Posts Tagged ‘Ralph White’

Taking ownership of Pony Pasture

Crowds at Pony Pasture Rapids Park in Richmond, Va.Pony Pasture Rapids Park is an urban paradise for many. A cheap way to make the best of one’s day for those that can’t afford a trip to the beach or don’t have the time to leave the city for a vacation.

The exposed granite boulders are a big draw for Richmond’s rock hoppers and sunbathers. Family gatherings are as popular as inner tubing, kayaking, swimming, fishing and partying.

But there are many people who take the pristine park conditions for granted. It takes a lot of work to keep human interference from tarnishing Pony Pasture’s natural beauty.  Between the James River Park System’s staff and the many volunteers and dedicated park-goers, the work gets done.

I am one of those proud people and Pony Pasture Rapids Park is now my park. Actually, many people own the park, and taking ownership is encouraged. After all my years of using the park, I’m now volunteering my time to maintain it and defend it from those that abuse it.

Aluminum cans left at Pony Pasture Rapids Park in Richmond, Va.I spent five hours clearing trash and helping people park cars at the west Richmond park on the hottest day of the summer. The official high that day was 105 degrees, beating the record of 99 for July 25. Didn’t matter, the park was packed.

I can claim four garbage bags worth of trash and recycling. I had help, as people who saw me coming with my trash bag would volunteer things they had collected from the river. It was good to have children helping a little, especially with aluminum cans.

Other than all the of senseless disposal of diapers all over the place, the worst part of clearing trash was a six-pack of glass bottles smashed on the rocks.  That malicious act took the longest to clean. I also found an enclave of more than 80 cans, bottles, boxes and food containers that was about as bad as it gets. The worst part was that a trash can was only 15 feet away. Trash in, trash out people.

Cigarette butts left at Pony Pasture Rapids Park in Richmond, Va.I think the cigarette butts were the most disappointing thing I found. Smokers know better and should be prepared to clean up after themselves.  I found 70-plus butts in one spot. The location suggested to me that it was obviously a good spot to see nature more than people-watch and I was disgusted by the lack of respect for the outdoors.

Parking is another issue at Pony Pasture. Between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. on most summer weekends, the lot gets full and the park system workers and volunteers help manage the flow of cars into the park and keep everyone happy, according to park manager Ralph White.

Lines for the parking lot at Pony Pasture Rapids Park in Richmond, Va.By 3:30 p.m., the line to get into the lot was 20 cars deep and the wait was about 20 minutes. The lot — which is the largest in the park system — has 80 parking spaces but can be expanded with creative management to 110 spaces, White said.

“In the early ‘80s, riff-raff was so bad, people petitioned to have the park closed – twice,” White said. The Pagans and Hell’s Angels motorcycle gangs were a big part of the problem, he said — doing donuts with motorcycles in the gravel, smashing car windows, starting fights, drinking, doing drugs, womanizing, etc.

Pony Pasture was a rowdy and untamed place in those days and citizens weren’t happy, but the park was never permanently closed.

That was a long time ago. The park seems to be more popular now than ever and keeping peace and harmony for a diverse and multiculural crowd on a hot day is beneficial to everyone. 

“It’s a parks issue, not a police issue,” White said. Having the parks department and volunteers run the parking lots at peak hours frees police from having to dedicate several cars to patrolling the park.

White said Richmond police usually dedicates one unit to Pony Pasture on the weekends.

“There is no one breaking into cars or starting fights… and everyone gets along much better,” White said. Having attendants manage the parking lot at peak hours has helped ease tensions and people seem to respect the park more now.

While I was there, the police mostly concerned themselves with the cars in line for the parking lot that blocked westbound Riverside Drive. There were no calls for Emergency Medical Services, no rescues, no arrests that I saw.  Everyone was getting along, despite the close quarters, heat and huge crowds.

There were at least seven volunteers, including a two couples that lived near the park that like to ensure that their neighborhood is well-maintained. Another young man volunteered in the park all day doing whatever the parks department had for him. He is a regular and has taken ownership of his Pony Pasture.

I will continue to volunteer. The afternoon didn’t seem like work.  I was earning time to enjoy my James River. 

If you see something you don’t like about any city park, take action. Take ownership. Make the park yours.

Find out how to help the James River Park System or any of the volunteer groups: Friends of the James River, James River Outdoor Coalition and the City of Richmond’s Department of Parks, Recreation & Community Facilities.

Granite rocks are a big draw to Pony Pasture Rapids Park in Richmond, Va.


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.

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.

