Archive for the ‘James River’ Category

James River Wish List Part II focuses on Pump House

Image of the interior of the pump room at the Pump House

Three of the five items on my second Wish List for the James River on are related to the Pump House and the area surrounding it. Part I focused on areas east of Belle Isle.


Quoit Club discovers treasure at Pump House

James River Park System's Pump House in Richmond, Va.It is rare when “architecture” and “James River” can be used in the same sentence. That is the unique appeal of the Pump House.

I tagged along with the Historic Richmond Foundation‘s Quoit Club on a tour of the Victorian Gothic treasure, which is located in the Byrd Park District, west of the Boulevard Bridge on the Kanawha Canal. It was designed and constructed in the 1880s under the leadership of the great Richmond city engineer Col. Wilfred Emory Cutshaw.

A description of its original functions from the National Park Service:

A municipal industrial building whose purpose was to house the Richmond city waterworks. The building, which served as the city’s waterworks from 1883 until 1924, is conveniently situated to draw water from the James River and Kanawha Canal as well as its own smaller canal. The facility pumped water uphill from the canals to the Byrd Park Reservoir, the city’s main water supply. Far from being entirely utilitarian, however, the pump house was also a popular gathering place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Ralph White at the Pump House in Richmond, Va.Park manager Ralph White was the official sponsor of the tour, teaming with Chris Hull of the James River Outdoor Coalition and Tricia Pearsall of the Friends of the James River Park to guide and educate the crowd of nearly 50 people on an hour-long tour of the park and the ancient civic landmark.

The Pump House has been under renovation for the past decade, mostly by volunteers. Hull explained that the Pump House had been in disrepair for years. Vandals had been breaking in and stealing, burning and smashing whatever they could get their hands on. Eventually, a hole in the roof threatened to destroy the building.

Volunteers donated their time and more than $40,000 to repair the roof, block the windows with plexiglass and to purchase lumber used to build walkways and staircases to improve visitor access.

“The work has been done by people like you that care,” White said to the Quiot Club crowd. “It is one of the most lovely buildings left in the city…the last thing of beauty owned by the city, after they sold City Hall…It captures the essence of what it is to be in Richmond.”

Balcony and dance floor at Pump House in Richmond, Va.A dramatic feature of  the Pump House is the old open-air dance floor — an open space with a balcony above the pump room on the top floor of the building. Many of the Quiot Club members took in the view and wondered about the storied high society events that took place there in the late 1880s and early 1900s before the automobile replaced batteau boats and the need for the Pump House diminished.

The plan is that it will one day make its grand return as the new home for the park system visitor’s center or a James River museum. It could also be a learning center, host weddings, parties, meetings, events and the batteau rides on the Kanawha Canal could again be a feature.

Walkway inside pump room at the Pump House in Richmond, Va.Though the Pump House is “still considered a stabilized ruin,” according to White, the inside of the building has passed safety inspections and has had some lighting added, though more is needed. An elevator and running water to the building are next, which could cost an estimated $75,000, according to White.

The Pump House has already played host to a few events. White said the best story was an “unwedding” — a jilted bride-to-be had a party with all her girlfriends toasting good riddance to her fiance who supposedly cheated on her. There was also a ghost hunting event in March, though White said he didn’t plan to encourage more events like that one in the future.

Interior of the Pump House in Richmond, Va.The architectural plans have been drawn, but funding is the next big step, White said. The project could call for more than $8.5 million. The most costly items could be shoring up leak the canal walls above the Pump House to stop leaks; enclosing the building to add air conditioning and heat; and installing utilities, including water and power.

“If the city is going to compete with the surrounding counties, it’s the preservation of our abundant historic resources that makes living in the city worthwhile,” White said.

A renovated Pump House could ideally be “an extension of the museums on the Boulevard,” White said, noting that respected public landmarks like The Carillon, Dogwood Dell and Maymont are all in the neighborhood. The building could be a hub for information about the James River or even all city parks.

