The Belle of the James River Parks, a history of Belle Isle by John Johnson, first appeared in the Church Hill Association’s May 2008 newsletter. The Belle of the James River Parks Belle Isle is a 65 acre island in the James River designated a City Park in 1973. It is accessible to pedestrian and bicycle traffic […]
The Belle of the James River Parks
Belle Isle is a 65 acre island in the James River designated a City Park in 1973. It is accessible to pedestrian and bicycle traffic via a 1,100 foot-long footbridge suspended beneath the Lee Bridge and from the Southside via Reedy Creek Park House road. The island is part of the James River Park system and was occupied first by native Powhatan Indians as a fishing village and then later explored by Captain Christopher Newport in 1607. Belle Isle, according to the Canal Society Atlas, was originally called Broad Rock Island because of a very prominent granite rock outcrop at the extreme West end of the island. The outcrop was extensively quarried for years for granite to build Richmond City buildings, until a larger than necessary dynamite charge cracked the bedrock, allowing water to constantly flow and fill the main quarry. This prominent rock diverted water around the island and allowed sand and silt sediment to form at the much flatter 15 acre Eastern end. It is interesting to note that the river flowed on the South side of the island until large floods in the last 100 years diverted the flows mostly to the North side.
The Isle’s first owner was the first William Byrd who also owned much of the land in and around Richmond. His family held onto it for more than 100 years and he visited many times. He remarked that the water flowing through the island (Hollywood Rapids) were, “louder than a scolding wife’s tongue”. The island was used as a fishery in the 18th century and then in 1814, as The Old Dominion Iron and Nail Co., one of the biggest nail suppliers in the country. In the 1860s, the island had its own village, including a church, store and school.
It was also a prominent place during the Civil War as it held thousands of Union enlisted soldiers there after July 1862. Approximately 30,000 people were held in a few small shacks and small tents. The island afforded no protection from the elements; hence exposure to weather played a large role in the death toll. On cold nights the prisoners packed together in tight clusters to keep warm. Those in the center did well, those on the outside froze. On very cold nights the corpses would lie curled on the ground like the shriveled petals of a dying flower. The old Richmond and Petersburg Railroad Bridge delivered the prisoners there and took away the dead ….thus it was called, “The Bridge of Sighs”.
The river, cannon and rifle pits along with an 8-foot deep trench and high earthen berm effectively discouraged escape attempts. Prisoners were warned not to cross a line near the trench/berm or be shot dead. This is where the term “deadline” is thought to have originated.
Belle Island was not always called Belle Island and its one-time owner, Mr. James Bell ran some rather earthy adventures, (race track, saloons, gambling, etc.). The change in name from Bell to Belle was accomplished by the concerned women of Richmond who thought the French spelling of Belle was more refined. Eventually, Belle Isle also was the site of a Virginia Electric Power Co. plant that was built in 1904 and closed in 1963. The ruins of a concrete dam steers all the water on the South side northward around the island. It originally sent water into a canal for the hydroelectric plant that supplied electricity to run Richmond’s South side trolley system.
From Belle Isle, one can see Hollywood Cemetery, the old Tredegar Iron Works and Richmond City’s skyline. Belle Isle is a great place for people with a love for the outdoors. Popular activities for adults and youths alike include: walking the trails, rock climbing, fishing, mountain biking, sunbathing, bird watching and, swimming and kayaking in the James.