Groups driven to save James River toll plaza
By LON WAGNER, The Virginian-Pilot
© June 20, 2004
Last updated: 7:55 PM

CARROLLTON — Not that it’s always been easy to preserve history in Isle of Wight County , but what to save has been pretty obvious.

St. Luke’s Church , circa 1632 , the only original brick Gothic church still standing in the United States? Keep it.

Boykin’s Tavern , 1762 , named after Francis Boykin who served with Patrick Henry and camped with George Washington at Valley Forge? A no-brainer.

The James River Bridge Toll Plaza Building , circa 1951 to 1956 , concrete slab construction, chock-full of asbestos, air-conditioning unit hanging out of a front window? Fire up the bulldozers.

But wait, a group of preservationists thinks there might be historic significance in that building and is trying to stop the Virginia Department of Transportation from demolishing it.

The plaza building stands as one of only two such buildings in Virginia, the other being on Va. 3 at the Rappahannock River .

“Ours is much more architecturally interesting,’’ said Albert Burckard , vice president of the Isle of Wight County Historical Society .

Burckard’s group has joined with the county’s citizens’ association and the Carrollton Civic League to lobby VDOT to save the building until they can find out more about it.

Burckard’s argument is this: History is history, and things become more significant as time passes. What about Fort Huger in Isle of Wight, a recently discovered encampment likely used during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War? Burckard asks.

“Suppose in 1915 somebody looked at that and said, 'Hey, we need these for farmland, there are hundreds of Civil War forts, it was only 50 years ago, no big deal, let’s flatten them,’’’ Burckard said.

The citizens’ groups are trying to get county supervisors to join their effort.

Burckard and Grace Keen, president of the county’s citizens’ association, met at the toll building this week to make note of its finer points.

Burckard pointed out the brick construction. The bricks support the building’s structure, he said, rather than just cover its facade as in modern buildings.

An April 2003 from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources bolsters his claim, describing the building in grand architectural phrases:

“The irregular plan, picture window, flat roof and canopy represents elements of the International Style (1925 to present) adapted to its use as a toll plaza, while the brickwork represents an element of traditional Virginia architectural style.”

Though motorists passing the toll building daily may not know, the plaza was part of monumental transportation improvements in Southeast Virginia during the past century. The James River Bridge is on U.S. 17, part of the highway network that preceded the interstate system.

The bridge opened in November 1928 , and for the first time a person could drive from Smithfield to Newport News without loading his car onto a ferry.

Traffic projections for the bridge grossly overestimated its early use; it went bankrupt, and bondholders headed by a Smithfield man took over.

Local residents griped for decades about tolls on the bridge and, finally, in 1949 , the state bought it for $5.6 million .

A few years later, the state doubled the round-trip fee for a car, to $1.80 . The toll for a truck was $4 round trip, more for trucks with four or more axles. And that was 1955 dollars.

The fees so incensed businesses that J.W. Luter Jr. , head of Smithfield Packing Co. , ordered his truck drivers to take a different route and cross a smaller – and cheaper – bridge that was privately owned by a Norfolk car dealer.

Later that year, state highway managers announced plans for a punch-card toll system that would be integrated into that of the new Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

And plans to build two new toll plazas on the Isle of Wight side of the bridge.

It took decades, but tolls were lowered to 10 cents per axle, then finally removed, according to Mike Dangerfield , facility manager for the bridge. VDOT used the toll building and its parking area as a post for tow-truck drivers, police officers and maintenance workers until two years ago.

Then the roof started leaking, and Dangerfield and others became concerned that the asbestos was a hazard . The toll building sits on just less than an acre of land, and VDOT plans to tear down the building by summer’s end and continue to use the spot for its wreckers, state troopers and disabled motorists.

Traffic on the bridge is increasing yearly, more than 27,000 last year , and with no emergency shoulders VDOT needs a spot to get cars out of the way. Of all the projects VDOT could put money into today, repairing the toll building would be wasteful, Dangerfield said.

The citizens’ groups think maybe it could be spruced up and converted to, say, a satellite office for state police.

At least, they’d like the bulldozers to hold off until they can research the building more and come up with options.

During their visit to the building this week, neither Keen nor Burckard was optimistic that they’d win out. Keen smiled and asked Burckard:

“How many of us would it take to join hands and circle this building?”

Reach Lon Wagner at 446-2341 or

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