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Chapter 37 - Shockoe Bottom

Between the downtown high-rises and Church Hill lay flood-prone Shockoe Bottom, the original center of the City of Richmond.


It was the home of a large slave market consisting of a substantial number of slave auction houses and holding pens, making Richmond second only to New Orleans in the antebellum slave trade. The vilest of these human corrals was Lumpkin’s Jail, known as the Devil’s Half Acre.


During the Civil War, Richmond’s population swelled from 38,000 to over 130,000. The city filled with soldiers, refugees, and opportunists of all stripes. Shockoe Bottom’s factories and warehouses were turned into hospitals and prisons.


At night people still streamed on Shockoe Bottom’s thoroughfares, looking for the action among the bars, restaurants, and clubs. Cars jammed up along Main Street, people crowded the sidewalks, and a cop stood on every corner.


Gordon found a parking space for the battered brown Falcon under the dark tangle of overpasses in the Bottom, so he and Hezekiah could join the throng.


Above Gordon and Hezekiah loomed the clock tower of Richmond’s Main Street train station adorned in terra cotta. Gordon looked up at the clock to check the time with his pocket watch.


Bet locked arms with Gordon, and they went out the door of the hot club into the warm night, making their way past the unsavory soup of sidewalk cafes and tattoo parlors.


They made it up to Twentieth and Main. Across the street sat the Old Stone House, the oldest house in downtown Richmond. The small dwelling, built around 1754, reposed under the dark shadow of a live oak tree and was part of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum.


Poe was the child of traveling actors. His drunken father abandoned the family when he was an infant, and his mother died in Richmond of tuberculosis the month before his third birthday. Elizabeth Arnold Poe, Edgar’s mother, was buried in St. John’s Churchyard.


They turned down Twentieth . . . . As they passed an old tobacco warehouse now serving as the Virginia Holocaust Museum,


Bet pointed across the street to the two open hatch doors in the seventeen-foot-high concrete floodwall.


They went through the near hatch door and sat on brick steps, looking at the train trestle and the dark canal beyond. Below them lit with yellow streetlights ran Dock Street, the same road the Gabrielites had chased Gordon down earlier in the day.


Bet and Gordon rested on the site of the infamous Libby Prison.

Shockoe Valley and Tobacco Row Historic District

Eyre Crowe's Images of the Slave Trade

Richmond Slave Trail

Main Street Station

Poe Museum

Virginia Holocaust Museum

Libby Prison