Monday, January 23, 2017

Crossing the James

The shores of the James River in downtown Richmond are rife with recreational opportunities: pedestrian bridges, riverwalks, green space, rock climbing spots, and even National Park sites such as Tredegar Iron Works, the National Historic Landmark that is now a part of the Richmond National Battlefield complex. It was an unseasonably warm, but overcast day when we emerged from Tredegar and headed across the street to explore the riverfront.

Immediately across Tredegar Street a bridge crosses to Browns Island, a park that often hosts festivals, concerts and art displays. Dozens of pathways crisscross the island, which was formed in formed in 1789 with the development of the Haxall Canal. Named for its first settler, Elijah Brown, the land was at one point divided from Johnson’s Island by a spillway; today the two islands are one. We found the canal lock system interesting to observe, but the lure to cross the river was strong and we didn’t linger long.

Commemorating the African-American boatmen of the James River

The T. Tyler Potterfield Pedestrian Bridge crosses the James from Browns Island to Manchester, on the southern bank of the river. The first few hundred feet feature an art exhibit entitled “Three Days in April 1865: Follow the time line of the devastation and of the emotions of defeat for many and of the exhilaration and triumph for others as expressed by witnesses during the evacuation and burning of Richmond.” When the capital of the Confederacy fell to the Union army in the days following the defeat at Petersburg, the city burned; quotes from participants & observers tell the story of those three days.

The exhibit ends with pictures and descriptions of the evacuation routes used by the Confederates, with the modern-day vista compared to what the view would have looked like 150 years ago. The remnants of the Richmond-Petersburg Railway Bridge were clearly visible, the supports the only remnants of the bridge burned by retreating troops. Although it was rebuilt the following year, it burned again in 1882.

We continued across. The supports of what was formerly called the ‘dam walk’ (and now is the pedestrian bridge) are concrete piers, built in 1901 to divert water into the canal during low-water spells. Rails up top carried cranes that could lower diverters between the piers, both of which examples of are displayed on Brown's Island. The bridge opened last year after 15 months of construction that was continuously halted for high water, spawning fish, even the drowning of a homeless woman; the dangerous hydraulics formed by the river surging over what's left of the 116 year-old levee walls helped fuel the turbines that drove the first street car system in the US.

The south end of the pedestrian bridge connects with the James River Park System, a 550-acre riverside park that offers hiking, paddling, fishing and other activities – even rock climbing. The concrete and granite pilings of the old Richmond-Petersburg Railway Bridge have entertained rock climbers since the 1980s. Anchors and other permanent climbing apparatus assist climbers, while overhead a lookout tower stands guard over the river.

Heading west along the river will connect visitors with the Buttermilk trail and the Belle Island trails, while crossing east through the climbing area takes you under the Manchester Bridge (US Route 60) and to the Manchester Floodwall walk. The views of the bridges, historic relics, downtown skyline and James River are phenomenal, but it was time to turn around.

In fact, I had asked the boys to turn around about halfway over the pedestrian bridge, but was quickly rebuffed by my eldest son who proclaimed “I want to be able to tell dad I walked across the river!” Well, we had walked across the river, and as we made our way back across we took in the scenic views of downtown Richmond.

Upon our return to Brown’s Island we walked under the Rivanna Subdivision Trestle, which is the upper level of Triple Crossing. Richmond is the only place in the US where three different rail lines pass over one another in one spot. Today the crossing is operated by Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation, and although there has never been a documented three-way train meet at the crossing, it is still a popular destination for rail enthusiasts.

After crossing back to the mainland visitors can walk east along the Canal Walk towards Triple Crossing, while heading west along the river will take you to the Belle Isle Pedestrian Bridge – which leads right back to Belle Isle on the south shore of the river. We lingered in the gardens of Haxall Headgate Park, an educational site to demonstrate the benefits of riparian buffers.

Having retrieved the car we drove back east along the river, paralleling Browns Island, past Triple Crossing, all the way to Great Shiplock Park. The very east end of Chapel Island, the lock connected the James River with the Richmond Dock, completing the James River and Kanawha Canal system that bypassed 7 miles of falls on the James. Interpretive displays offer the history of the Kanawha Canal locks, which were built between 1850 and 1854. After examining the locks we explored a small section of the island, which although beautiful was rather polluted, and so we didn’t stay long. An interesting fact; in March through June the fishery in this area is influenced by anadromous fish which are migrating from salt water to fresh water on their annual spawning runs.

View from locks over canal towards Richmond

To conclude our day on the James we continued east to the Boathouse at Rocketts Landing seafood restaurant. The community was named for Robert Rockett, a ferry operator in the mid-1700s. A prosperous seaport from 1790 to 1830, the area eventually became more of a manufacturing center for tobacco - the nearby Lucky Strike and Philip Morris plants a testament to this history. We ordered dinner, and from our second floor perch above the river we watched the sun set over Richmond, the lights of the city gradually becoming visible in the waning daylight. Here the river makes a big curve south, some 20 miles later reaching City Point (part of the Petersburg National Battlefield Historic Site), from where it turns east again on its route to Newport News, the Chesapeake, and finally the Atlantic. The next day we would be following the river on its easterly journey, once again traveling back through history - but this time to the days of the Revolutionary War and the first permanent European settlers

View of Richmond from Boathouse at Rocketts Landing

For a guide to Richmond's Canal Walk area, visit the RVA riverfront website here.

Great Shiplock Park

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