Richmond’s Belle Isle and the Mixed Blessing of Water

John Roberts and his wife were surely crushed.

Their six-year-old daughter had been missing almost a week when she turned up, accidentally drowned, caught in a fish trap in the swiftly-flowing James River.

It was 1862. Even with news trickling in of carnage on Civil War battlefields, even in a day-and-age when losing a child was all too common, the Robertses must have taken it hard; the very river that took their daughter’s life also put food on their table. She died at Richmond’s Belle Isle.

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The James River at Belle Isle

You’d not think at first glance that this urban park holds secrets: nubile coeds sunbathe on flat river rocks, trim joggers bounce along in the shade of a lush canopy. Belle Isle is haunted, though. Not by the supernatural–for the record I’m not a believer–but by a past that is gritty, industrial, sordid. The type that incomplete or wistful histories often ignore.

The island holds prolific ruins, perhaps in greater concentration than anywhere else in the Chesapeake watershed. Ruins of ventures that harnessed the power of the river, ruins of lives turned this way or that because of the current that spills past. Ruins for which, as Roberts discovered, the water was a mixed blessing.

The foundry where Roberts worked was part of an expanding complex of ironworks that produced metal for more than a century-and-a-half. Many employees, like Roberts, lived in a small village that grew on the island to support the industry there. In the days before electric motors, water provided the power, turned the wheels that helped this hub of manufacturing meet the needs of a rapidly-industrializing nation.

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                            Ironworks oil house                                Belle Isle Rolling, Milling and Slitting Manufactory

Later, when electricity powered the mill (it operated until 1972), the river made that, too. A hydro-electric plant built in the early 20th century on the south side of the island generated enough juice for the operations there, and had enough left over to power Richmond’s streetcars.

The ruins of the ironworks, which had several incarnations, among them Belle Isle Manufacturing Company and Old Dominion Iron and Nail Works, still dot the eastern end of the island. Some are exposed, rusting shells, others grown over in a tangle of underbrush. The power plant, decommissioned in 1963, is a ghostly concrete skeleton, amply graffitied. The mill race that once fed river water to the turbines now incongruously sprouts trees.

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                   Belle Isle hydro-electric plant                                                         Mill race

All these ruins–indeed, all the capital and goods that sprang from Belle Isle–were, in a sense, made by the water, a blessing for many but demonstrably a curse for others, too.

Shortly after Roberts lost his daughter, Confederate commanders hatched a plan to send enlisted Union soldiers captured in battle to Belle Isle. The rebel army had already fortified the high western bluff of the island, part of a ring of works to guard the capital from assault. That gun emplacement is still there 150 years later, and a rickety wooden walkway tumbles over what’s left of the parapets.

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Confederate fortification on Belle Isle’s bluff

Belle Isle was a workable solution to confine the horde of Union captives coming from the front lines as the war dragged on–a prison without walls, the river a daunting obstacle between the P.O.W.s and their freedom. Over the course of the war Confederates imprisoned some 30,000 enlisted Yanks on Belle Isle–as many as 10,000 at one time on the island’s small and flat eastern tip–taxing Richmond’s already-meager resources, setting the stage for a prison camp where disease, starvation and death were normal.

“Many froze to death during the winter,” recalled New York cavalryman William H. Wood. “Others were tortured in the most barbarous manner…The prison was guarded by the famous Home Guard, composed of boys and old men[.] Our rations consisted of corn-bread, a piece about two and a half inches square to each man. Sometimes they would give us a piece of raw bacon; sometimes, in lieu of that, we would get boiled beef, but in very small pieces. Bean soup was their favorite food for us. The beans, or stock peas, as they called them, were such as the cattle would not eat.” Wood recalled being so hungry he once ate the raw flesh of a dog.

Almost a thousand of these prisoners died, at least a handful of whom Confederate guards shot as they tried unsuccessfully to swim across the river. The ground where Confederates buried dead Union soldiers is well marked. Years later, those men were re-interred at nearby Richmond National Cemetery.

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Site of the Civil War prison cemetery

But if Union soldiers cursed the river that blocked their freedom, so too did the industrialists who hoped that Belle Isle’s high granite bluffs would make them rich men supplying building blocks for a growing country. There were at least four quarries on Belle Isle. It’s believed that imprisoned African American laborers did the backbreaking work of winching the massive stone slabs eastward from the pit to a railroad bridge that linked the island to the mainland.

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Two scenes from quarrying operations

When these workers inadvertently opened a crack in the stone leading to the river, the quarry began to fill with water faster than it could be pumped out. That, coupled with the age of cheap, affordable concrete, doomed Belle Isle’s quarrying operations.

The big quarry is now a 19-foot-deep lake, the placid surface reflecting the tall stone cliffs behind it. The beauty is stunning. Most would agree that all of Belle Isle is. That this ground has been so dearly bought makes it all the more worthwhile.

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Views of the big quarry from ground level and from above

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
This entry was posted in Cemeteries, Ghost towns, Industry. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Richmond’s Belle Isle and the Mixed Blessing of Water

  1. Dana U. Bagby says:

    It’s an honor to live so near such a place. Belle Isle has been a part of me for nearly the whole of my life. Thanks for writing on it.

    Side note: I really would like to know more about the brick-lined tunnel, hidden by overgrowth; but can find very little other than legend on it.

    • Ben Swenson says:

      Thanks for the comment, Dana. Belle Isle is, indeed a wonderful place. Is there are brick-lined tunnel on Belle Isle or is that somewhere else?

      Ben

      • Jess says:

        Ben, I’m wondering if Dana is referring to the small tunnel near the hydroelectric plant. If you pass between the two buildings there, you can go through a small tunnel and up a path that comes out on the main track on the South side of the island. When I say small, I mean very small – an adult has to stoop to go through, and it’s only a few feet long.

  2. Ben Swenson says:

    Jess, Thanks for reading and for the comment. I’ve not heard of that tunnel, although I’m not too familiar with the workings there. I think that underscores that one could spend hours learning about and exploring these abandoned places.

    Ben

  3. Blake says:

    Actually, it is possible that this very short tunnel near the hydro-electric plant isn’t the “brick lined tunnel” wondered about.

    Walking South from the Peterson Bridge (small north bridge to James River Park) along the path is what looks like a deepening trench on the left hand side. Taking a closer look by walking into the trench reveals a partially buried archway opening to a large brick-lined room beneath the path.

    I’ve never ventured into this space but it is of size and requires one to shimmy on their back through some wet earth to enter.

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