EXPLORING DANVILLE'S PAST
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Charles A. Ballou (December 4, 1834 - July 26, 1903), a civil engineer, was the City Engineer for almost thirty years in the late nineteenth century and was instrumental in the development of Danville's infrastructure and utilities. He was born in Halifax County, Virginia of French Huguenot descent. His father, Charles A. Ballow, was born in Cumberland County, and his mother, Rebecca A. Medley, daughter of Isaac Medley and Sally D. Hunt Medley, was born in Halifax County, Virginia. His parents were married in Halifax County on June 10, 1823. Note that the surname Ballou was spelled Ballow in many early records. The Charles A. Ballou who is the subject of this article was a Junior, but he never seems to have used that suffix. Many of the records of his life, including some dates, his middle name and his exact burial place, are elusive, but this is not essential in understanding the man and his accomplishments.
Charles A. Ballou was educated at Washington College, now Washington and Lee University. After college, he obtained the position of Civil Engineer of the Mississippi Central & Tennessee Railroad, where he was employed for twelve years. He left that position to become First Assistant on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, headquartered in McMinnville, Tennessee, where he remained for three years before returning to Halifax County to live with his father until the outbreak of the Civil War the following year. It was while living in McMinnville that he married his first wife, Mary G. Tate of Roanoke County, Virginia, on February 2, 1859. During the war, he served in the quartermaster department of the Confederate Army where he may have acquired the rank of Captain by which he was known for the rest of his life. His first wife, Mary, died in 1866 leaving Charles with two daughters, Kate P. and Mary G. Sometime after 1866, Charles married Anna P. Talley, daughter of Nathaniel Talley, Sr. and his wife Elizabeth in Clarksville, Virginia where Nathaniel was cashier of a bank. Anna had six children, Natalie, Charles A., Jr., Eustice, N. Talley, Sallie T. and Alice R. before her death in January 1885. The two daughters Sallie and Alice died in childhood, and Alice, who died at age 3 in October 1886, is buried in Greenhill Cemetery in Danville. About 1890 Charles married for the third time, Clara A. Jones, who had previously been married to a Jones and had children by him, but apparently Charles and Clara had no children of their own. Charles, his second wife, Anna, and two of his children, Alice and Eustice, are buried in Greenhill Cemetery, but some of the graves appear to be unmarked.
When the Norfolk and Great Western Railway was organized after the Civil War, Charles Ballou was elected Assistant Engineer and was in charge of the field work for surveying from Norfolk to Bristol. After this servic,e he was selected to secure a route for the old Raleigh and Gaston Railroad company from Cary on the North Carolina Railroad to the South Carolina line. This work, in the office and in the field, occupied his life for twelve months. A year later, while living in Winston, he was elected City Engineer of Danville in 1874. The author of “Man, Places and Things”, written in 1900, made the following observations concerning Captain Ballou: “Any one, who was familiar with the appearance of Danville sixteen years ago, need only see it now, to learn what Captain Ballou has done. Since that time, every unpaved street has either been paved or repaved. Since he was made Superintendent of Gas and Water Works, they have been almost entirely remodeled and rebuilt, and Danville now has as fine a system in this respect as any city of its size in the South. But if we were asked to give the work by which Captain Ballou will be best known, we would unhesitatingly pronounce the sewerage system of Danville as his masterpiece. Notwithstanding the unanswerable arguments he advanced in its favor, he had to fight for every inch of ground. Will, the result has justified his judgment in every respect, for since its completion there is but one case of typhoid-malarial fever, where there were a dozen before.”
