Have you ever found yourself walking, running, biking or paddling along Riverside Drive near Pony Pasture and wanted to know more about that big island across the river?
That’s Williams Island. A 95-acre blend of nature, history and serenity [see slideshow].
Richmonder Warren Foster adopted the portage trail in Spring of 2007. He even has his own brown park sign at the head of the trail. He gets out there early most mornings to play a little, see the island and maybe work on the trail.
“Sunrise is the best time to see the island,” Foster said. “I go our there all the time … I know that portage trail gets used a lot.”
He assumes there is a lot of fisherman that use the trail, and walk along the edge of island.
“Evidentially there’s good fishing there,” Foster said.
The island has always been a popular fishing spot, according to Ralph White, park manager for the James River Park System. There are worn foot paths through the wild underbrush all around the island, most likely “maintained” and shared by a combination of fisherman and wildlife.
The relatively flat and heavily vegetated Williams Island is in the middle of the James River. There are two distinctly different channels to the north and south of the island and both are blocked by dams, built to help divert water into the city’s purification plant.
On the south side, most people are familiar with the highly visible Z-dam. According to the Falls of the James, by David Ryan, it was rebuilt in 1932, replacing a dam of loose rocks. It was altered with a 30-foot notch in 1993 to allow migratory fish species such as shad, river herring and striped bass to swim upstream.
The north channel is much more peaceful and calm, with the serenity broken up only by the occasional train. The dam was constructed in 1905 and begins at the northeast shore of the island and runs across the river to a portion of the north bank known as “Dead Man’s Hill,” as documented by Ryan.
There used to be a gravel pit and stone quarry on the island, which extended to the south bank of the river along Riverside Drive, according to White. The stone was carried across the James to the Kanawha Canal and ported down river.
An interesting feature that adventurous people can see today is an archway beneath the train tracks on the north bank below a spillway on the canal. “There was a crane there, and they would load stone and quarry rocks to sail them to downtown … before the railroad was there,” Foster said.
“The neat thing about Williams Island is the nature,” Foster said. “One day, a river otter came walking up, stopped, looked up at me and just walked off. They normally stay in the water, so that was cool.”
He has seen herds of deer, fox and birds. “I’ve been told there’s a bear but I haven’t seen him.”
White confirmed, saying that Williams Island has a small male black bear. He also noted that there used to be an albino deer that made Williams Island it’s home. Other animals include raccoons, muskrat, skunk and wild turkey.
Maybe someone (or something) else is out there?
“There was series of big prints around the [portage] trail,” Foster said. “I have all these pictures. I think there’s big foot out there.”
“There is a greater purpose to my work at Williams Island,” Foster said of his care for the portage trail. “I’d like to see it become part of the James River Park System.”
According to White, Williams Island belongs to the City of Richmond Public Utilities Department, but is under the care of the JRPS.
Public utilities has given the JRPS permission to maintain the island and the general public is allowed to visit the island and the surroundings. When the water levels of the James are low, people can often reach the island easier by rock hopping.
“We’d like it included as a wildlife refuge,” White said. He illustrated this by saying that when you look at a color map of the river, Williams Island appears in white, not the familiar green that show that it is park land.
“I’d like to see [Williams Island] be green on a map.”
But under the current arrangement, would the island ever get too much people traffic?
“That’s the beauty of it, you have to want to get there,” Foster said, noting that one would have to swim, paddle or rock-climb to get to the island. “I don’t think it would ever get over-visited.”
NOTE: This article was reprinted from the RTD.