RVA History: Merging Manchester

by Jon Baliles

I often joke with people when I am asked about Manchester that it was an independent city until 1910 when they merged with Richmond — and they have probably regretted it ever since.

Em Holter has a nice piece in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the merger of the city nicknamed “Dogtown” that is worth the read.

On the day of the vote in 1910, pro-merger pamphlets were distributed that promised lower taxes, better infrastructure, and free passage into Virginia’s capital city (no more toll on the bridge). Opponents cautioned that annexation would mean increased taxes and inferior services. History can certainly be ironic.

As we all know, the merger was approved, but it came with two provisions that are still valid today — Manchester would always have a freestanding courthouse (which it does on Hull Street), and there would be a free bridge to cross the river (a toll had been on the Mayo Bridge for decades prior).

The first recorded history of the former city began 20 years after the settlement of Jamestown in 1697, when a group of white men traveled up the river and claimed the territory. Soon after, Richmond followed.

In its infancy, the city grew alongside Richmond. The city quickly grew in economic prowess as its access to the James River resulted in mass exports of tobacco and other crops. Prior to the Civil War, railways hauled coal from the Chesterfield mines to the city’s docks. Likewise, it served as one of the main ports for slave ships carrying enslaved people, which made Richmond the largest source of enslaved Africans on the East Coast for 30 years.

Manchester, originally known as Manastoh (its native name) and later Rocky Ridge (renamed by English settlers), became the county seat for Chesterfield County after the Civil War and became an independent city in 1874. Most of its main streets are named after naval commanders from the Barbary Wars off the coasts of North Africa and the War of 1812, including Commodores Stephen Decatur, William Bainbridge, and Isaac Hull.

Manchester struggled economically as Richmond grew bigger and faster toward the end of the 19th Century, and suffered from declining infrastructure it could not afford to improve or maintain. Annexation talk took place for decades. As the merger vote approached, lobbying was intense.

‘Contrast the present condition of Richmond, look carefully around and consider all points of municipal growth and facilities,’ a member of the Consolidation Association wrote in a letter to an editor in the April 3, 1910, edition of The Times-Dispatch. ‘One the type of progress, the other plodding wearily along miles and miles behind.’

One column in the Times-Dispatch from April 4, 1910, “outlines over a dozen arguments in favor of the annexation, including free toll bridges, paved streets, better sewer systems, water quality, better schools, electric lights, parks and, most notably, lower tax rates.”

Seriously. Someone actually wrote that about Richmond.

While there was wide support, the decision did face opposition. Mainly, those against the annexation argued that it would result in higher taxes, inferior services and a loss of identity as the city was a more complex area than Richmond could handle.

So, some people saw what was coming, but they came up short at the ballot box and the merger moved forward. Apparently, the losers of the merger referendum did not think to immediately push for a second referendum; if only they had known that they could have. But I digress.

Of course, in more modern times, the floodwall’s completion in the 1990s helped spur development and renewal, and the last decade plus has seen Manchester become one of the hottest spots of development in the entire city, with hundreds of millions of dollars of investment and thousands of new apartments that show little sign of slowing down.

Jon Baliles is a former Richmond City Councilman. This is an excerpt from the original article posted on his blog, RVA 5×5. It is posted here with permission.