Day Tripping: Cumberland County, Virginia

I hit the road early this past Sunday morning for a proper wander–I had one initial destination in mind, and from there I thought I’d just explore and see where I ended up. And it turned out the answer was: Cumberland County, Virginia. It wasn’t a particularly long excursion, but I was pretty pleased with how it turned out.

My first stop was the remains of the Cartersville Bridge, alongside Cartersville Road at the northeast corner of Cumberland County. There’s a single span left on either side of the James River, and a few stone piers in the stream.

The stonework dates all the way back to the original bridge at this location, built in 1822–nearly two centuries ago! Originally a wooden covered bridge for vehicles and pedestrians, the construction was apparently shoddy, with a collapsed span reported in 1827. Rebuilt around 1842, the second superstructure also collapsed before long, leaving only a ferry as the means to cross the James here. In 1884 the bridge reopened, rebuilt as one of the last major timber bridges crossing the James River.

It’s actually a composite construction: Heavy timber members joined and reinforced with iron elements, with a total length of 843 feet across 6 spans. The bridge stood until June of 1972, when major flooding from Hurricane Agnes completely submerged the bridge and washed away all but the two end spans.

The span on the south bank of the river adjoins a small public boat ramp, and can be accessed from the parking area there. It seems obvious this part was once open for exploration–an overgrown paved path leads onto the bridge, and the bridge itself is partly surfaced with asphalt as well. But the site is obviously not maintained at present, so probably technically off-limits. A bit of a shame, really–this is a gorgeous and historic spot along the river. Indeed, the bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places–you can find the application with additional information here.

It’s possible to walk down under both the old bridge and the modern road bridge that runs alongside it. I wouldn’t call it an official trail, but it’s clear enough anyway.

The remaining span on the north side of the James looks to be on private property, with no legal means of access.

Looking at my map, I saw the Cumberland State Forest wasn’t too far off, so I picked a spot to check out there. I noticed a “swinging pedestrian bridge” marked at the end of Warner Forest Road, and that sounded fun. Indeed, the bridge itself, spanning the Willis River, was neat (if a little under-maintained and covered with skittering skinks). Unfortunately, any trail on the other side was so overgrown as to be useless at this time of year, and I didn’t feel like bushwhacking or tick-hunting. So I pressed on.

And then I chanced upon the real treasure of the day: Flanagan’s Mill (later known as Trice’s Mill and then Dixie Lee Mill). Driving along, I spotted this impressive building right next to the road, slightly hidden by trees and shrubs, and felt compelled to stop and investigate.

I explored around the outside of the mill, where rotting wood planks and bits of machinery remain. Looking in through the door here, the inside unfortunately looked pretty well collapsed.

The remains of the mill’s waterwheel, standing guard over the trickling mill run.

Around the other side of the building, I found an entrance into the second floor, and it became clear that the collapse was only partial. I talked myself into being a documentarian of history and exploring the inside a bit.

Here’s the big collapse I saw from the ground-level entrance. Still, the rest of the place seemed in remarkably good shape, with fascinating bits of original machinery still in place.

Here we see a millstone, and a window view out to the top of the waterwheel. I found it easy to imagine this place in working order, peering out the window to see and hear the wheel turning away.

The stairways to the third and fourth floors were remarkably solid–now THAT’S robust construction!

I haven’t been able to find much on the history of this place, apart from a Facebook comment from a lady whose nonagenarian father (and his father before him!) worked here. She reported it produced mainly flour and cornmeal, and some livestock feed.

There’s a historical marker not too far away indicating that Robert E. Lee stopped near the mill for a night on his journey home to Richmond in the days after the April 1865 surrender at Appomattox Court House. Apparently he slept at the home of Madison Flanagan, whom I presume was the owner of this very mill at the time.

Looking into the machinery left behind, the manufacturers and styles seem to date to the early 20th-century, anywhere from 1907 to the 1920s. I’d say the mill closed up shop quite some time ago. I hope someone might preserve it somehow, it’s another historic and beautiful spot.

Heading home through Powhatan (just like Robert E. Lee did!), I made a quick stop at Fighting Creek Park. It was hot, and I was hungry for lunch, so I just snapped a few shots around the lovely pollinator garden, which was a busy place!

There looked to be some nice trails at the park too–I’ll definitely get back there soon to check it out some more.

Home at last, I spent a little time in the back yard watching our resident Ruby-throated hummingbirds come and go. Nice to have them around. This one is a juvenile male, probably just hatched at the beginning of the summer.

That was a most enjoyable wander. I’m going to have to make a habit of this, especially as the fall creeps in!

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