James River Steam Brewery Cellars; Underground Richmond Rediscovered

Great things have been accomplished in pursuit of drink. The Pilgrims made an early exit from the Mayflower because their beer was running low. New England may be the most prominent example of landmarks that exist because of the need for strong drink, yet there are other extraordinary rock piles carved into the landscape because of booze, as developers recently discovered in Richmond.

Yes, Richmond, Virginia. As in the capital of the South. Grown men wept at the fall of the Confederacy, some for their newfound freedom, others for a lost cause. Regardless of what compelled those tears, it seems Richmonders, the city a smoldering heap of rubble, wanted to cope with their emotion by drowning it. No less than 15 breweries sprung up in postwar Richmond by folks who saw opportunity in the ruin.

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James River Steam Brewery cellars’ facade.

One of them was D.G. Yuengling, Jr. of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, whose father began the eponymous business that is today “America’s Oldest Brewery.” Yuengling’s southern adjunct, James River Steam Brewery, brewed lagers, which required cold temperatures for brewing and storage. Mechanical refrigeration was still a ways off, and cold days in Richmond, then as now, were rare. Caves are nonexistent. That’s where good-old fashioned American ingenuity came in.

Yuengling made caves, or cellars, where he could store that much-loved beer while it awaited distribution. The beer cellars cut into the side of the high ground at Rocketts Landing. The four tunnels were impressive affairs, with walls of granite blocks and impeccable masonry through and through, from columns to vaulted ceilings to vents to the world above.

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Inside the cellars. L: A non-native species (English Ivy) alive and well just inside; R: Water in the cellars.

Richmond’s breweries were, alas, short-lived affairs. Economic woes doomed most of them. Yuengling’s was belly-up by 1879. A fire destroyed the brewery building a dozen years later. Though the cellars remained intact, their memory was lost in the fog of time and neglect.

That is, until entrepreneurs came in once more to revitalize the neglected Rocketts Landing. Construction workers cleared away years of growth and to everyone’s surprise the cellars emerged. Now they’re on the National Register of Historic Places.

Though the cellars are off limits to casual visitors, there’s talk of one day making the ruins accessible. Richmond hasn’t had much luck with tunnels in the past, but this find, or rediscovery as it were, adds a little more flavor to Rocketts Landing, a remarkable quarter of a historic city.

(Here is a link to the cellars’ facade on Google Maps).

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The masonry of James River Steam Brewery’s cellars.

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Top L: Rocketts Village; Top R: Above the cellars, an inconspicuous field; Bottom: Homage to the site’s history.

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
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2 Responses to James River Steam Brewery Cellars; Underground Richmond Rediscovered

  1. Barbara says:

    This is amazing! I can’t wait to go through all the posts. I just went looking for pictures of abandoned roads, and your site came up. Now, I can’t wait for your book! I love the work you’re doing here.

  2. Zack says:

    I was a worker for the excavating company that cleared rocketts landing. There are also 2 vertical airshafts that enter the cellars closer to the rear. We also found parts of old steam trains buried there, and a small tunnel with tracks that ran east west under the property. It made me sad to have to remove such beer history when we took out the brewery foundation.

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