An ode to the James River Railway Bridge

James River Railway Bridge, also known as the Atlantic Coast Line Railway BridgeMy favorite place to stop on a paddle trip down the James River is the area around the James River Railway Bridge.

The bridge, also known as the Atlantic Coast Line Railway Bridge or Belt Line Bridge, is located between the Boulevard Bridge and the Powhite Parkway. The areas east of the bridge on the south shores of the James are part of the Main Section of the James River Parks System. [See a slideshow]

People can see the bridge from many angles, but the best way to view this entire area of the James is from the many huge exposed granite boulders that surround the bridge. The feeling of solitude and serenity is a place surrounded by the sounds of commerce is a unique pleasure.

CSX train crosses the James River Railway BridgeListening to the roar of the river; watching birds soar above; catching glimpses of wildlife and looking for the perfect photo — contrasted by the train horn blasts and hum of diesel engines; the droning of the cars on the Powhite Parkway.

There are unofficial hiking trails from Riverside Drive, but parking is limited. Access to these areas includes crossing railroad tracks and the trails are not maintained for high traffic, so read the signs and proceed with caution. The northern portion of the area is accessed from trails that lead from North Bank Park and the bridge is in view from Pumphouse Park, though not accessible due to fenced-in CSX tracks.

Exploring in this area is a treat. There are many nooks and shallow pools of water to explore when the water is low. I fell in love with this area during a hike in late summer of 2007 when the water level was absurdly low. The rocks looked so unique, smooth and odd — a complete landscape change.

I now drive by this area almost every day on my commute to work on the Powhite or the Boulevard Bridge and longingly steal glances of the beautiful arches and the river.  I’ve had many conversations with readers, friends and fellow James river lovers that feel the same way about the bridge.

Kayakers stop at the Choo Choo Rapids just below the James River Railway BridgeThe remains of Grant’s Dam are nearby, and what’s left of that dam helped create the whitewater run known as Choo Choo Rapids. There is a nice beach right after the rapids and multiple places to stop for a food break or just to relax. These rapids can be run over and over again if you carry your kayak back up the rocks on either side.

The Lower Arch of the Kanawha Canal isn’t much further along the north bank of the James, just below Pumphouse Park. The famed George Washington’s arch is there, though the entrance from the river is blocked.

There are two main islands just east of the James River Railway Bridge that have areas worthy of picnic spots as well. At times you might find a picnic table left on the southernmost island (Cedar Island) though on my last visit, it seemed to have been washed away.

Stone pillars at James River Railway BridgeThere are many 25-foot granite piers left from the previous railway bridge. A couple of them have ropes and ladders to allow for a climb to the top. Use your best judgement if you dare climb, but let me just say…the view is worth it.

HISTORY: The railroad bridge was completed in 1919 for the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, and used by the RF&P and the Atlantic Coast Line, which are now part of CSX.

David D. Ryan wrote in The Falls of the James about the term “Falls of the James” and to what it refers:

Majestically arched stone and concrete Seaboard Coast Line Railway Bridge and the remains of the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad Bridge. The SCL Bridge was opened for rail traffic in 1919; the RF&P Bridge was constructed in 1891 and razed twenty-eight years later.

Remains of the RF&P bridge are still standing below the arches of the James River bridge. The James River Bridge project was among the earliest major projects to rely on poured concrete, Portland cement. Up to that point, railway bridges were made of heavy timbers, iron or stone. In the early 1900’s, concrete was introduced as a new material for bridge construction.

The purpose of the James River crossing was to provide a straight route through Richmond for passenger & perishables trains running between Florida and the Northeast.

James River Railway Bridge, viewed from Riverside Drive

20 responses to this post.

  1. What is it to you to a head has come?


  2. Posted by Richard Koechlein on February 21, 2021 at 8:54 am

    I would like to obtain a copy of the bridge photograph to display…How do I obtain the JPG file? Richard Koechlein


  3. […] Visitors can easily rock hop to the other side of the river, or rock hop and swim upstream to the James River Railway Bridge. Beneath the bridge are 25-foot stone pylons, which are remnants of the previous railway bridge. […]


  4. […] upriver of Belle Isle that the area around the Nickel Bridge provides access to, including the pillars of the iconic Atlantic Coastline Railway Bridge across the James River. The area is also very popular with dog owners. The Belle Isle area becomes […]


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  9. Posted by Katie on May 15, 2013 at 11:01 am

    I LOVE this bridge and have been dying to photograph it. How would someone on foot find a good place to photograph from?? Thanks so much!


  10. Posted by Larry Dumville on July 18, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    Growing up in the 60’s I lived on Riverside Dr. and would jump rocks to get to Windsor Farms. I also walk across this bridge, it is really scary when two trains were on the bridge. All you could do was to lie down and pray.


  11. Posted by inrichmond on February 3, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    kids do attempt to go on the bridge, however cops do watch the bridge fairly often ;D


  12. Posted by Nappolita on October 24, 2010 at 4:10 am

    It is almost cheating to insert mention of this brief delight on the RotJ site, because, although it was a vision that would also have been visible from the James that rainy afternoon, it was not a day that I was down on the rocks. My great luck to see it happened as a passenger just launching out on the Powhite Parkway not quite parallel to the train trestle. The dark clouds parted just so, & as we drove out onto the span, leaving the ground & river valley far below, beside us the railway bridge’s graceful arches were fractally repeated in a double rainbow above & beyond it. I yelped for a camera; none materialized. The driver got to glimpse-drive-glimpse-drive-glimpse-drive. I got to burn the image unforgettably deep into my brain, like a hologram of the ephemeral gleaming rainbow hovering high & still, with the concrete bridge subtly seeming to shift its angle underneath, as we crossed in awe from one side of the river to the other.


  13. […] through the area to reach remote rocks and islands. You can get underneath the giant arches of the James River Railway Bridge (also known as the Atlantic Coast Line Railway Bridge or Belt Line Bridge) and watch kayakers run […]


  14. Posted by Annabelle on July 29, 2010 at 9:13 am

    I love this spot as well and think you have the place covered in your description.

    I cannot help but note, however, that it is a place where I have to pay homage to a very sweet person who also loved it. She fell to her death from it several years ago, just as she was about to graduate from VCU. It was her favorite place to go to think and dream. So when I see it or visit it, there is a bittersweet pathos about the place. But it serves silently to remind me that, with all the world’s beauty (and Richmond possesses more than its fair portion of it!) one must be aware of one’s own frailty and the preciousness of life itself.


    • Annabelle, thank you for your comments. I’m sorry about your friend. I assume you are talking about a fall from the bridge itself? I’ve seen some “kids” walking and sitting on the bridge. I can’t understand the lack of fear or respect for life that shows.


  15. I love the look of that bridge — one of my faves across the James!


  16. Posted by Shelby on July 1, 2010 at 11:44 am

    This is probably a really stupid question, especially since I have lived in the Richmond area my whole life. Where can you take a kayak class or tour of the James River. I have taken Kayak tours in most of the cities I have visited recently, but I have never explored my own backyard. I grew up in western Henrico and never really ventured down to the river, but now I live in the city and love it. Any help would be greatly appreciated.



    • Posted by sandy's dad on July 1, 2010 at 2:45 pm

      chesterfield county park and rec teaches flat water and whitewater classes, adventure challenge offers whitewater classes, riverside outfitters will lead you on a sit on top kayak tour from pony pasture to reedy creek, you can hitch a raft ride from riverside outfitters or river city rafting.


  17. Great stuff as usual and reposted to H&H. Thanks Phil.


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