Newly installed wooden bridge at the Pump House in Richmond, Va.Renovations could eventually include the park being a key to the Richmond greenways effort, Pearsall suggested. With all of the surrounding bike & hiking trails, the James River and Kanawha Canal flowing through the park, it is the ideal spot for something remarkable to be developed.

Want to be involved? Contact the James River Outdoor Coalition (JROC), Friends of the James River Park or contact director J.R. Pope and his people in the Department of Parks, Recreation & Community Facilities.

This was the Quiot Club’s first visit to the Pump House and my first official chance to meet face-to-face with members — many of whom said they have been reading this blog. Here’s what they are all about:

Named for Richmond’s most popular 19th century social club, the Quoit Club is Richmond’s premiere organization for people who enjoy experiencing history and architecture with a social twist. Today, the Quoit Club supports Historic Richmond Foundation’s mission to preserve the area’s unique heritage by promoting social and educational gatherings at historic sites.

My ‘Wish List’ for James River Park System

Pipeline Rapids walkway in downtown RichmondI love the James River and spend a lot of my free time kayaking, swimming, biking and hiking wherever I can in Richmond.

I am also dedicated to several  volunteer groups that help clean, maintain and restore some of the river’s best features.

Many people in those groups have a good sense of the best ways we can improve the way we utilize the river and its resources — and ways to make those visions a reality.

The James River Park System is now protected by a conservation easement that limits development, but that doesn’t stop us from developing new ways to enjoy ourselves when we visit. published Part I of a Top 10 Wish List of the things I’d love to see happen in our treasured park system.

Dusk vs. dawn on the James

Dusk vs. dawn. Vibrant colors and distinct features on one hand and shadows and blinding sunlight on the other. 

I had the pleasure of two distinctly different points of view over the same James River water course — from Pony Pasture Rapids down to Reedy Creek. One late in the evening and the other just after dawn, with both trips offering challenges and appealing features.

The physical aspects and timing of the two were the same. The visuals, however, were extremely different and each trip had their own flavor.

James River Railway Bridge at duskFor the evening trip, my brother-in-law, Mark Pruett, and I left from Pony Pasture at around 7:30 p.m. The sun was already setting, and immediately we knew it would be a good run. I had never paddled the James that late in the day and was amazed by the colors brought out by the angle of the sun, which is behind you as you head east down river. The trees, rocks, bridges were so distinctive and colorful. It was beautiful.

I’ve provided a shot of the James River Railway Bridge (also known as the Atlantic Coast Line Railway Bridge or Belt Line Bridge) to show the coloring at that time of day — around 8:10 p.m. with sundown at around 8:40 p.m.

James River Railway Bridge at dawnFor the morning run, my friend George McCurrach and I put in at 6:30 a.m., before I had to go to work. The sun was rising in front of us and was at times blinding.  Obviously the colors were dimmed or lost in shadows. The temperature that morning was already near 80 degrees so there was no morning mist or fog to give the river any eerie appearances.

The James River Railway Bridge was again a feature, but very different colors were on display in the morning. This photo was taken at around 7:10 a.m. and the sun came up at around 6 a.m.

For better photographic opportunities and the fact that I wasn’t blinded, I’d choose an evening run. A morning run sets the day up nicely and gives me the rest of the day to work and live life (despite the sleep deprivation).  

It is still a toss-up, though in general I prefer paddling in the morning — watching nature wake up is generally more exciting than shutting down for the night.

In either case, the sun’s low position in the sky caused a lot of glare on the water, hiding many large boulders lurking just inches below the glassy surface.  We bumped plenty of unseen rocks on both trips.

Camping on the James River during fireworksOne great thing about our morning run was that it was the morning after Independence Day and we saw several camps on the islands east of the James River Railway Bridge — the ideal location to watch fireworks and experience the outdoors.

It wasn’t ideal in 2006, when at least a dozen people gathered on the rocks on the river near the Boulevard Bridge were attacked and robbed by a group of teenagers with rocks and bats during the July 4th fireworks at Dogwood Dell. That smirch or our city has made many people cautious about being on the river during fireworks. It was great to see these folks there and I’m sure they had the best seat for the Dogwood Dell show.

