Second-Worst Decision of the State of Virginia?

Virginia and West Virginia watersheds
Can you identify the James River and Potomac River, and
see how far those transportation paths extend into modern-day West Virginia?
Source: National Atlas

In the colonial era, roads were the responsibility of local residents. Plantation owners and other landowners were required by the county courts to provide labor (usually when there was a gap in demand for agricultural labor) to improve the local roads. Minimal skill was required to fill in ruts - but the House of Burgesses funded contractors to build bridges on roads that were travelled by more than local farmers. The basic theory was that local roads were a local responsibility, and regional roads were the colony's responsibility.

After the Revolutionary War, road-based trade with the other states expanded. Population growth along the Fall Line and further inland increased the demand for state support for new roads. The General Assembly funded projects on an ad hoc basis until 1816, when it created the Board of Public Works to oversee the state investments in transportation infrastructure. Before the 20th Century, Virginia did not have a state highway department. Instead of creating a bureaucracy, the state bought 40-60% of the bonds sold by a private company to finance a transportation project. The private company then hired and managed contractors to build a road, canal, or railroad.

The industrial revolution in England triggered a series of very successful canal projects to carry manufactured goods and agricultural products to markets. Virginia's Board of Public Works made a major (and unwise) commitment to canal technology. The politics of pre-Civil War Virginia required simultaneous development of canals up the James and Potomac rivers, to satisfy the large number of voters who lived in those separate watersheds. Canals on the Potomac River would benefit Alexandria and farmers in the lower Shenandoah watershed, but do nothing for voters in Richmond, Lynchburg, Charlottesville, or the upper Shenandoah watershed. In a typical political compromise, the General Assembly financed both canals.

However, the interests of those living west of the Alleghenies were largely ignored. The General Assembly financed relatively few turnpikes, canals, or railroads in the mountainous western counties. The costs per mile (and per voter) were much higher on the Appalachian Plateau. In addition, financing transportation systems that improved access to the Ohio River would nt provide any economic benefits to Fall Line seaports in eastern Virginia - Alexandria, Occoquan, Fredericksburg, Richmond, Petersburg - or the Hampton Roads seports - Newport News, Norfolk, or Portsmouth.

That may have been logical to Tidewater politicians, but western Virginia residents considered their treatment to be grossly unfair. The Virginia state constitution was revised twice, in 1831 and 1850, in response to agitation by western representatives to have more-equal representation in the General Assembly. However, Tidewater counties continued to control the state, and eastern voters ensured that taxes on their "property" (slaves, primarily) were kept at a low level while taxes on western land and cattle were maintained at a relatively high level.

James River and Kanawha Canal at Balcony Falls
James River and Kanawha Canal at Balcony Falls
Source: A plan of James River from Lynchburg to the North Branch
(made under the direction of Thomas Moore, Principal Engineer, by Andrew Alexander and John Couty, 1820?),
from the Library of Virginia, Board of Public Works (Map #15)

The westerners felt they were required to pay excessively-high taxes for transportation improvements that benefitted the eastern region, especially the Fall Line cities of Alexandria, Richmond, and Petersburg. Those living between the Allegheny Front and the Ohio River took advantage of the Civil War to secede from Virginia and establish the independent state of West Virginia. That ensured taxes from their region would be used for transportation improvements oriented towards shipping on the Ohio River, rather than spent primarily in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

coal fields in Chesterfield
A map of the internal improvements of Virginia; prepared by C. Crozet
late principal engineer of Va. under a resolution of the General Assembly adopted March 15th 1848
Source: Library of Congress

Virginia was a leader in adopting railroad technology. It built one of the first railroads in America in 1828, to haul coal from the Triassic Basin in Chesterfield to Richmond. That railroad was built before locomotives were perfected; the carts of coal were pulled on the rails by horses rather than a steam-powered locomotive.

However, Virginia made a terrible political decision in the 1830's to continue to invest in canals rather than shift to railroads. Worse, the Board of Public Works failed to examine the economic risks when it supported separate and competing projects. Virginia financed too many construction projects, and after the Little River Turnpike few of them made enough revenue to repay their investors - much less make a profit.

The effort to build a canal up the Rappahannock River failed in part because technology for construction in the 1840's was inadequate to the challenge. The engineers lacked the mathematical techniques we take for granted today, such as calculus, as well as slide rules or computers. Dynamite had not been invented yet, and hydraulic cement (which could cure and harden even when underwater) was scarce. However, the main problem was economic. The Orange and Alexandria Railroad reached the headwaters of the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers before the canal. The O&A railroad provided cheap transportation to the port city at Alexandria, and there were not enough farmers in the Culpeper area producing crops for market to support both a railroad and a canal to Fredericksburg.

Virginia received prescient advice from the chief engineer for the Board of Public Works, Claudius Crozet. He recognized that railroads would be cost-effective even before locomotive technology was perfected, and that rail-based transportation could carry freight at a far lower cost per mile than canals. Crozet was forced to resign, however, and after the Panic (recession) of 1857, Virginia was headed towards bankruptcy.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, the General Assembly chose to pay most of its pre-war debts rather than "readjust" them and officially declare bankruptcy. Eliminating the debt took 50 years, during which the state's schools and other services were funded at a low level. The decision to invest excessively in transportation infrastructure in the 1830's and 1840's shaped Virginia politics in both the 1800's and the 1900's.

In the 1920's, Harry Byrd rose to power, getting elected first as governor and then as a Senator. He advocated a "pay as you go" approach to funding construction of the modern highway system. In a successful political campaign just as Virginia was committing to pave roads and "get out of the mud," he set the policy that Virginia would finance road construction and maintenance from current revenues rather than borrow money through bonds.

He also designed the taxes so road costs would be paid by road users (rather than general revenue raised from income/property/sales taxes) was not abandoned by the General Assembly until 1986, when the sales tax was raised by 0.5% and that revenue dedicated to the Transportation Trust Fund. How to share the road and the load (of taxes) is a continuing debate in Virginia politics.

What do you think was the worst decision of the State of Virginia - so far, at least?

How would you rate the decision to secede from the Union in 1861 and join the Confederacy, which resulted in massive social and economic dislocation? Virginia's decisions to make unwise investments in transportation, committing to build more turnpikes/canals/railroads than the state could afford, may be the second-worst political decision in the state's history.

NOTE: Using today's moral values, many people might decide quickly that the initial decisions in the mid-1600's to create an official system of slavery was the worst mistake made by the political leaders of Virginia. However, the decisions to create a legal system that supported slavery were made in the 1600's, during colonial days. The "state" or Commonwealth of Virginia did not exist until 1776, so by a technicality the decision to establish a legal system of slavery can be excluded from the contest to identify the second-worst decision of the State of Virginia...

Canals of Virginia

The First Canal, at Williamsburg

Up the James

Railroads of Virginia

From Feet to Space: Transportation in Virginia
Virginia Places