Column – Old photo dispels assumption about Pagan bridge

Published 4:34 pm Tuesday, December 5, 2023

I am always on the lookout for old maps and old photographs of our area, both of which are windows into the past, though maps obviously can take us much further back than photos.

An example: There was a bridge across Jones Creek at some point in time, probably the 1700s. It was well constructed. A half century ago, you could still see tenons sawn into the tops of pilings that clearly had been married to a substantial bridge structure. The bridge spanned the creek from the end of what is now Canterbury Lane in Waterford Oaks to the Edwards farm on the creek’s east side.

As a child, I knew people, including relatives, who were born in the late 1800s, but knew nothing of that crossing. The only upper Jones Creek crossing they knew of was a modest corduroy causeway and pole bridge across the marsh connecting the Ross Minton Farm (now Smithfield Boulevard) to the Edwards farm, and continuing on to Battery Park. In fact, that dirt road, little more than a woods path, was the primary route to Battery Park, according to late 19th century maps.

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But what of the other one, which must have predated that path by quite a bit? Surely there’s a map that would show the connection. I suspect it would have to be a fairly detailed 18th century map of Isle of Wight, and thus far I haven’t found one, and I’ve about given up any hope of doing so.

I thought of that search recently when I came across an intriguing aerial photograph of Smithfield shot in1930 by Army Air Corps photographers from Langley Field. I’ve been fascinated by its detail and its historic importance, for it records, as words cannot, the end of the age of steamboats as it gave way to the automobile.

The photo, shot two years after completion of the James River Bridge, captures the town from just south of the current Smithfield Bypass, looking north. There’s the familiar footprint of Main Street and its intersection with Church Street, and beyond that, the Pagan River waterfront, which is all but empty. The masts of one lone schooner can be seen at a dock approximately where the peanut factory had burned a decade earlier. No other marine traffic is visible.

Instead, the most dominant feature of the photograph is the newly cut path of North Church Street, which appears as a wide band of light-colored dirt used to fill the marsh approach to the Pagan River Bridge that would be built within a couple of years. To the east is Cypress Creek, where a new concrete drawbridge had already been constructed in an earlier phase of this highway modernization project. 

Once the Pagan River bridge was completed in the early 1930s, Route 10 would become a significant connection between the Tidewater region and Richmond. It would never fully compete with U.S. 460 that cut across Isle of Wight’s mid-section, or U.S. 60 that connected the Peninsula to Richmond, but it dramatically improved automotive transportation here, and that would be crucial to the development of the pork slaughter and processing plants that were to come.

North of the Pagan River, the photo shows nothing but farmland where the packing plants would be built within a few years. 

Another fascinating feature is an old wooden bridge that’s clearly shown, connecting the marshland north of Commerce Street with the north shore of the Pagan. I’ve seen ground-level photos of that bridge, but they were not clear as to its location or orientation. That location was, to me, the photo’s biggest surprise, for it shows the bridge running across the Pagan in an easterly direction, landing in the marsh where a sawmill was located. I have always been under the mistaken impression that the old wooden bridge crossed to what is now Clontz Park, but the photo clearly dispels that notion. 

Thus, with the click of a camera shutter, some unidentified Army Air Corps photographer captured for all time a moment in our history that would be the end of one era in our community and the emergence of another.

NOTE: I am, indeed, interested in old photos (aerial or land-based) and old maps that help us better understand our corner of the world, and would love to see any that Short Rows readers have. Far more important, though, is to have such information end up at the Isle of Wight Museum. You don’t have to donate the material. Photos, maps and other printed material can be digitized and the originals retained by you. If you would like to share such materials with the community, contact Curator Rachel Popp at (757) 356-1014 or

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