Posts Tagged ‘James River Railway Bridge’

Taking the path less traveled on the James River

James River Railway Bridge, viewed from below Grant's DamI’ve taken many trips down the James River from Pony Pasture to Reedy Creek, but I almost always follow the normal paths that generally track the southern banks of the river. When the river levels are low, that is sometimes the only floatable path.

Since the water levels in the James are a little higher than normal for late August, I decided to stick to the north bank of the river once I reached the James River Railway Bridge (AKA the Atlantic Coast Line Railway Bridge or Belt Line Bridge). I needed to explore a little and see the river and the scenery from a different angle.

Some of the rapids in this area may be the results of quarried or blasted rockI’m often a guide for friends and family that have never been on the river, and I try to keep it easy, predictable and safe.  I also find that I seek consistency and predictability in my life and sometimes it is good to break away from the routine. 

But when I kayak alone, I usually get a rush from trying the unknown of a new course, even if it isn’t a tremendous challenge. So with reluctance, I skipped Choo Choo Rapids, Cooper’s Rifle and Mitchell’s Gut – the prescribed path for most paddlers.  I love that course, but I was pleasantly surprised by the little drops and tight runs between the rocks and trees along the way.

Entrance to Lower Arch blocked by trees and overgrowthInstead of shooting down Choo Choo, I took the channel through what used to be Grant’s Dam past the entrance to the Lower Canal. Someday the overgrown area where it passes under the CSX railway line on the north bank will be cleared all the way to the Pumphouse, giving  paddlers access to the Kanawha Canal through George Washington’s Lower Arch and creating a new river access at the Pumphouse.

I found plenty of scenery and views of the riverscape that were new to me. According to the Falls of the James Atlas by Bill Trout, much of the river in this section had been altered by man to create and maintain Grant’s Dam, which was built to direct water into the Kanawha Canal at the Pumphouse.

I love the area between the Powhite Parkway and Boulevard bridges.  It is so natural, wild and remote, yet right in the middle of the city. You can feel so free there among the honking geese and hunting osprey — only to hear an Amtrak train streaking its way across the arched railway bridge or a freight train roaring through the trees on either bank of the river.

Crude log table on a sandy island west of the Boulevard BridgeAs I passed under the Boulevard Bridge along the north bank, it again occurred to me how isolated that section of river is, despite the thousands of cars that pass over that area every day by the bridge.

Even though the area south of the CSX tracks is part of the North Bank Park, one would have to hike a long way to reach that area legally, due to the fences that block access along the tracks and the only allowed access is by the walkway tower at least a half mile down river.

Creating an access at Pumphouse would form a needed second access and a loop to the trail.  Plans for bike trails in the area are already in the works.

Trash collected from the James RiverAt the end of the trip I’d collected more trash than normal — likely due to the fact that I’d taken the path less traveled by most everyone.  It was that much more satisfying snagging a few odd bits of river trash, like an inner tube and a broken piece of a styrofoam pot. Sadly, I also found an empty woman’s purse — a sign that not everyone on the river has the best intentions.

Advertisements

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

Field research: Paddling up Lower Canal

I recently wrote about paddling up the Lower Canal between Tredegar takeout (putting in canal at Hollywood Cemetery) and Pumphouse Park  in Richmond. It could be done with some work if CSX granted permission, though my photos could leave some doubt due to a lack of water in the canal this fall.

View of canal below Hollywood Cemetery on North Bank Trail

View of canal below Hollywood Cemetery on North Bank Trail

First, let’s ignore CSX’s rights to the canal. Second, let’s also ignore the low water levels in the canal. That isn’t the case year-round. The above image shows the canal just west of the end of the Lower Canal as it drops through a sluice at Dominion Virginia Power. The paddle from here is flat and scenic. The train tracks would be to your left the entire trip.

After passing through wooded and secluded sections below the North Bank Trail and North Bank Park, the canal widens as it approaches Maymont. This trip was made by multitudes of Richmonders in 1800s as a means of travel headed west toward Lynchburg.

The canal widens as it reaches Maymont (see the Blue Heron, at left)

The canal widens as it reaches Maymont (see the Blue Heron, on the pipe)

After passing Maymont, the beginning of the Lower Canal is nearby at the historic Lower Arch. This would be the end of the paddle before re-entering the James. George Washington himself famously visited the Lower Arch while it was under construction in 1786. Washington was honorary president of the James River Company that founded and built the visionary canal system.

Lower Arch. There is an opening at left through second arch.

Lower Arch. There is an opening at left through the second arch, which is damaged. (Water is green in photo).

Sad thing here, as illustrated by the above photo, is that the breach in Grant’s Dam (which provides us Choo Choo Rapids) cuts off the major supplier of water to the canal at the Pump House.  It was nearly dry the day I visited, and quite overgrown. The area near the Lower Arch is cut off from foot traffic as it is CSX property. More study needed in this area.

Through the Victorian age and into the 1920s, the trek west on the Lower Canal was made by city dwellers on their way to the Victorian Gothic-styled Pump House for dances and parties for the city’s elite. It would be great to relive that, even if it was just in a canoe or kayak (trading suit and tie for a PFD). The canal was also used to transport goods, including rocks from the many granite quarries along this stretch, including Maymont and the hillsides west toward Williams Island.

The City of Richmond is trying hard to bring back the glory of the Pump House. It has been rumored that it one day may be the new home for the James River Park System visitor’s center.

City of Richmond plans for canal rides at Pumphouse Park someday.

City of Richmond plans for canal rides at Pumphouse Park someday.

I also know the plans seem to be slowly, slowly moving toward one day being able to take batteau or canal boat rides west from the Pump House on the Kanawha Canal toward the Powhite Parkway bridge and the Settling Basin, just below Windsor Farms. I’d love to be able to take my family on that trip around locks and under the James River Railway Bridge (my favorite man-made feature on the James).

Most of my information on the history of the canal comes from the Falls of the James Atlas by Bill Trout and from park signage at Pumphouse Park.