By George "Buddy" Cranford
Nothing is more intriguing than a lost piece of history. Here is a mystery of a prison wagon that begs to be solved. Prison wagons were a popular tool in the 1800s and early 1900s. In our modern age, the motorized police vans had replaced the older paddy wagons as they were usually crudely adapted for accommodation of prisoners. Some were unique and until the advent of the motorized “paddy wagons” – a name given to them by the Irish, these wagons were mostly a holding pen until the prisoner could be transferred to a jail.
Some cities and towns saw the advent of a few ornate decorative wagons. By the late 1800s there were many variations of police wagons. Some were quite unique such as the one used in Chesterfield County. There is very little history written about the use of Chesterfield County’s wagon. Our County had one in the form of a horse-drawn iron wagon that looked every bit a jail, complete with beds and the carriage on steel wheels made in the form of a secure prison cell. There is a popular belief that it may have been used in the county during the Civil War to transport Union prisoners and could have very well been used for that purpose. That, too, is a mystery.
Because of that war, perhaps there were not many civilian prisoners, but certainly enough soldiers and runaway slaves that required incarceration for one reason or another. The war in Chesterfield County has not been fully documented by many historians until lately, thanks to local Civil War historians. Chesterfield County played an important role in the Civil War. There were prisoners to be transported and the right tool could have been available at the county jail. When the Civil War came to Chesterfield, many of the court justices and others marched off to repel the Northern aggressors. Sheriff Robert Gill was ordered to collect an additional 10 percent tax to help pay the expenses of arming and equipping the Chesterfield volunteers. Chesterfield County in the concluding years of this conflict would see an entire campaign, the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, fought within its boundaries.
A County event to commemorate the 150th anniversary will be held on April 25-27, 2014. This unique event will demonstrate what siege warfare was like in Chesterfield County, Va., in May 1864, when Federal forces under Gen. Benjamin Butler and Confederate forces under Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard clashed. The campaign battles fought here prolonged the war another year. Prisoners were captured and transported from one place to another. Wouldn’t it be unique to have this wagon on display for our visitors? Some prisoners would have certainly been carried in the iron prison wagon shown here. Some Civil War enthusiasts believed that it was used to haul Union prisoners to a railroad to be shipped to Andersonville prison in Georgia. If the stories are true that it was used during the Civil War, it would a be a historic jewel. Some local Civil War buffs believe it to be the real thing. It was made of steel and steel was a scarce commodity during the war and why not use iron since it was more plentiful. After the war, it was later used to transport prisoners to work sites.
The county’s prison wagon would house twelve people used in work gangs. The historic 1892 jail on the Courthouse Green on a good summer day would have been unbearable due to the heat. If you have not visited the old jail, please do so. It is now a museum. From this old structure, prisoners were transported to work sites and spent time living in the wagon. Essentially, it could be called a “jail on wheels”. The wagon was used in Chesterfield County and it hauled a work crew that worked mostly on the gravel roads when the County provided maintenance. No one knows where it came from. Even newspaper accounts in 1988 indicated a mystery. Some say it dates to 1900 to 1915. Even that may be a guess. There was some reference in 1988 to restore the wagon for historical reasons. Obviously, that never occurred. The wagon is missing.
This old relic has been lost for a long time. In a newspaper interview in 1988, a Chesterfield County resident, Dale Martin, now deceased, stated the wagon was on his father’s property even before he started school. It was said to have been stored at Colgin’s Auto Service, Inc. on Hopewell Road. The old prison wagon had outlived its usefulness and it was hauled off for disposal. Rumor has it the owner got tired of waiting for Chesterfield County officials to remove it from his site. An Assistant County Administrator and a Public Affairs officer had alluded they wanted it. The owner then cut it up for scrap metal. Colgin’s site no longer exists. A gasoline convenience center now resides on the spot. Jerry Rudd, a county resident, former police officer and a member of the Chesterfield Historical Society of Virginia, stated that it was falling apart the last time he saw it. If the scrap yard owner did cut it up it for scrap, we have forever lost a piece of our history. Our historical records were sparse and do not reveal its last location or how it was used or destroyed Records get lost, thrown out or misfiled. If the wagon still exists and someone knows of its location, the Chesterfield Historical Society of Virginia would like to know where it remains. Someone who lives on Hopewell Road may recollect where it is or at least have a piece of it. A relic is better than nothing. The prison wagon was an interesting tool for the county sheriff and no doubt served him well. Historic relics often succumb to modern technology. Certainly, the old wagon outlived its effectiveness with the advent of the motor vehicle. Our historical records show no evidence that the old prison wagon was ever replaced by a modern “paddy wagon”. Like other old relics, this piece has faded away. It is a mystery that wants to be solved.