facial image appears to be more adult like than that of a child!

    The only other explanation for this image is that some how a partial exposure of another scene overlapped with the primary scene either while advancing the film or that it was ever so slightly preexposed with another image or that similar overlap happened with the printing process onto the paper that had been ever so slightly preexposed before with another image or after the primary print was made.

    It is an interesting mystery! Maybe Petersburg has ghosts! LOL! 🙂

    8:32 PM CDT

    • Jean Huets

      Thanks for sharing your interesting thoughts and ideas. I hadn’t noticed the downspouts and your consideration of the drain makes sense. As for the ghosts… I’m sure Petersburg has its share!

  3. Scott in Illinois

    P. S.:

    Considering g this photo was taken in 1865 it has incredible clarity and resolution! The photographer must have had very expensive lenses in that camera to achieve such quality that most cameras even today lack! ! !

    9:04 PM CDT

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