Danville is an independent city in Virginia, United States, bounded by Pittsylvania County, Virginia and Caswell County, North Carolina. It was the last capital of the Confederate States of America. The Bureau of Economic Analysis combines the city of Danville with Pittsylvania county for statistical purposes under the Danville, Virginia Metropolitan Statistical Area. The population was 43,055 according to the 2010 U.S. Census. It hosts the Danville Braves baseball club of the Appalachian League.
In 1728, William Byrd headed an expedition sent to determine the true boundary between Virginia and North Carolina. One night late that summer, the party camped upstream from what is now Danville, Byrd was so taken with the beauty of the land, that he prophesied a future settlement in the vicinity, where people would live “with much comfort and gaiety of Heart.” The river along which he camped was named the “Dan”, for Byrd, supposing himself to be in the land of plenty, felt he had wandered “from Dan to Beersheba”.
The first white settlement (numerous Native American tribes had lived in the area) occurred downstream from Byrd’s campsite in 1792, at a spot along the river shallow enough to allow fording. It was named “Wynne’s Falls,” after the first settler. The village has a “social” reason for its origin, since it was here that pioneering Revolutionary War veterans met once a year to fish and talk over old times.
The establishment by the General Assembly of a tobacco warehouse at Wynne’s Falls in 1793 was the beginning of “The World’s Best Tobacco Market.” Virginia’s largest market for bright leaf tobacco. The village was renamed Danville by act of the Virginia Legislature on November 23, 1793. A charter for the town was drawn up February 17, 1830, but by the time of its issue, the population had exceeded the pre-arranged boundaries. This necessitated a new charter, which was issued in 1833. In that year, James Lanier was elected the first mayor, assisted by a council of “twelve fit and able men.”
On July 22, 1882, six of Danville’s enterprising citizens founded the Riverside Cotton Mills, which was in its day known the country over as Dan River Inc., the largest single-unit textile mill in the world. The mill is now closed, and many of its buildings have been torn down and the bricks sold. One very important building, "The White Mill," is now being renovated as an apartment complex.
One of the most famous wrecks in American rail history occurred in Danville. On September 27, 1903, “Old 97,” the Southern Railway’s crack express mail train, was running behind schedule. Its engineer “gave her full throttle,” but the speed of the train caused it to jump the tracks on a high trestle overlooking the valley of the Dan. The engine and five cars plunged into the ravine below, killing nine and injuring seven, but immortalizing the locomotive and its engineer, Joseph A. ("Steve") Broadey, in a now well-known song. A marker is located on U.S. 58 between Locust Lane and North Main Street at the train crash site. A mural of the Wreck of the Old 97 is painted on a downtown Danville building in memory of the historic wreck.
Danville was home to both Nancy Langhorne, Viscountess Astor, the first woman to serve in the British House of Commons, and Irene Langhorne Gibson, the inspiration for "the Gibson girl". It is also the home of the very first and only black driver to win a race in what is now NASCAR's Sprint Cup, Wendell Scott, and was the birthplace of "Battling Jim" Johnson (b. ca. 1883), a boxer who fought heavyweight champion Jack Johnson to a draw in Paris, France in 1913.
Preservation Virginia President William B. Kerkam, III, and its Executive Director Elizabeth S. Kostelny announced at a press conference held in Danville (2007) at Main Street Methodist Church, a building not designated to the list but nonetheless at risk, that the entire city of Danville has been named one of the Most Endangered Historic Sites in Virginia.
On May 1, 2012 Lee Vogler became the youngest person elected to City Council in the history of Danville, at the age of 24. Vogler placed 2nd out of 7 candidates vying for 5 open seats, finishing only behind Mayor Sherman Saunders in terms of total number of votes.
American Civil War
The outbreak of the American Civil War found Danville a thriving community of some 5,000 people. During those four years of war, the town was transformed into a strategic center of activity. It was a quartermaster’s depot, rail center, hospital station for Confederate wounded and a prison camp. Here six tobacco warehouses were converted into prisons, housing at one time more than 5,000 captured Federal soldiers. The city and surrounding areas also contributed two companies of infantry, one troop of cavalry, and a battery of artillery to the Confederate army.
Starvation and dysentery, plus a smallpox epidemic in 1864, caused the death of 1,314 of these prisoners. Their remains now lie interred in the Danville National Cemetery.
The Richmond and Danville Rail Road was the main supply route into Petersburg where Lee's Army of Northern Virginia were holding their defensive line to protect Richmond. The Danville supply train ran until General Stoneman's Union cavalry troops tore up the tracks. This event was immortalised in the song "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down".
Danville became the last headquarters of the Confederate States of America within the space of a few days. Jefferson Davis stayed at the palatial home of William T. Sutherlin on April 3, 1865. It was in the Sutherlin home that Davis' issued his final Presidential Proclamation. The final Confederate Cabinet meeting was held at the Benedict House (later destroyed) in Danville. Davis and members of his cabinet remained there until April 10, 1865, when news of Lee’s surrender forced them to flee southward. On the day of their departure, Governor William Smith arrived from Lynchburg, to establish his headquarters.
Civil Rights Movement
A series of violent episodes of the Civil Rights Movement in Virginia occurred in Danville during the summer of 1963. On May 31, representatives of the black community organized as the Danville Christian Progressive Association (DCPA) demanded an end to segregation and job discrimination in Danville. A boycott of white merchants was declared, and a march to City Hall followed. Most of the marchers were high school students. They were met by police and city workers armed with clubs. The protesters were sprayed with fire hoses and hit with clubs. Around forty protesters needed medical attention. Marches and other protests continued for several weeks. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Danville and spoke at High Street Baptist Church about the brutality of the police force. He called it the worst police brutality he had seen in the South.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) sent organizers to Danville to support the DCPA. They helped lead protest, including demonstrations at the Howard Johnson Hotel and restaurant on Route 29. The hotel was known for discriminating against blacks. A special grand jury indicted 13 DCPA, SCLC, and SNCC activists for violating the "John Brown" law. This law, passed in 1830 after a slave uprising, made it a serious felony to "..incite the colored population to acts of violence or war against the white population." It became known as the "John Brown" law in 1860 because it was used to convict and hang abolitionist John Brown after his raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859.
By the end of August, over 600 protesters had been arrested in Danville on charges of inciting to violence, contempt, trespassing, disorderly conduct, assault, parading without a permit, and resisting arrest. Because of the large number of arrest on these charges, often the jails would be over crowded, protesters were housed in detention facilities in jurisdiction located near Danville, VA. The demonstrations failed to achieve desegregation in Danville which remained segregated until passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Millionaire's Row is the most impressive area in Danville. It has many fine homes built in the 19th century and early 20th century by descendants of American planters. They are beautiful mansions adorned by trees lining the streets and peppered about the yards of these beautiful homes. The entire area around "Penn's Bottom", the nickname for the part of Main St that experienced heavy growth as the first suburb of Danville during the Tobacco boom, has been designated as a historic district. The Old West End Historic District, Tobacco Warehouse Historic District, Downtown Danville Historic District and North Main Historic District are going through a period of revitalization. The many fine examples of Victorian Architecture are showcased every Holiday season with the Christmas Tour. Also located in this district is the "Sutherlin Mansion" currently known as the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History. This Italinate Mansion was the home of Major William T. Sutherlin a Confederate Quartermaster and was the location of the last "White House" of the Confederacy after the fall of Richmond. The museum, and its grounds currently occupy a complete block in this district. The remainder of the plantation was subdivided to create the surrounding neighborhood.