Hotel site yields a look into the past

Kerry Schamel-Gonzalez has been prospecting along the CSX railroad tracks from Richmond south to North Carolina for months. She’s been looking for anything with historical significance.

Schamel-Gonzalez is an archeologist and a principal investigator for Dovetail Cultural Resource Group, which has been contracted by Virginia’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) to assess areas that might be impacted by the construction of a high-speed rail line adjacent to the existing CSX tracks.

The Dovetail team has surveyed numerous historical hotspots, including Centralia and a Timberry Creek location, as well as the Eichelberger and Pretlow properties and the old Chester Station site. For the most part, nothing of any significance was found, according to Schamel-Gonzalez. But things changed last week when the team began some serious excavation work at the site of the old Chester Hotel.

“We already had so much data, we haven’t had any surprises yet,” said Schamel-Gonzalez early Tuesday morning last week. “But you never know until you dig it.” Within half an hour, Schamel-Gonzalez proved her own premise when crew member Carthon Davis announced he had uncovered a projectile point, or arrowhead.

Within seconds, Schamel-Gonzalez was on her cell phone texting her two bosses and her husband, who also works for Dovetail. “How do you spell ‘whooya’?” she exclaimed.

The point, which measured about 3-inches long, was determined to have been made from orthoquartzite during the middle-archaic period, as far back as 3,000 B.C.

Davis and Jeff Brown were excavating on an interior corner of what is thought to have been the kitchen for the hotel. During the 19th century, cooking facilities were always located outside the main building. “We found some glass and some nails, but nothing like this,” said Davis.

The crew was digging to locate what anyone might imagine when they discovered the arrowhead and chips of orthoquartzite left over from the chipping process. It is possible that American Indians once used the site as a camp.

According to Research Laboratories of Archaeology at the University of North Carolina, “Middle Archaic Indians lived in a climate much like that of today, and were surrounded by the same species of plants and animals that exist today. To hunt, Archaic people used a spear-throwing device called an atlatl, which enabled them to propel spears farther and with more force. The white-tailed deer was the main source of meat forArchaic people. They also ate a variety of wild vegetables and fruits, and harvested wild seeds from a variety of plants that grew near riverside camps they regularly visited as they moved from place to place.”

While projectile points like the one found at the Chester Hotel site have been found somewhat in abundance along the James River, Schamel-Gonzalez said she found it interesting to find evidence of a prehistoric camp on the same site as a more recent historic location.

By the time the Dovetail crew has completed its research on the Chester Hotel, they will have spent about 50 hours on the site digging test holes on a 25-foot grid, and then further exploring by digging areas where Schamel-Gonzalez had concluded the ice house, kitchen, well house, cottages and other ancillary buildings had been located.

By Friday, she was excited to report they had determined the location of an alleyway that led from the street and along the back of the hotel. While doing research before the Dovetail crew began working on the site, Schamel-Gonzalez established that, while the building looks rectangular in the photo that most people are familiar with, the building was actually L-shaped.

The design allowed for a protected yard area and provided more exterior wall area for additional windows and better ventilation.

Excavations on the hotel grounds exposed the foundation, made of bog iron, of what was concluded to be the old hotel’s ice house. The brick foundation of the kitchen is still visible above ground, but it took a little more study and exploration to verify the exact location of the hotel itself.

“We found a corner of the hotel foundation,” Schamel-Gonzalez told the Village News Friday. She said the crew had excavated a portion of the foundation, but rain kept them from completely uncovering the corner until this week. The crew will continue locating and mapping the hotel and several cottages that were located on the site but have been either moved or razed.

According to Chesterfield County: Early Architecture and Historic Sites, the Chester Hotel was built in 1857 to “accommodate summer vacationers to the new town of Chester.” It served as a hotel for only 10 years before being used as a girls’ school and eventually residences and offices. During the 1930s, due to overcrowding, public school classes where held on the first floor. For the last decade of the venerable old building’s life, the upper floors were vacant. It was torn down in 1938.

If not for the arrival of a high-speed rail project running through Chester, there may not have been archeological research done on the Chester Hotel site.  According to Christine Fix, Rail Planning Coordinator for DRPT, since there is federal funding at work, the further along a project is “the more likely you are to get further funding.” DRPT is currently completing its Tier II work.  “This is a study [historic and environmental site] that will get us there.”

The high-speed rail project that runs through Chester is part of the Richmond to Ralaigh, N.C., segment, which is 160 miles in length. Public hearings on the project will be held in the area in June. The Chester Community Association will host DRPT and the Southeast High Speed Rail Association at a high-speed rail forum on May 27.

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