Site of new hotel part of Richmond’s history of flour power

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RICHMOND, Va. -- A new, 10-story Hyatt Place hotel is slated to replace the low and long-vacant (and ugly brown) Reynolds Metals facility on Richmond's Canal Walk.

But long before there was such a thing as Hyatt Hotels or aluminum foil, this part of town was the home of the king of flour power, the titanic Gallego Flour Mill.

It was one of the largest brick structures in the East in 1835. Nine stories, 31 pairs of grinding stones. Its quality flour, powered by slaves and the deep water of the Kanawha Canal and its locks, was shipped around the world, especially Europe and South America.

"They ended up becoming one of the primary producers of flour, not just in the United States, but in the world," said Richmond writer and historian Harry Kollatz Jr. "Gallego flour was shipped down around South America to California to help make bread for the 49ers in the 1849 gold rush."

Joseph Gallego, an immigrant from Spain, had a mind for milling and for business. The epic mill built in the early 1800s replaced earlier ones destroyed by fire.

Fire and flour would define his life.

"He started the Gallego mills 1796," Kollatz said. "He actually lived for a time on the southeast corner of 5th and Main streets in a big house called Moldavia. A very storied property." (Edgar Allen Poe lived there and it was built by David Randolph and his wife "Queen Molly," who wrote the epic regional cookbook, "The Virginia Housewife.")

Joseph Gallego and his wife, Mary, "had a niece-slash-daughter - they adopted a young girl named Sally Conyers," Kollatz said. "She and Mary Gallego died in the 1811 Richmond Theater fire. And Joseph Gallego never got over this. He dies in 1818, but as a businessman, he was an incredible force."

Gallego flour remained a world leader until the end of the Civil War, when the Confederates famously burned it - along with much of the rest of Richmond - during the evacuation of 1865.

Photographs of the Gallego ruins became iconic images representing the fall of Richmond - and the South.

You can still see the old arches and walls of the mill races and what was once 13th Street by walking on the Canal Walk upriver from the turning basin, or by walking on S.12th Street by the canal.