Captain Ballou was instrumental in the development of all public utilities in the city of Danville. The Public Utilities of the City of Danville had their inception in the twenty-four year franchise given by the City Council to W. B. McDonough & Company of Cincinnati, Ohio on May 22, 1874. It was the practice of the McDonough company to build water and gas works, later selling them to local capital, thus inducing towns to embark on a course which otherwise could not have been so easily initiated--a policy advantageous to both. Gas was first turned on June 1, 1875, and by the end of the year, the City Council was taking steps to purchase the Works from the local company. Acting on the advice of Captain C. A. Ballou,, the Council, by a vote of 9 to 2, purchased the water and Gas Works for $141,500 on May 2, 1876 and embarked on a policy of municipal ownership. Two years later, Captain Ballou was elected to the position of Superintendent of the Works in combination with his office as City Engineer, positions which he filled with honor to himself and the City until his death in 1903. It was he who laid the firm foundation of the public utilities and their successful development is a tribute to his farsighted policies. The source of the Danville water supply is the Dan River, a swift flowing stream that rises in the Allegheny Mountains, about ninety miles to the west. From an intake above the city, it passes through the Filtration Plant to the Reservoir for distribution by gravity. The first reservoir, located at Mount Vernon and Virginia Avenues, was of earth construction, unlined, and could not be filled because of seepage at the top. For this reason and because of its low situation, pressure was only sufficient to supply water in the lower section of the town. Upon his election, Captain Ballou recommended the purchase of the site of the present reservoir at Ballou Park, but it was not until 1884 that the sum of $7,500 was appropriated for that purpose. In 1889, water was turned into the new brick-lined reservoir, with a depth of twenty foot and capacity of six million gallons. The reservoir was in those days located far outside of the town, and when the Council was petitioned to construct a driveway out to it, the petition was rejected since “so few people could enjoy the drive from town out to the reservoir.” The large acreage purchased by the City for the location of the reservoir was known as Reservoir Park until after the death of Captain Ballou, after which it was renamed Ballou Park in his honor.
Some excerpts from the book, “Municipal Ownership of Gas in the United States” by Edward Webster Bemis which was published in 1899 reveal much about Danville, Captain Ballou and Danville utilities at that time. “Danville, Virginia, a rapidly growing city now numbering 10,480, and which boasts of being one of the wealthiest cities in the Union, in proportion to population, is situated 141 miles southwest of Richmond.” “The cost of gas in 1889, exclusive of interest and permanent improvements, was $1.04, but of this sum 54 cents was paid for coal, which was $5 a ton, while only 2 cents per thousand feet of gas sold was obtained for residuals.” “The original cost (of the works), about $30,000, was in 8% bonds which do not mature until 1906. The recent improvements, costing $30,000, were made with 5% bonds.” “A private company built the works in 1874 subject to purchase by the City which it did in 1876.” “According to Captain C. A. Ballou, the City Engineer and Superintendent of the works, they were badly built and badly operated when in private hands. The gas was irregular in amount and poor in quality. The same company built the waterworks and they were bought by the City at the same time.” “The price of gas has been reduced under City ownership from $4.00 to $1.50. If bills are not paid within 5 days the price is $2.00.”
Apparently there was considerable corruption in the administration of municipal utilities in the late 1800s because Bemis made the following observations about the utilities in Danville: “Danville is also doing finely with its city-owned electric light plant. No charges of corruption seem to have ever been made. Captain Ballou has been in charge since the city began ownership 16 years ago. Here, then, is another example of honest management of public work without political corruption. No changes on political grounds are made in any of the force when the politics of the city change.”
In addition to his duties as City Engineer for Danville, Captain Ballou also laid out many streets and sidewalks for the town of North Danville even before it was annexed to Danville. Records of this work may be found in the minutes of the town council of the town of North Danville during the 1980s.
Charles Ballou and his family lived in quite a few different places during his lifetime. At the time of the 1870 census, they were living in Danville with his father-in-law, Nathaniel Talley, and his family even though he was working elsewhere. By 1880, the family, including Charles, age 47, his wife, Anna, age 35, and six children, Kate, age 19, Mary, age 16, Natalie, age 11, Charles, Jr., age 8, Eustice, age 6, and Talley, age 3, were living on Green Street. By 1892, Charles Ballou, who had married Clara A. Jones about 1890, was living at 715 Patton Street in a house that no longer exists. His daughter, Natalie, was listed as living with him and was a teacher. In the 1900 census, he was still living at 715 Patton Street with his wife, Clara A., age 50, his daughter, Natalie, and one of his wife’s daughters from her previous marriage, Minor, age 12.. Clara continued to live at this address for several years after Charles’ death. Charles was an active member of First Presbyterian Church while he lived in Danville.
There is no Ballou Street in Danville, but Ballou Park has been a landmark in the City for many years and has been used by the citizens of Danville for picnics, sports, and recreation over the years. In recent year,s a Festival in the Park has been held there in the spring of each year. The reservoir originally built by C. A. Ballou is still there, although refurbished many times. Across West Main Street from the Park is Ballou Park Shopping Center, another landmark which bears the Ballou name. Although Captain Charles A. Ballou, the man, may be largely overlooked and forgotten today, he made many important contributions to the development of the infrastructure of Danville during his life here.