RVA Highway Research

Most Richmonders in the 1950s thought that building a highway straight through the city was a bad idea. Within twenty years we built two. What changed?

Over the course of my senior year in college I found hundreds of documents that helped me answer that question: a master plan, the Richmond Times-Dispatch articles, Richmond City Council meeting minutes and the Library of Virginia State Records Center. I’ve uploaded nearly all of my primary sources along with my final undergraduate thesis to make this story available and encourage others to learn more about the highway that continues to influence how we inhabit our city. One source deserves a special note: Twentieth Century Richmond: Planning, Politics, and Race by Christopher Silver was truly indispensable. To view my timeline summary of Silver’s book for easy reference, click here.

  • The first sub-page is an excerpt from a master plan presented to the city council and mayor of Richmond in 1946. It’s titled, A Master Plan for the Physical Development of the City. This document was the first time highways were proposed to be constructed in the city.
  • The second sub-page is a set of references from the weeks leading up to the first highway referendum in 1950. This referendum was the first chance that Richmonders were given to vote on whether Richmond would build an urban highway. It was soundly defeated.
  • The third sub-page is a set from the weeks leading up to the second referendum on the highway plan in Richmond in 1951. At this time, Richmond was offered a second chance to vote on the highway plan. The highway was defeated in this vote by an even wider margin. At a local level, the idea of an urban highway was completely untenable.
  • The fourth sub-page is devoted to the destruction of Richmond that preceded the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike in Richmond, particularly the neighborhood of Jackson Ward. These photos may not be reproduced without permission of the Library of Virginia. I would definitely support the library digitizing the entire collection of 16 or so boxes, this is just one of many work in progress series.
  • The fifth sub-page includes my thesis, “Remembering the Controversy of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike,” completed in the spring of my senior year of college. This is the story I wanted to read as a student, but it didn’t yet exist. Hopefully, my work will continue to generate interest in this history of our highway.

These next two articles are interesting as an anecdotal introduction to the large body of information about the highway battle in Richmond. The first is an insightful perspective on the problem with “inflexible plans” and one citizen’s critique of Richmond’s public process:

Freedom, independence, taxes and the freeway

This second artifact is interesting because it represents the sort of “rosy predictions” used to build momentum for cars as the primary means of transportation.

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