Waynesboro Heritage Museum | 420 W. Main St., Waynesboro, Virginia 22980 | Hours: Tuesday–Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. | Phone: (540) 943-3943


Merger? Consolidation? Annexation? Confusion Waynesboro and Basic City


In 1739, the land was plentiful, the forests virgin and full, the springs supplied clear water. The South River, while not suitable for shipping was great for damming and milling, the soil fertile for farming and the clay ideal for making bricks. Enterprising adventurers and speculators came to the area, some staying, others moving on. The raising of cattle and other livestock was profitable; wheat, corn, oats, and rye kept the many grist mills running; cutting of timber provided for log buildings, churches, and homes. The area was generally free of Native American battles, the weather pleasant in all seasons and the families worked together to form a small village. The core of the town was comprised of lots laid out in 1798 and in a short period, merchants were occupying the buildings and homes. There was an east-west road from Charlottesville to Staunton and a north-south road from New Hope to Greenville.

The town stayed small with about 250 residents during the 1850s and 1870s. The railroads were making headway from the east and north. By 1884, the Chesapeake and Ohio crossed over the Shenandoah Valley Railroad (later called the Norfolk and Western) at a place called Waynesboro Junction or the Iron Cross. The C&O crossed the South River and continued to Staunton and westward to Covington. Freight and passenger depots were busy. The town had banks, dentists, pharmacies, grocery stores, attorneys, physicians, schools, hotels, churches, newspapers, telegraph services, makers of stoves, buggies, carriages, and water rams. Millers and farmers rounded out the rest of the population.

basic cityBasic City

Just as the early developers of Waynesboro found the area to be a wonderful place to establish a town, the Basic City Mining, Manufacturing and Land Company found the area to be ideal for its industrial dreams. What a bonus to have two railroads going north and south as well as east and west with depots and telegraph services. The city was already functioning with all the needs one could ask for, and it had many essentials such as clothing, banking, medical professionals, a hospital, and hotels. Last but not least, a friendly population to cater to them as they waited for their facilities to be built. The BCMMLC purchased 2, 200 acres that were laid out for residential, commercial, and industrial purposes. The company swallowed up Lithia Spring, Baker Spring, the Moraine Hill, enclosed around the railroads and the depots and a good stretch of the South River.

They built hotels near the train stations, banks, schools, set up a newspaper, made great plans for all manner of manufacturing and building. Some were functioning early on: a furniture store, makers of matches cigars, hardware; millworks and lumber companies, and four brickworks. However, the primary purpose of setting up this endeavor was to build a 100-ton blast furnace, and it did not happen. A lengthy lawsuit between Jacob Reese, who said he was the inventor of the Basic process of making steel, and the Bessemer Steel Company in Pennsylvania over the steel processing patent prevented the complex from being built.

Then came the Panic of 1893 to add to their woes. One of the hardest-hit industries was the railroads, and Basic had built a large building to construct railcars. Three large railways failed: Northern Pacific, Union Pacific, and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. Five hundred banks were closed, and 15,000 businesses were lost. The gold standard was still in effect, and when the economy slowed, there was a run on the banks as paper money was not deemed as valuable as gold. The gold reserves got so low in the United States that President Cleveland had to borrow $65 million in gold from J.P. Morgan and Rothschild family banks in England. Basic’s railcar factory had planned on turning out five freight cars a day for the C & O and the contract for those diminished. Using the building for other manufacturing and milling purposes lasted only a short time, and it had to be auctioned off in 1907. Thus, the great dreams of the big industrial enterprise never to fruition. With apologies to Charles Dickens, we have a “tale of two cities.”

Written by Judy Walden

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