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Walking in Caldwell’s Footsteps

By Samantha Riggin VT’16, Corps museum curator

I did not participate in the Caldwell March, which honors the 26-mile trek that William Addison Caldwell made in 1872 to become the first student enrolled at Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College. But Col. Patience Connelley Larkin ’87 and I traced Caldwell’s last days before he died at age 53 on June 29, 1910, at James Walker Memorial Hospital in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Little is known about Caldwell, and much of the information was reported by Virginia Tech historians D.L. Kinnear and Clara Cox. According to them, Caldwell graduated in 1876, taking a third year to finish his degree. In the 1880 U.S. Census, he taught professionally and lived with his family in Craig County, Virginia, and then moved to Roanoke sometime prior to 1891 to work for the Norfolk & Western Railroad.

Details of Caldwell’s life after he left Virginia are sparse, but while in North Carolina I filled in some holes from our famed cadet’s past. As we tracked down the physical locations where Caldwell last lived, the more surreal it felt to walk the final path of his life.

In 1889, he was secretary for a group of stockholders for the newly formed Lansdowne Improvement Co. of Roanoke, one of dozens of groups of investors who speculated in a hot real estate market influenced by the Norfolk & Western. He was an active real estate agent and attended the 1891 Virginia Real Estate Convention in Roanoke.

If only he and thousands of other land speculators could have predicted the 1893 stock market crash that decimated the railroad industry, effectively purging the savings of investors like Caldwell whose land value plunged to pennies on the dollar.

I can find no information about the Lansdowne Improvement Co. beyond 1898 and assume the partnership was dissolved.

Caldwell was active in the state Democratic Party and served numerous times as a grand jurist in Roanoke City courts. An entrepreneur at heart, Caldwell invested in the Consolidated Cigar and Tobacco Co. of Roanoke, but that business went bankrupt in 1897.

In 1898, Caldwell relocated to Wilmington when he accepted a bookkeeper position with the Roanoke Chemical Co., which made baking powder.

Little can be found about Caldwell’s work history after he left the chemical company. Wilmington newspapers reported he was active in his church, always available as a pallbearer. Caldwell was a lifelong Democrat and a member of the Knights of Pythias.

He resided for only seven days at his home at 115 Fourth St. in downtown Wilmington before he fell ill, spending his last 13 days on earth in the hospital before he died of a brain tumor.

The historic marker for the James Walker Memorial Hospital.
William Addison Caldwell died at age 53 at James Walker Memorial Hospital in Wilmington, North Carolina. The facility was demolished in 1967.

His last residence is now a parking lot with a small park alongside, where there is an old-fashioned hand water pump — I wonder if Caldwell got his water there?

His final job was as a night clerk at the Hotel Tarrymore at Wrightsville Beach, a few miles from Wilmington.

Larkin and I went to dinner at the Oceanic restaurant, named for the Oceanic hotel that sat there until it burned to the ground in 1934. Unbeknownst to either of us, the original name of the Oceanic hotel was Hotel Tarrymore.

Perhaps Caldwell’s invisible hand guided us to his final place of employment, closing out the circle of his life.