Sanborn maps document Wharf Hill’s evolution

Published 4:53 pm Tuesday, April 19, 2022

It would be less than fair to describe Smithfield’s waterfront as a rowdy seaport, something resembling the downtown Norfolk of the early 20th century.

And yet, the town was indeed a seaport little more than a century ago, and had been one since its founding in the mid 1700s. Ships trading up and down the Atlantic Coast and as far as Bermuda are known to have frequented Smithfield. Capt. Mallory Todd’s ham business specifically involved shipping cured Smithfield Hams to Bermuda, thus establishing it as a food source of international renown.

The Pagan Creek’s deep water was considered sufficiently important to be included in Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia,” in which Jefferson noted the creek could handle vessels of 20 tons as far as Smithfield.

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Little physical evidence exists of the harbor as it appeared during the Colonial Era, though there are references to shipways along its banks. Shipbuilding was probably the most consequential local industry during those early days.

While evidence of the Colonial and Federal periods is scant, we do have a window on the harbor’s makeup at the turn of the 20th century. That was the peak of the Steamboat Era, a period that was romanticized by several generations of residents who were alive to witness its demise in the late 1920s.

One of the clearest pictures is provided by the Sanborn Map Co., which specialized in producing accurate property maps of towns and cities across the country. Sanborn’s amazing maps delineate every building located within a jurisdiction as of a particular year, and several maps of Smithfield have survived.

The Sanborn Map of Smithfield for 1906 offers a glimpse of a harbor that, while it may not have been rowdy, was unquestionably still lively. Lower Main Street and Commerce Street were home to two saloons, a combination saloon and grocery store, a poolroom and two barbershops — most anything a seafaring man might need.

There was also commerce aplenty reflected in the 1906 map. Four general stores, a hay and feed store, a restaurant and bakery, a fish market and the Old Dominion Steam Navigation Co., fronted on the two streets. By then, P.D. Gwaltney Jr. and Company had established a smokehouse and the makings of a packing plant, and next door was the Gwaltney-Bunkley Peanut Co.

That map was drawn 13 years before the 18th Amendment banned the sale of alcoholic beverages throughout the United States, an effort that will forever rank as one of the most miserable failures in our Puritan desire to regulate morality.

The Steamboat Era was nearing its end when Sanborn printed a map of the town in 1926. The Gwaltney-Bunkley Peanut Co. had famously collapsed in flames years earlier. The Old Dominion Steamboat building had been bought by the short-lived Smithfield Boat Line Inc., which was created by local investors who hoped to maintain steamboat service to the town. It was doomed to failure when the James River Bridge system connected Southside with the Peninsula and with the Norfolk-Portsmouth area.

Prohibition was solidly in place, though it too would be short-lived. The 21st Amendment would end it in 1933. A combination of the ban on booze and the demise of the town’s port changed the face of lower Main and Commerce. Neither a saloon nor a pool hall can be found on the 1926 map.

What can be found is a resurgence of business, though of a different direction. By then, a number of the town’s anchor retail businesses had been built in the 100 and 200 blocks of West Main Street, and “downtown” was shifting up the hill. Wharf Hill, however, was blossoming, becoming the center of trade for the African American community. Two dry cleaners, a funeral home and two restaurants were listed by Sanborn.

Racial segregation, enforced by Jim Crow laws, tragically kept the business efforts of Black and white entrepreneurs apart, but Wharf Hill prospered despite the forced separation.

Today, segregation of businesses has ended and Wharf Hill has again changed. Wharf Hill Brewing Co. is now the largest business there, but one Black-owned business, Boothe Cleaner, remains an anchor at the foot of the hill, still serving local customers a century after it was founded.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is