Towards the end of Richmond County you will find a twisting and curvy road that is easy to get lost on. If, however, you make it to the end of Sharps Road, you will find a rare treasure — an idyllic small town reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Now, just take a few steps down a steep hill and your feet will hit soft sand as water gently laps against the shore. Dig in your toes, smell the fresh air off of the Rappahannock River and take a step back in time to where the town of Sharps was one of the busiest and most important hubs on the Northern Neck.
The story of Sharps truly begins in the mid-1600s, when William Hodgkins and later his nephew Sam Peachey started a thriving tobacco plantation, sold to them by More Fauntleroy. The plantation, which sprawled across 600 acres, had houses, outbuildings and at one point was producing more tobacco than it could ship. At the time, King Charles II had imposed that all tobacco grown in Virginia and Maryland be shipped to England for sale and subject to high tariffs. It was an issue that many farmers were outraged by but could do nothing about.
Although profitable and beautiful, all was not perfect at the plantation as it was vulnerable to attacks from local Indian tribes, who had been displaced by the many newcomers to the area, and by uprisings from indentured servants.
After the death of his Uncle William, Sam Peachey went on to expand the plantation and served proudly at the courthouse as a Gentleman Justice as well as the sheriff of Richmond County. His son also became a judiciary of the courts, where he served 25 years cultivating friendships with local, larger landowners, the Carters and Tayloes.
During this time, the Rappahannock River was flooded with barges and boats, sometimes so thick you could not see across the river for the amount of ships at sail. While most of the boats were going upriver, many stopped in Tappahannock, just across the river from the Peachey Plantation. It was then that the idea of a town or village on or near his plantation began to take root, but it took nearly 100 years and a new family from New Jersey for the idea to become a reality.
In 1868, William Sharp and his brother-in-law John Leathbury were tired of the declining oyster population up north and recognized that the Rappahannock River was perfect for oyster harvesting. At the time, one could walk out to any given place in the waters, reach down and come up with an oyster the size of their hand. The river was an untapped bounty. The two bought the large plantation and the first item on the agenda was the construction of a huge wharf, the likes of which had not been seen in Richmond County. The idea was to expand on the current small structure and include barns, stables, storage facilities, areas for smaller boats to tie up, shipping areas for the oysters, but most importantly, a large dock that would attract the wildly successful steamboat industry to the area.
At its final construction, the wharf was 900 feet long and over 80 feet wide at its head. In addition, a store was built at the entrance of the new wharf to sell any and all goods from local farmers, milliners and craftsmen. However, the Sharps family soon ran out of money, and Milden Hall, as the plantation was then called, was repossessed then bought and signed over to Claus L. Clausen, a Danish-Norwegian missionary whose travels across the country brought him to the Northern Neck, where he was determined to set up a Lutheran church and a bustling village around it.
By the late 1800s, Clausen had parceled out a part of his property closest to the river, selling over seventy small tracts with another store newly opened by J.L. Davenport. His idea was to build a community around his faith, and he renamed the area and wharf Milton and went so far as to come up with proposed names for all of its future streets, including Front Street, which today remains the heart of Sharps.
A cannery and sawmill were in full operation, and the region was beginning to thrive. Little did anyone know that a devastating change was about to come in the form of malaria. With swamp like conditions due to heavy rains, the disease raged unchecked and many of the townspeople died, while others lost faith and moved away to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Despondent, Clausen sold his property to the one family, the Sharps, who had not suffered during the malaria outbreak and had been quietly amassing money at their thriving wharf store. After purchasing the land back, the Sharp family went back to what they knew best, the oyster industry.
In the years that followed, the wharf reverted to its original name of Sharp’s Wharf and in 1882 the United States Post office came to the area, officially naming the region and town Sharps. Once regular mail was just around the corner, things really began to take off.
In 1888, Milden Presbyterian Church was founded on Front Street and immediately became the center of worship and community gatherings in the burgeoning town. It attracted residents and visitors alike with its friendly and welcoming atmosphere and to this day remains the oldest Presbyterian church on the Northern Neck.
On a normal day, ship after ship would stop at the wharf unloading and loading all types of goods while passengers disembarked for a visit to the wildly popular town.
The wharf was a hive of activity, with children running around to see the “fancy folk” from the city, the men in their top hats and the ladies protected from the sun by their brightly beribboned parasols. Cattle were constantly loaded and unloaded and a railway was built on part of the wharf to expedite the offloading of oysters, grain and various and sundry other goods.
Coming off the pier, the streets were alive with sounds of people greeting each other, laughter or raucous ribaldry coming from one of the bars that dotted the area, music coming from the open windows of one of the two large hotels right on the water and the constant hum of the canning factory, which at one point was producing 7,000 cans a day. It wasn’t unusual to pass the factory and hear the workers singing or humming together to pass the time as they shucked oysters. On the pier, those shells would sometimes sit in a pile 10 feet taller or more.
In addition to the oyster factory was a large tomato canning operation that also employed dozens of workers. At times, you would see growers waiting in lines hundreds of yards long just to unload their produce and receive payment, which often came in the form of tender that could only be used at a local store also owned by the cannery.
His Honor Walther Fidler spoke just prior to his death in 2013 about growing up in Sharps and how as a boy, it was like living in a dream.
According to Fidler, children played all day in the river, swimming and catching fish with homemade nets. They would later throw the fish, usually perch, in a bucket and sell them on the street for a nickel. A few of the more daring children would then sneak onto some of the select steamships from Maryland that had penny slot machines and they’d play until inevitably they’d be caught and dragged off the boat by the collar of their shirts.
While the boys in their short pants and the girls in their crinoline amused themselves or attended the local school, many parents were hardworking folk who toiled at one of the factories, retail stores or neighboring farms. It was a busy and thriving town that was the hub of Richmond County for many years, with steamboats being its main attraction. People would flock for miles just to walk around town and buy wares that hawkers were selling from street side stalls. Friends and family of townspeople were a constant influx as were new members or visitors to the local church. The town also sported its own bank, a gas company as well as a large Masonic Building and its accompanying following.
Today, standing with your feet in the water and listening to the quiet sounds of nature around you, it is hard to believe that at one point the serene town was the epicenter of so much culture and commerce on the Northern Neck. Its downfall is as easy to explain as how you get to Sharps today; the automobile.
In the early 1900s, cars became the major mode of transportation and the Downing Bridge, connecting Tappahannock to Richmond County, was built. No longer the only means of transportation, the steamship industry slowly died out, leaving Sharps Wharf a thing of the past. Once that dried up, people stopped visiting, the street salespeople left, the bank folded during the Great Depression and many of the former bustling businesses closed. In the 1970s, the U.S. Coast Guard carefully burned down the wharf, leaving only some pilings as a reminder of what once was there.
Today, Sharps inhabitants are some of the most kind and unique in the region. It is a melting pot of families who have been there for hundreds of years, passing down their house from generation to generation, and newer residents who fell in love with the pristine waters and the town’s strong sense of community. Indian artifacts are abundant, including arrowheads, pottery and even skeletal remains; a reminder of Sharps’ original inhabitants, the Rappahannock Indians. People still fish the waters for dinner and parents feel safe letting their children roam, knowing that a neighbor or friend always is around. The community exudes a feeling of safety and love, and despite its history that so many have forgotten, it still remains a proud gem of the Northern Neck.
For more information about Sharps and its colorful history please reference the book A Passage to Sharps by Ardyce and Don Kinsley