Bridges span Smithfield’s storied history
Published 9:37 pm Tuesday, May 12, 2020
When the COVID-19 shutdown ends, hopefully very soon, Smithfield businesses will begin to return to normal along with the rest of the nation.
Within the next 18 months or so, however, they will face another crisis, this one scheduled and planned, for the Virginia Department of Transportation plans to rebuild the critical transportation artery known as the Cypress Creek Bridge. Highway engineers predict that work will take at least a year and a half, during which most town traffic will be funneled into the two-lane bypass, a route already congested every afternoon.
It won’t be the first time Smithfield residents have dealt with issues involving bridges. In fact, bridges have played a vital role in the life of Smithfield since its founding. When Arthur Smith became northern Isle of Wight County’s first successful subdivision developer in the 1750s, he chose from his extensive land holdings a stretch of high ground running between what was then known as the Pagan Creek and a smaller stream known as Little Creek.
Once the town of Smithfield was laid off into lots and houses were erected, the main road southeastward out of the community was along what we know as Scott’s Factory. At some point, a bridge was constructed to north across the upper Pagan and hence westward along Hwy. 10.
The east side of town ended at Cypress Creek, and that broad marsh and creek would not be crossed by a bridge until the very early days of the 20th century, when a wooden span was constructed next to what is now Smithfield Station.
People who witnessed construction of that first bridge told me anecdotally many years ago of the causeway that was built across the marsh to connect with the new bridge. Tumble carts of fill dirt pulled by mules were backed down the Church Street hill and the dirt dumped into the marsh.
Not long after the fill dirt was deposited, the deep marsh mud did what it has continued to do ever since. It was pushed aside by the heavier fill dirt above it, and into the channel of the Pagan. The “mud wave” was so great, the river had to be dredged to restore safe steamboat passage.
A couple of decades after that bridge was built, the Virginia Highway Department (now VDOT) replaced it and a second wooden bridge that connected the town with concrete and steel structures.
At about the same time that the first Cypress Creek bridge was built, a small bridge was placed across Mount Holly Creek. Prior to that, anyone traveling from Mill Swamp to town traveled along Bethany Church Road, across the Wrenn’s Mill dam and into town along old Hwy. 10.
The road built to connect the Mill Swamp and Bethany roads was known as the “New Road” until the county formally named streets in the 1980s and renamed it Mill Swamp Road.
The final bridge connections to be built were the two that are part of the Smithfield Bypass, which opened in 1973. Those spans across the Cypress and Pagan completed that road and provided additional routes in and out of town.
Smithfield’s vital bridge connections have provided grist for news stories for the past half century. In 1973, when VDOT was preparing to replace the old Cypress Creek Church Street Bridge, that agency announced it would dredge the marsh to provide access for a pile driver.
The Coast Guard opposed the plan for environmental reasons, but the alternative, according to VDOT, was to take out the old bridge and replace it, and local businesses vigorously opposed that.
Business won, the marsh was dredged, and the new bridge built, but not before VDOT poured fill dirt into the eastern edge of the marsh. Though it was done this time with dump trucks rather than mules, the effect was the same. The marsh simply shifted, and the fill dirt slid down into the void. The plan was revised, pilings were driven in the fill area, and the new bridge was built.
A few years later, businesses again protested when VDOT proposed closing the Pagan River Bridge to make way for a modern replacement. The town, supporting its businesses, won again, and the new bridge was built one lane at a time to keep traffic moving.
As it plans to rebuild the Cypress Bridge, which is decaying faster than would have seemed logical, VDOT is again weighing options, but the agency is saying the work will take the better part of two years no matter how it’s accomplished.
It would appear that bridges will continue to be an important and sometimes nettlesome part of Smithfield’s story.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is.