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Winds And Rain Hit City Point & Richmond
By Deborah Fitts
October 2004

CITY POINT, Va. - Extreme winds possibly associated with a tornado wreaked extensive damage on the City Point unit of Petersburg National Battlefield Aug. 30.

"We're still here," said park superintendent Bob Kirby in the wake of the storm, which struck with little warning around 1:30 p.m. Heavy rains brought by the tropical storm, which originated off the coast as Hurricane Gaston, also caused problems at several units of Richmond National Battlefield Park.

At City Point, Kirby said a park work crew noticed the approach of "tumultuous, roiling, boiling dark clouds" and dashed for cover in the cellar of historic Appomattox Manor. "They never even made it to the basement" before sheets of rain struck, flying horizontally.

Kirby arrived shortly after the storm and found that the winds had "ripped out" the four cast-iron columns that supported the porch of the manor. Dating from 1846, the 10-foot-tall, 400-pound lattice-work beams may have been made at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond.

One column broke and one smashed a hole in the clapboards of the house. A park crew swiftly jacked up the sagging porch roof, and Kirby said within days three of the columns were back up. The fourth will be repaired.

"It was hard to imagine how the wind got ahold of them," Kirby said. He added that the damage was "flukey," with the shingles on the roof of the house not even disturbed. "Go figure."

The wind also destroyed a 1916 Sears & Roebuck shed behind historic Bonnacord. Kirby said the large, garage-like shed "was blown to smithereens. There's pieces of it all over the landscape."

The 22-acre City Point unit also lost 17 trees and shrubs, including a boxwood planted in 1870 to mark the wedding of one of the daughters of the Eppes family, which owned Appomattox Manor. Family members inhabited the house till 1979.

Kirby said the trees that were downed likely included several "witness" trees dating from the time when City Point served as a major Union supply base. Two large trees on either side of the headquarters cabin of Gen. Ulysses Grant were felled, missing the cabin "by a few feet."

Other damage included further erosion to the 45-foot bluff above the James and Appomattox rivers, which was hard hit in by Hurricane Isabel in September 2003. Kirby said the heavy rain from Gaston tore "clumps of mud" off the bluff, and a tree was uprooted and smashed the upper platform on a newly repaired wooden stairway.

A week after the storm, Kirby pegged the damages at $68,000.

Richmond Battlefield

At Richmond battlefield, heavy flooding prompted by a nearly a foot of rain on Aug. 30 caused damage totaling about $32,500, according to park spokesman David Ruth.

"We made it through relatively unscathed," Ruth said. The storm killed seven people in Richmond and caused $60 million in damage.

Ruth did point, however, to the harrowing experience of park ranger Pat Ferrell, who got caught in the flood on her way home from the visitor center at Tredegar Iron Works near the James River. Police directed Ferrell onto Main Street, but rising water forced her to flee her car for a nearby Amtrak train trestle.

She clung to the trestle for more than three hours, Ruth said, her plight unnoticed. At 9 p.m., seeing that the water had receded somewhat, "she jumped in, uniform and all, and swam across Main Street, bumping into cars that were underwater beneath her."

Ferrell reached the Amtrak station, climbed to the second floor and used a pay phone to call her husband. Around 1 a.m. she saw emergency vehicles nearby and waded to them.

The basement of Chimborazo, the park headquarters, was flooded, but Ruth said everything but the carpeting was raised out of harm's way ahead of time. At the park's Beaver Dam Creek unit, a pedestrian bridge was shifted from its abutments and a section of bank eroded. A 90-foot section of Watt House Road washed out at the Gaines's Mill unit but was soon re-opened following "temporary repairs," Ruth said.

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