0161 Road work

Contaminated water in Flint, Michigan and failing systems across the country are in the news and my mental image of those aging infrastructures may be more accurate than others. That’s because, like a lot of ‘ordinary’ work in my great-grandfather’s life, Harry Stilson took photographs of utility work along his streetcar route and in his neighborhood. Everything from cobblestone repairs to power company linemen caught his eye and, for Harry, that meant he captured those scenes on film.


Richmond had a state-of-the-art water system in the early 1900s, so impressive that it was a streetcar destination for tours. The Pump House, an early multi-purpose facility below Dogwood Dell, supplied the city with water while dances were held upstairs. From all over the country, people came to admire our water plant. I also have pictures of Harry’s grandchildren at the “settling basin” but here’s the Pump House in the 1920s. Its restoration is a project dear to my heart but seemingly out of reach with current budgets. Don’t you think it would be great to hold dances in that historic building once again?

118 pump house  119 interior

Harry took hundreds of pictures in that area because his family lived on Chaffin Street, now Grayland Avenue, located between Carytown and the Downtown Expressway. Heading downtown on that highway, look to your left and you’ll see the church shown below. Back then, Park View Church overlooked Fountain Lake in Byrd Park. See where the vehicles are parked? Today we drive in that space. The hill was cut away and the Park separated from the church area in order to build the Expressway.

018 Park View church,

The installation of curbs and gutters on Harry’s street was big news and he documented the work with several photographs. The picture below is labeled “all in” which expressed his satisfaction at the completion of the project. I have utility bills and a plumber’s bill so the expenses we incur today were part of family budgets in the early 1900s.

101 curb & gutter

091 back gas,water bill


Cobblestoned streets are an iconic part of Richmond. In oral histories, I’ve asked about riding bicycles on cobblestones and heard Aleck Mollen’s response repeated often: “Not on cobblestones! It would take a better bike rider than I was to ride on THOSE!” We love our charming cobblestoned streets even though they require a lot of maintenance. They did back in Harry’s day, too.

044 cobblestones Leigh St

This picture was a puzzler for two reasons. The streetcar man seemed dark-skinned and we wondered if he was perhaps the Indian man Harry wrote about on a postcard. He reported that his daughter had gone to visit an Indian woman whose husband worked on the streetcars, that they were good neighbors and that he wished “all white folks” were like them. Well, we were wrong. The streetcar man’s daughter contacted me to identify the man as her father and he’s not Indian. The lighting (or Harry’s developing) must have been flawed. The other mystery was the equipment beside him. Randy Jordan’s research determined that it was a water cultivator. Why a water cultivator was required at “the flats” on Leigh Street in Jackson Ward is still a mystery!

093 Indian conductor, machine bk

I mentioned that Harry took a picture of a lineman, “Joe Pace up a pole.” That also was a mystery. I used to be a telephone installer in Church Hill, Oregon Hill, Shockoe, & Fulton so I was searching for a man hooking a pole. Nope. One day we noticed the safety belt around this man’s hips. Not exactly “up a pole,” Harry, but this is Joe Pace, lineman for Virginia Power, the company that ran Richmond’s streetcars. By the way, when I hooked poles in downtown Richmond, none of “us guys” wore suits, ties, and hats, unless you count hardhats!

Joe Pace et all lineman

These are just a few of the men at work, specifically utility work, captured by Harry Stilson’s camera being preserved, restored, and shared by his great-granddaughter,  Kitty Snow, and Richmond In Sight. This blog is part of the RIS project and donations are tax-deductible. If you enjoy these snapshots of Richmond back when streetcars rumbled along our cobblestoned streets, go to www.richmondinsight.com and purchase a book of Stilson images and stories, schedule a presentation of his images, or make a donation.