Annual Earth Day Festival hero: Ralph White

Carly and Mitchell celebrate Richmond's Earth Day FestivalSunday’s 2010 Richmond Earth Day Festival was the fifth held in Manchester on the south banks of the James River at Floodwall Park and Plant Zero. It was a blast as always, and a great way to connect with like-minded people in a fun, positive atmosphere. 

I’m an earth day kind of guy. I attempt to be a steward of the land. I’m an avid recycler, got my backyard vegetable garden and compost pile, powerless blade lawn mower and my two new rain barrels.  I bike instead of drive whenever I can. Frequent farmer’s markets. Buy, eat, shop local — and when I do, I bring my own bags. Of the three Rs I’m probably more into reduce and reuse than recycle. I try to teach my kids to respect that way of living.

I also love the outdoors, with the James River being my main focus.  When I can, I try to do my part to keep it clean and teaching my kids the right way to go about living to be responsible and help make our world a little cleaner and greener.

I’m not going into all the details from the festival — you’re reading this, so you were probably there and saw it all. If you missed it, you can guess most of what you missed and check some of the photos below.

Ralph White at Richmond's Earth Day FestivalI do want to point out how much I enjoy Ralph White’s small annual portion of the festivities. He is the park manager for the James River Park System and put on a three-hour show for kids — planting shoreline vegetation, releasing fish, talking about the river.

As usual, Ralph was engaging for young and old, full of enthusiasm and information and showed tremendous patience and tolerance. With Ralph, it’s never the big things — all the little things. Everything is part of a bigger picture. Ecosystems depend on all things working in unison, etc. It’s fascinating to watch him work a crowd.

Ralph White at Richmond's Earth Day FestivalRalph White is a hero to the Earth Day crowd, only he lives it on an every day basis, year-round. He and his park system coworkers are stewards of our treasured riverfront, and I admire their work and dedication.

If you’ve ever found yourself wandering around a section of the JRPS and seen him, he’s picking up trash, snagging some recyclable material, teaching, organizing, networking.  You can’t conquer everything. Work hard, do all you can, come back and do it again the next day. It’s his passion, and we’re lucky to be able to enjoy the results.

I saw several other JRPS staffers on hand — including maintenance manager Peter Bruce and trails manager Nathan Burrell — and hopefully the festival was a chance for them to relax, socialize, celebrate — not work.  From this point on through the summer, they are likely working 12-16 hour days, 6-7 days a week and — knowing them — loving every second of it.

Ralph White at Richmond's Earth Day FestivalNext time you go to the river, take a small trash bag. Commit yourself to picking up whatever is convenient for you to carry out. Volunteer to clean or in some way care for this precious resource. Ralph and his folks never run out of projects that need attention. Make the park your park, and leave your mark. Spread the word and get your friends out to help and call it a party. Every time I’ve volunteered for a clean up or trail building day it has been an overwhelmingly satisfying and positive time — my own little festival.

Find what fits you and make every day your own Earth Day.

Newtown Ancarrow: A hero to James river

I’ve been reading an excellent book, True Richmond Stories, by Harry Kollatz Jr. It is billed as selections from his “Flashback” column in Richmond Magazine.  Many great stories that I’ve been familiar with for years, mixed with many more that I knew little about, topped with a dozen or more than that were new to me. 

Thank you Harry. You are the newest Richmonder I aspire to emulate. 

One of the stories I knew little about was that of Newton Ancarrow, a scientist turned master boat builder who died in 1991. His old marina is now a park in the James River Park System, named for him. 

Kollatz’s article (June 2003) painted Ancarrow as an environmentalist: “Pioneer James River conservationist Newton Ancarrow didn’t realize the extent of his success.”

Ancarrow’s late 1950s and early 1960s boatbuilding informed him of the James River’s deplorable condition. He in public compared it to “the Ganges River at Banaras in India.”

In 1969, Ancarrow cofounded Reclaim the James Inc., and he advocated the construction of a floodwall to protect the city’s water filtration plant. The Virginia Wildlife Foundation, among others, celebrated Ancarrow’s work. Yet, throughout the 1970s, Ancarrow was considered an annoyance by government and corporate officials.

Ancarrow's Landing in downtown Richmond is a boat landing for the James River Park SystemAncarrow’s Landing is not the most attractive park in the JRPS. It is a functional boat landing in the tidal waters of the James, popular with fisherman and motor boaters. The acreage is largely dedicated to parking and the southside park is but a sliver along the shoreline. The small series of trails in the park are mostly made my fisherman looking for the right spot to cast their lines. 

