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The rags-to-riches story about the destroyed Petersburg luggage factory

PETERSBURG, Va. -- Wednesday’s demolition of one of Petersburg‘s most historic factory buildings finished off what a massive fire started a week ago.

That fire gutted the old brick and beam  factory that was going to be the latest addition to the High Street Lofts and townhouses, a 12-year-old project that brought new life, residents and a cool vibe to Petersburg’s once-forgotten industrial district - now a food and entertainment destination.

And it ended one of our area’s great rags-to-riches stories.

It was the home of the old Seward Luggage and Trunk Company - originally the Seward Trunk and Bag company - founded by Simon Seward 140 years ago, in 1878.

Simon was born poor in Surrey England or Surry County Virginia, depending on which 100-year-old obituary you believe.

He went to work young in Petersburg as a store clerk, saving his pennies in the hopes of opening a milling business.

And this young scrapper started making trunks and steamers for this new era of boat and rail travel.

His firm would become the largest luggage, trunk and hat box manufacturer in the nation. This factory was considered to be the largest of its type in the world. During WWII, Seward made footlockers for soldiers.

Simon Seward

Simon Seward was tall and elegant, widely considered a gentleman. He was a giant in Petersburg, a civic leader, councilman, donor and tireless booster.

As a young man and member of the Confederate army, he was captured by Union troops in Maryland a few days before the battle of Gettysburg and then escaped from Point Lookout prison where the Potomac River joins the Chesapeake Bay. (Read more about this here.)

He died at 68 in 1912, but his sons carried on the business, which was later bought out by Mercury Luggage.

Vintage Seward trunks are coveted today and new ones can still be bought widely.

In 1970 Seward Luggage manufactured the trunks that carried NASA’s moon rocks  as they travelled the world, according to old news reports about the firm.