Sunday, July 2, 2017

Petersburg's Sycamore Street - Then and Now

Describing change over time is something that historians specialize in. However, seeing that change through visual images can sometimes have just as much impact as reading a historian's words describing it. 

A few months ago I happened upon the above photograph in the Library of Congress online catalog. It shows Union soldiers on a Petersburg, Virginia, sidewalk and street, some time in 1865. This photograph's particular perspective is that of looking north on Sycamore Street, one of Petersburg's most important commercial thoroughfares. It appears to be only about a block north of Sycamore Street's intersection with Washington Street. 

If one zooms in on the photograph, a few names of business owners can be read on their various shingles. On the left side (west side) of the image is Britton, Todd, and Young, one of Petersburg's many grocers and commission merchants. Beside Britton, Todd, and Young is the hardware and cutlery business of Alfred James. Further north is Burton and Brothers, probably yet another commission merchant. Across the street (east side) is Smyth and Company, yes, another commission merchant. Also, the shingle of William E. Steward, who was a saddle and harness maker. During the Civil War, Steward's son, Powhatan, served in Company E of the 41st Virginia Infantry, a Petersburg raised unit. Visible on the wall on the extreme right of the image is the number 108. I assume this is the address number as it seems to closely correspond with the present-day street address. 

Sycamore Street in 2017 is no longer a dirt street. There are still street lamps, (as a matter of fact they look much like those in 1865) but they are no longer gas powered. There are no longer horses and wagons traveling north and south, rather automobiles of all types dominate Sycamore Street. Commission merchants do not fill the business spaces one hundred and fifty-plus years later. Instead, difficult times have left many of the buildings empty, others house small restaurants, individual businesses of various types, and art shops. Many of the building's street-side facades have changed with the times, too. And some have become stuck in their mid-twentieth century forms. Regardless of their condition and look, elements of Petersburg's Sycamore Street are still visible today and remind us of a century and a half ago, when a different type of enormous change was just starting, that of emancipation.

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