The “nature preserve” feel one can appreciate with the western portions of the park system that are above the fall line is harder to detect at Ancarrow’s Landing.  The views of the flat river there are more industrial, but at least there are some decent views of the Richmond skyline and Libby Hill. Also, the Richmond Slave Trail originates at the infamous Manchester Docks, which are a part of the park.

JRPS manager Ralph White once gave me good audio describing the virtues of Ancarrow’s Landing that I incorporated with photos of the park. In editing (in 2007), I focused on the current usage of the park, but I’ll bet that Ralph would have had much more to say on its history if I’d asked.

Ralph always talks about the melting pot that Ancarrow’s becomes each spring during the fish runs, with all the different dialects and nationalities casting together into the James river. He often tells the story of how one afternoon on a visit to Ancarrow’s, he “overheard eight different languages — nine if you count a New Yorker.”

I’ve always thought of Ancarrow’s Landing as the Ugly Duckling of the James River Park System. Envisioning the JRPS as a football team, Ancarrow’s Landing would be the kicker — everybody hates the kicker, but you’ve got to have one. Ancarrow’s Landing is the only true boat launch in the system, and is a necessary cog in the park’s repertoire.

My impression has changed. I now see it as a victory for the good guy and I’m glad Ancarrow was moved to help save the river. More from Kollatz:

Ancarrow wanted officials to see the river after heavy rains released millions of gallons of raw sewage into the James. Ancarrow observed struggling masses of eels and catfish at this dock, trying to escape. He would observe them “with the skin digested off them.”

Ancarrow testified about the river’s health to an apathetic city council around 1966. He bought a large jar filled with putrid water, in which floated a condom and a dead rat. Council dismissed his evidence.

He then produced a powerful, prescient documentary film called The Raging James, shot from helicopters, boats and on shore. It aired on public television station WCVE, and Ancarrow showed it to anyone who would watch. Views of waste pouring into the James forced Richmond and the State Water Control Board to take measures against river pollution.

This is the information about Ancarrow that I had missed.  He is now a saint in my eyes. When you hear of people dedicated to a cause that refuse to give up because they know they are doing the right thing, doesn’t it always get you fired up?

Instead of imagining that we’re making Ralph White and Peter Bruce smile whenever my family gathers trash on our outings to the river, I will now think of Newton Ancarrow instead. Take this quote from White in Kollatz’s article:

He staunchly defended the river, and the city owes him a tremendous debt. He deserves to be memorialized.

NOTE: No, I’m not promoting Richmond Magazine because of my twitter account being mentioned in an article (though it’s amazing how many people pointed it out to me).

James River Journal: Night of river stories

I attended the Night of Storytelling and book signing for the James River Journal: A Year in the Life of a River last week, and it was great to reconnect with Richmond Times-Dispatch friends, meet some new ones and learn a little more about the James.

Writer Rex Springston (left) and photographer P. Kevin Morley

Writer Rex Springston and photographer P. Kevin Morley of the RTD are former co-workers of mine, and men I look up to in the media profession. They are in the business for some of the same reasons I am — one of them being the love of storytelling.

Of course, another is a love of the James river. I enjoyed the monthly James River Journal series and hope the Times-Dispatch learned their lesson and continue to allow their journalists to do enterprise work.

The night had six speakers, not including Rex and Kevin. All had their hand in the newspaper series that was repackaged for the book. All had different stories to tell, but the theme of the night could easily have been “The James Is So Much Cleaner Now.”

I’ve read several history books on Richmond, and none of them touch on this dark side of the history of the James — at least not in-depth. Maybe I just haven’t read the right books.

When I came to Richmond in 1988, the river was relatively clean by sight and smell and I have never had this fear of the “dirty old James” that so many speakers brought up. I’ve certainly read newspaper and magazine articles, but Richmond’s history books seem to ignore this long and shameful period that lasted more than six decades. The trashing of the James had as much to do with shaping the history our city as the Falls of the James did in forcing Capt. Christopher Newport to stop at Shockoe Valley when his ships could sail no further up river.

Richmond used the river as its sewer in those days. Storm drains ran into the creeks and streams that feed directly into the James. Industry was largely unchecked. Fishing regulations weren’t strict. We had dams blocking fish from their spawning grounds. It was a mess, and we were killing all the nature that lived off and around the river.  We were killing the perception of the river too — people didn’t respect it or protect it and no one wanted to play in it.

Bryan Watts, a biologist, spoke of the numbers of breeding eagle pairs being up to 130, osprey pairs up to 500 and great blue heron pairs up to 1,500. Those numbers are up from zero in the 80s. He would know — it’s his job to count and study them. The big cause for the loss of the birds was the chemicals DDT and Kepone.

