History In Site: C&A Railway Power Plant, Charlottesville VA

Every time I drive into Charlottesville on westbound Interstate 64, I notice a tall, ornate smokestack standing not far off as I cross the Rivanna River. I always assumed it was the remains of an old mill or something. Whenever I spot something like that, I have two thoughts: What is that? And: How can I get there? I absolutely love the thrill of finding a forgotten place with a story to tell!

Most of the information below I learned after my visit to the place–really still didn’t know what I was looking at, at the time!

I started out from Charlottesville’s Riverview Park, taking the sidewalks and streets over towards the Woolen Mills complex. Along the way I passed the structure above, the smokestack of which is also visible when crossing the Rivanna on I-64. This was a coal-fired power plant which provided power for the textile industry at Woolen Mills, once they switched over to electricity around the turn of the 20th century.

Woolen Mills has its own long and storied history. For decades it was the largest industry in the area, with its own neighborhood to provide housing and services for its employees–including a church, school, and store. Many of those buildings still stand, though some have been converted to residences. The mills became well-known as a provider of uniforms for organizations from the Confederate army to the United States Navy and Postal Service, as well as for the staff of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

Looking down the CSX railroad tracks (originally part of the Chesapeake & Ohio line), I could see the tall and ornate stack I was looking for. Now I know the structure was a power plant for the Charlottesville & Albemarle Railway, an electric streetcar company which operated in Charlottesville from 1903 to 1935. Originally powered by a direct-current plant in the city, new ownership in 1912 decided to build a more efficient alternating-current plant along the Rivanna River instead. The new plant went into service in 1914.

A couple views of the C&A’s streetcars in operation.

The C&A Railway was formed by combining and modernizing several pre-existing lines, from horse-drawn trolleys to electric streetcars. In its heyday, the main line ran about 3.5 miles, from the C&O Main Street Station to the University of Virginia campus and Lambeth Field, the UVA football stadium at the time. It also branched off along Jefferson Park Avenue, where the line ended at Jefferson Park, a recreational park owned and operated by the railway to generate additional riders. In the Fry’s Spring area, Jefferson Park featured a dance pavilion, movie theater, swimming pool, roller skating, and other activities. The park is gone now, but some of it remains in the neighborhood–the dance pavilion, for example, now forms part of the clubhouse at the Fry’s Spring Beach Club, which also includes the (renovated) swimming pool. Where the Jefferson Park Baptist Church stands today was once the grand Jefferson Park Hotel, which burned down around 1910.

With the advent of the automobile, streetcar ridership declined, and the Great Depression drove the final nails into the coffin. The C&A ceased operations in 1935. I’m told the C&A power plant remained in operation for the next couple decades, however, providing electric power to Charlottesville neighborhoods.

Today there’s no official path to the C&A power plant, but I found the semblance of a trail along the railroad tracks that got me there. I didn’t make my way down into the structure, assuming it’s private property and not particularly safe. The plentiful graffiti tells me others have certainly taken the risk, however!

A similar view to my photo above, from when the plant was still under construction around 1913. Note the power pole on the right–we’ll get to that!

Another view from the plant’s early days. Definitely looks different now!

I was eager to put my drone in the air for some better views! But it’s still a new drone, so I wasn’t quite brave enough to go down into the building with it.

So here’s an old photo of what the inside looked like back then!

YouTube player

Click the video above for some serene drone views of the spot! You can also pop over to YouTube to see the video of my full wander for the day.

I mentioned the power pole in the old photograph above–the remains of those poles with their old-fashioned glass insulators definitely caught my eye. I’m just amazed when I can match up something I saw in the present to that very same thing in a photo taken a century ago! Perhaps not exactly the same poles as in the photo, but still!

I suspect I’ll have to get back to this spot to explore some more. In the meantime, thanks for coming along!

Note: Thanks to the University of Virginia’s Scholars’ Lab–I pulled some old photographs and great information from this page!

One Comment

  1. I’ve seen this while driving through the area and have always admired the beauty of that smokestack, but didn’t know anything else about it. Thank you very much for your lovely post and beautiful pictures!

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