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

Father’s Day on the James River

Mitchell and Carly swimming below Pony Pasture in the flatwaterI got what I wanted for Father’s Day…a day on the James River with my wife and kids. Sharing it with the people who made me a father.

Trish and Phil under the James River Railway Bridge at Choo Choo rapidsWe launched from Pony Pasture Rapids and rode down to Reedy Creek — a familiar trip for us. My wife, Trish, and I each put a kid in our kayak with a pack lunch and set out for a fun time. There were plenty of chances for the kids to get out of the boat and swim. They were so happy and had a blast — it was a joy to watch.

My daughter, Carly, had never been down the James past Pony Pasture, so this was a particular treat for her. We saw some friends that were also headed down the river at the put in, so between her being excited about the sites unknown to her and the expectation that she could see the friends down river, there was plenty of excitement for her.

Mitchell and Trish braving the pipe at the Boulevard BridgeMy son, Mitchell, rode with Trish. He’s been down the river several times and knows the key spots like Choo Choo Rapids and the pipe at the Boulevard Bridge. At this point, he’s been on the river about 10 times and is starting to recall all the spots where we’ve done something cool and fun — like the time he lost a tooth on Cedar Island while we were hunting for geocaches with his Uncle Mark.

We counted six trains as we passed between the Powhite Parkway Bridge and the Boulevard Bridge — a 45-minute span — which was a thrill for Carly. She hadn’t seen trains from that perspective before and it was clear that she was really taking in the scenery as we sat on the rocks below the James River Railway Bridge to watch trains roll by overhead.

Wildlife wasn’t much of a part of the trip, but we at least caught a glimpse of one brave turtle that refused to move as we paddled by to enter the millrace to the takeout.

Downtown Richmond skyline at the Reedy Creek takeout signOne last big thrill for Carly was when we could our first view of the downtown skyline. She has always been awed by big buildings and the way the building seemingly sit on the river was a unique perspective for her — it always is for me too.

I love these days of preparing the kids for a life of enjoying and respecting the outdoors. Trips like this aren’t easy since there are so many little things to coordinate and plan to make it happen. They are now learning to do their part of the packing and planning to go along with the safety rules we’ve been enforcing since the first time they hit the water.

I don’t want to be one of those dads that gets ties, mugs, etc. I’m hoping that Father’s Days like this one will make it the type of day the whole family will look forward to and enjoy.

James River meeting could prove Legendary

Legend Brewing Company hosted a gathering of dedicated lovers of the James River Wednesday night that might prove to be start of something monumental.

The meeting took place on the famed deck of the Southside restaurant as the sun slowly set on a pleasant June evening in full view of one of the best views of the downtown Richmond skyline. Members of the James River Outdoor Coalition, Richmond Mid-Atlantic Off Roads Enthusiasts, Friends of the James River and Richmond Road Runners Club had a meeting/social with the Richmond Sports Backers, XTERRA, James River Park System and even Richmond Police.

It was a meeting of the minds of for the most dedicated and energetic stewards of the James River. Many great ideas were shared and the potential for many combined efforts and projects emerged.

I was particularly happy to see the faces of many people who I’ve contacted over the years and to get to know many new faces a little better. Ideas were bouncing all over the place — the crowd was full of thinkers and doers.  Ralph White and Nathan Burrell of the JRPS were there to pass thanks, good information, project updates…and to fire up the troops.

We were reminded that many of the great projects on the James River that have been put into action the past couple of decades have come from dedicated private citizens with the vision, ambition and manpower to make it happen. Want something done? Have your plan and get people organized to do it. Get the city involved when the people are assembled and working to help complete the job — don’t expect the city to do it for you.

In fact, I did get positive feedback on my paddling in the Haxall Canal idea — and this would be the group that would help execute the plan.

Fired up? Join one of these groups and make a difference. All in attendance agreed that meeting in a group setting with more cross-pollination of ideas and combined efforts on projects can help to make everyone’s river dreams come true.