Photographer David Everette was good to hear from and meet. He said he has been photographing the James since the 70s and he seldom goes to the river without his camera. He lamented that he chose not to photograph the bad things he had seen in the James in 70s and 80s and he wishes now that he had — for context — to emphasis just how good we have it these days.

People protect it now. Worship it even. Paddlers, bikers, bird watchers, fishermen, adventurers, businessmen, educators, fathers, mothers, children….so many levels of people appreciating and helping keep the James clean.

Snorkeler Chris Hull had some creative ideas to enhance the river. He suggested the City of Richmond should acquire Mayo Island and add it to the James River Park System. The city should complete renovations to the Pump House and reopen the canal to cruises from there.

Click for larger image

This bridge over the Manchester Dam is ripe for creating a fantastic walkway between Brown's Island and Manchester

My favorite idea of his was to fix what would be a footbridge between Brown’s Island and the Manchester climbing wall. There is a rusty old bridge there now, but only maybe 15% of the bridge is accessible as a walkway. Extending it could create many more ways to enjoy and view the river and the downtown skyline. The multiple usages for this walkway with all the adventure games that Richmond hosts are exciting. So brilliant an idea that I’ve already walked across it many times in my mind.

Ralph White, manager of the JRPS, described the park as “wilderness in the heart of a city, managed by citizens….you.” He emphasized that how volunteers and communities manage the JRPS “is what defines us as a community.”

Ralph White, manager of the James River Park System

Ralph depends on an army of volunteers to keep the parks clean. He told a story of when he first was hired as park manager in the 80s, a time when the park was new and not respected like it is now. He encountered some very embarrassing graffiti in front of a class of children and called the city department in charge of having it removed. He was told it would take at least two weeks for them to get to that. Unacceptable. It had to come done immediately.

Ralph decided to do it himself, and from then on decided he would have volunteers get the job done if he couldn’t rely on help from city departments. He hasn’t looked back, and the JRPS has never had to take a step back either.

If you are reading this, then you have likely been to at least some part of the James River Park System or some spot on the James. On any weekend, no matter where you are, someone is working on a project to help the river. Volunteer to help, even for just an hour. You will feel better, and the river will be better for everyone.

Peter Bruce loves working on the river

I had been wanting to do a story on Peter Bruce for at least two years. His is the head of maintenance for the James River Park System — one of the Four Horsemen in charge of the city’s natural treasure. Park manager Ralph White, trails manager Nathan Burrell and educator Lorne Field round out the list of our river heros.


Peter Bruce

Ralph and I used to talk on a semi-regular basis about the history of the James, places and people and I’d often ask him for story ideas. He’d often jump at a chance to get his hard-working staff some good press.

When I was at Media General doing occasional stories for the expired Discover Richmond website, I struggled to get time to do a story on Peter. I didn’t want to give it just a quick “hello” — I preferred to volunteer with him or shadow him one day while he went about his business. That way, I could get in on the fun, work at the river and get a feel for what he does.

I ran out of time, and eventually had to change jobs. Now that I work for, I finally made the time and it was one of my first stories for the website. Turns out that I still had little time for the story and had to do it the easy way with a quick on-camera interview, which is passable, but not preferrable.

Peter is an impressive guy, and a total character. His scratchy voice made it hard to understand everything he said, but he was kind to repeat himself when needed. He knew he was on camera, so he hammed it up a little during the interview, but when the cameras were off, he was still just as entertaining and enthusiastic.

His duties are mainly trash, roadway maintenance, graffiti, grass, repairs, painting — whatever the park needs. The JRPS cares for more than 650 acres of park land, including 14 parks and many extra areas like the Manchester climbing wall, floodwall, the Slave Trail and Lumpkin’s Jail sites.

The key for me is his enthusiasm for the job. He’s been doing it for 12 years, hired on full time after Hurricane Fran in 1996. He is dedicated to getting people involved and spreading good will, with the river as his draw.

“At the end of the day, we thank the volunteers and they thank us, and you know, it’s just amazing how people love the James River.”

I went in to the story expecting Peter to tell me that the people that worked with him were just out of jail and needed to stay out of trouble by working with him — away from bad neighborhoods and bad influences. Turns out it’s not as impressive — he simply has people assigned to him that have to do community service for one minor infraction or another.

The message still comes off the same. He spoke glowingly of how many of those people often gain respect and love for the river, where they may not have had any positive experiences on the James. Poor people. People that can’t swim. People that don’t know how to appreciate outdoors. 

“Spend a day in a positive atmosphere, helping the environment…Showing some skills – all depends on your sense of worth.”