In 1757, John Lynch stood on the bank of the James River (then known as the Fluvanna River), watching as it rushed along. Nearby was a ford that people used to transport goods across the river to other parts of the Virginia colony, toward Charlottesville to the north and Richmond and Williamsburg to the east. Crossing this powerful river could be perilous, especially during the flood seasons of late spring and early to midsummer.
He had grown up in Virginia, and he stood now on land that his father had acquired after immigrating to the New World from Ireland and marrying John’s mother, Sarah. Their family believed this to be a place of great opportunity, a lush and beautiful land with room to grow, a clear blue sky and majestic mountains to the west that were characterized by their bluish tint when seen from a distance. It was here, at the age of 17, that John Lynch started a ferry service that would transform the area.
It was October 1786, nearly 30 years after John had thought of the idea that had turned him into a prosperous businessman. He sat at his desk in his office, a lit candle off to the side illuminating the charter that had just been delivered to him, which stated that the village he lived in on the banks of the James River was now officially a town in the United States of America.
His idea to start a ferry service had more than just prospered—it had boomed. It hadn’t taken long for people to begin seeing his ferry as the best way across the James River. The area grew into a village that people called Lynch’s Ferry. Soon he was hauling tobacco and building warehouses to store it. During the Revolutionary War, iron factories had sprung up along the river, supplying ammunition for the cause. It had been a busy time for all, but especially for members of his family, as the colonies fought for their independence. He remembered the strength that he had learned from his mother during this time, who just a few years prior to his ferry business’s launch had been instrumental in forming the Quaker congregation called the South River Society of Friends.
This faith had helped him greatly over time, though John was saddened and conflicted by how Quaker teachings differed from many current customs. Owning slaves was one. But he intended to free them, and had supported anti-slavery legislation in the new Virginia government. Also, his brother Charles’ postwar actions as a judge and executioner of British loyalists through a punishment technique known as “Lynch’s Law” had put a dark mark on their last name. John set his own actions on helping this community grow and outlast his brother’s actions.
His eyes looked back to the piece of paper in his hand: a charter for the town of Lynch’s Ferry, now known as Lynchburg in honor of the man and the family that had built it. Pride and gratitude bloomed in his chest as he remembered every step that had led to this. The people of this town deserved this honor for all of their hard work.
John could also see that Lynchburg would become a destination not just for trade, but for visiting. His ferry had made Lynchburg one of the most well-known tobacco commerce hubs in the new United States, and in 1785, George Washington had created the James River Company to build a canal network on the James River that would help Lynchburg grow even more. Beyond that, though, Lynchburg’s lush, verdant forests and majestic mountain views attracted many eyes. Benjamin Franklin loved the rolling hills of this town, and Thomas Jefferson also greatly appreciated the area. Lynchburg, for as busy of a place as it was becoming, was the perfect place to get out of the public eye and get some respite.
The year was now 1817, and John, now along in years, stood at the site of his first ferry, looking fondly at Lynchburg’s first toll bridge, which had replaced the ferry five years prior. Lynchburg had become a fully incorporated town in 1805. This bridge was but one symbol of growth that had occurred since Lynchburg had been chartered as a town in October of 1786. Now, the Salem Turnpike was being built as a way to easily access areas to the west. Former President Jefferson had also finally begun building his retreat home, Poplar Forest, several miles away in Bedford County, beginning in 1806. It was a plantation unlike anything John had ever seen, with that uniquely Jefferson touch. Jefferson had even said in 1810 that “Lynchburg is perhaps the most rising place in the U.S…It ranks now next to Richmond in importance…”, commenting as well that “Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to be useful to the town of Lynchburg. I consider it as the most interesting spot in the state.”
Looking back on the past was helpful to looking toward the future. Businesses like grocery stores and trade shops had sprung up to join his tobacco warehouses. The Methodist movement had come to Lynchburg and started building churches in 1806. Physician George Cabell had built his home, Point of Honor, on Daniel’s Hill in 1815. John’s little town was growing fast (Lynchburg’s population was over 6,000 by the end of the 1830s and became a city in 1852). He wouldn’t be alive to see it, but Lynchburg would become even more of a hub of industry, home to Lynchburg Foundry and Machine Works (today known as Griffin Pipe), the Lynchburg Cotton Mill, the Craddock-Terry Shoe Company and the Lynchburg Plough Company (renamed Lynchburg Foundry in 1902). It would also serve as a hospital town and significant battleground during the American Civil War. The transportation industry that he had begun would evolve into trains, canals and highways in the mid-1800s, making Lynchburg a destination and stopping place for many travelers.
John had freed his slaves before he died in 1820. He was proud of this town and all that it had accomplished since he began the ferry sixty years prior. Hard work and dedication made this town resilient and strong, and industry in manufacturing, transportation and tobacco processing grew. This town would grow into a vibrant and prosperous city contributing to the wealth and success of the nation.
To this day, Lynchburg continues John Lynch’s dream of sustainability, prosperous business and visionary thought. It also remains a beautiful destination to visit, learn and enjoy recreational activities and delicious local food. The history of the city manifests itself in the walls of restored buildings Downtown—which now provide spaces for Lynchburg’s modern amenities—and through historic sites like Old City Cemetery and Fort Early. People continue to find joy in living in and visiting this beautiful place, just as Thomas Jefferson did. To learn more about John Lynch’s life and legacy and the growth and development of this city over the years, check out the Lynchburg Museum and its educational resources.