Danville grew and prospered because of its location on the falls of the Dan River in the heart of the tobacco lands of Virginia and North Carolina. Today it is an independent city but it began in the late eighteenth century as a tiny Pittsylvania County community by the ford of the Dan where the road from western North Carolina to Tidewater Virginia crossed the river. Danville was chartered in 1793 and became an official tobacco inspection station that year.
In the 1820s, a barge canal enhanced Danville's position as a river port. The canal, skirting the falls, provided a convenient way to load goods traded between the Blue Ridge and the Atlantic coast. With these advantages, in the pre–Civil War years the town mushroomed into a thriving tobacco marketing and manufacturing center. By the mid-nineteenth century, railroads sounded the death knell for Danville's bustling river transport and rang in the new era with a line connecting Danville to Richmond. Toward the end of the Civil War, this rail line transported Confederate troops and supplies, Union captives to Danville's six notorious warehouse prisons, and rebels fleeing after the fall of Richmond. For one long and tumultuous week, the last made Danville the final capital of the Confederacy. After the war, the railroad helped propel Danville's expansion as a major center for bright-leaf tobacco and speed the products of its newly prospering textile industry to distant markets.
The twin riches of tobacco and textiles made Danville into Virginia's most resplendent Victorian city. Although now somewhat faded, Danville still has a glorious so-called Millionaires' Row and many other Victorian and early-twentieth-century buildings. Builder-architects were responsible for many of Danville's notable late-nineteenth-century structures, including Thomas B. Fitzgerald, John Hargraves, R. Bertrand Graham, and William H. Deitrick. Commissions also went to several Richmond architects, including Frank B. Clopton, Henry Exall, and Albert Lawrence West. In the early twentieth century, significant local architects included Charles G. Pettit Jr. and J. Bryant Heard. Heard became the city's leading architect, and in his long practice from 1916 to 1956 he produced about nine hundred designs, including public, religious, educational, and residential buildings, usually in the prevailing style of the moment (which, in Virginia, often meant one form or another of Colonial Revival). The city's growth has spiraled up and down its dramatic hill setting and Danville now is a treasure trove of distinct districts and neighborhoods—mill, mercantile, governmental, housing, suburban, and some just plain sprawl. With the loss of textile manufacturing and tobacco jobs, Danville is experiencing a difficult economic period.
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