OXFORD: A History from England to America (continued)
A BRIEF HISTORY OF BON AIR
The first recorded deeds of purchase for land in the area bounded by Brown Road, Jahnke Road and Buford Road were written to Mr. John Brown in 1830. Mr. Brown rebuilt his original home to be larger in 1843, and it stood until being destroyed by fire in 1950 (his grandson later rebuilt on the same site). However, the area now known as BON AIR really started to take off with the arrival of the railroad almost two decades later.
In 1847, the Richmond-Danville Railroad started a survey before building a railroad from Richmond to Danville. Captain Andrew Talcott, an engineering graduate of West Point Military Academy, was instrumental in making this railroad a reality. On May 16, 1856, the Richmond-Danville Railroad was opened for freight and passenger service. It was not until 1894 that the railroad was merged with the Southern Railroad Company (now Norfolk Southern). The railroad line played a significant role in the Civil War, supplying Confederate troops south of the Appomattox River.
In June of 1877, Colonel Thomas Mann Talcott, who served with General Robert E. Lee, became President of the Bon Air Land and Improvement Company. He was the son of the railroad surveyor and engineer, and became acquainted with the area through his father. The area was called GRAND SUMMIT, probably because the altitude is 300 feet above the James River. (There is a development in OLD BON AIR built in the late 1970s and 1980s with authentic Victorian architecture that pays homage to this historic name). It was Colonel Talcott who decided the name should be changed to BON AIR to reflect the quality of the fresh air enjoyed there.
Three years later, in 1880, a three-story hotel was constructed. The hotel was built to attract “summer residents,” “excursionists,” and “dine and dance guests” from the city. The hotel stood majestically on the southwest property of Chesterfield Avenue (now Rockaway Road) and Buford Road above the railroad tracks. The hotel offered modern amenities for the day, including a separate dining room for children and their nurses, hot and cold baths, and separate closets for the two sexes. A modern kitchen with an ice chamber for meats, butter, and ice cream was a welcome feature for the summer months. There were additional rooms for servants who accompanied the families, and accommodations for those who traveled by carriage, for both the carriage and for the horses.
Special excursion trains were scheduled by the Richmond-Danville Railroad for people from Richmond to come for the afternoon or to stay at the hotel. The railroad transported a building used at the Cotton Exposition held in Atlanta, Georgia to a site down the hill from the hotel and a bit to the north side of the tracks for a station house. A smaller station master’s house was later built when the larger structure was again moved in the early 20th century. The little stationmaster’s house stood until February 17, 1957 when passenger service was discontinued to Danville. There were two station houses for a number of years. One was called the “steppes” because of the long stairs leading from the tracks to the hotel. The other was the picturesque Bon Air Stationhouse that the excursionist used. The bluff north side of the track was called the “pleasure side,” as it was developed into picnic grounds, bowling alleys, croquet, lawn tennis, archery, and baseball facilities. There was also a special “sheltered alley” for the strolling of baby carriages. An open pavilion was used for dining and dancing. This pavilion was later enclosed and served as the community center until it burned to the ground in 1959. A modern building was built to replace it in 1960 and operates today much as it did in the past. A swimming pool was opened by the Bon Air Community Association at this location in 1956.
The south side of the tracks was called the “cottage side,” where people so taken with the area built cottages as opposed to staying at the hotel. Many of these houses still grace the area and can be quickly spotted by their ornate Victorian architecture with large porches and floor to ceiling windows.
Sadly, the hotel was destroyed by fire in 1889. The hotel “annex” still survives today and is now the Bon Air Apartments, located at the corner of Rockaway Road and Buford Road. The house next to the annex is rumored to have been part of the annex at one time, but was separated into a separate dwelling after the hotel fire. Construction of single family homes in BON AIR started in earnest after the hotel fire by people who decided to make the area their year-round home.
After World WAR II, especially in the early 1950s, building began to accelerate quickly. New homes were started on Brookwood Road and Trevillian Road. The Bon Air Realty Company surveyed and laid out Wayland and Crestwood Farms subdivisions in 1952. OXFORD ADDITION was under way by 1957 and had expanded well into Bon Air by 1960, continuing with new construction through 1970.
(Facts for this article were gleaned from a 1965 article written by the late State Senator and long time Southampton resident, Lloyd C. Bird for the Southampton Directory, and from past Bon Air Community Association Directory introductions and folklore.)