Bridging past with present

A woman who in 1926 helped usher in the first structure linking West Point to New Kent will do so again.


March 29, 2007

It has been eight decades since Virginia Brown Vranian cut a ribbon to open the first bridge across the Pamunkey River, connecting the town of West Point with New Kent County. The year was 1926. The new toll bridge was wooden, and Virginia Brown was a little girl.

On April 7, Virginia Vranian will once again open a bridge. The new Eltham Bridge will be the third to cross the Pamunkey at West Point, replacing one that opened in 1957.

Vranian says she does not remember much about her first ribbon-cutting. She doesn't even have a photo from the occasion. For that reason, she is anxious to have three of her great-grandchildren - Laura Taylor Hopper, 8, Virginia Gaylord Hopper, 6, and Henry Harrison Woodley, 5 - with her to help cut this ribbon. In future years, she wants them to have photos to help recall the experience.

Because Vranian's grandfather, Perry Brown, and her father, Winni Brown, were instrumental in getting the first road built through Eltham, she was chosen to cut the ribbon. She remembers her father and grandfather gave the highway department all the land they needed to put the road through.

"Daddy was just so generous," she recalls with a smile.

She remembers that a Mr. Bruce financed the wooden bridge, which was named the Bruce Bridge. He paid for the bridge by charging tolls - 25 cents for a car. Walking across was free. There was little traffic at the time, so walking was quite safe.

"If a car went by, you looked at it and wondered who it was," Vranian recalls.

"A couple (Mr. and Mrs. Moody) lived on the bridge 24 hours a day," she says. "Mrs. Moody and my mother were friends. We'd walk out there, and she had cages and cages of canaries."

Eltham was all farmland when the new bridge was built. "Daddy developed Eltham," Vranian remembers. "My grandparents lived in a plain little farmhouse, and we lived in Barhamsville until I was 8 or 9 years old. When Daddy built the pink house, it was the first new house in Eltham."

During that time, the road leading onto the new bridge tended to sink overnight, leaving drivers without a way across. The marsh fill couldn't support the weight of the vehicles. Eventually the dilemma was solved by putting old automobile chassis under the roadway, Vranian recalls.

When she was 18 and had just finished her studies at Mary Washington College, Virginia Brown met her husband-to-be quite by accident. She had walked across the bridge into West Point and then hiked up to the Chesapeake Corp. mill to catch a ride home with her neighbors, Mary and Hack Chilton.

Henry Vranian, a chemist at the mill, saw Virginia get into the car and ran after Hack Chilton to find out who she was. That evening, Virginia and her mother were sitting on the porch after dinner when they saw a strange car come up the driveway. The car left, but returned the next evening. This time Vranian got out, along with a friend of his and a friend of Virginia's from college, Dorothy Martin. Thus began a three-year romance, capped with a wedding in 1939 after Virginia turned 21.

"He was the cutest thing," she says.

Henry Vranian had room and board in a home in West Point, so Virginia moved in with him while they awaited completion of their new house overlooking the Pamunkey River. Because married women could not continue to teach at that time, Virginia gave up her teaching job. She had taught one year in Mathews and two years in Port Richmond.

The Vranians lived together in their home for 65 years until Henry's death in 2004. "We had a wonderful life," she says.

Over the years, they traveled "everywhere except the Holy Land." They journeyed all over the United States and visited Egypt (a favorite destination of Henry's) three times. They also went together to Germany, England, Scotland and Ireland.

Vranian says she wishes her father could be here to see the new bridge: "He would be tickled to death."

And as for the upcoming ribbon-cutting, she says, "I'm just happy and grateful I'm here to do it after all these years." 




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