Pumphouse/ 3-Mile Lock Park (AREA 1-P)

Park Parcl Map, Boundary and Features:Exhibit CE 0015
Map Title:   Property at Three Mile Locks
Common Park Name:   Pump-House Park, Three Mile Locks

Description of Location

Pump House Park is located off of Pump House Drive, on the north shore of the James, just west of the Boulevard Bridge.  It is adjacent to the City’s water pumping facilities and is at the southern end of Willian Byrd Park.   It is approximately     acres in size.  It should be noted that the City Department of Public Utilities owns the property between Pump House Road and the southern shore of the Power Feeder canal.   

Existing Conditions

Although the Pump House Park is a relatively small area, it is rich in historical significance.  It contains three historic canals, two canal locks, and a stone archway  dating back to 1786.  The area is known primarily for its huge, 4-story granite building, which once held the City’s main pumping station.  To the right of the Park’s entrance there is a small granite quarry.  There is parking available along the street.

Buildings and Structures

Pump House Park has one major building, the Pump House building, which the City constructed in 1882-1883 to pump potable water up into the new municipal reservoir in New Reservoir Park (later renamed William Byrd Park).  The large Victorian Gothic granite structure, designed by the City Engineer, Col. Winfred E Cutshaw (also designer of the old City hall and the layout and landscaping of Bryd Park) had a cavernous lower space devoted to huge machinery, and a partially enclosed upper space, with an view open to the south of the various canals and the James River beyond.  This was a social center for the City’s upper society, with a fully-sprung dance floor, other entertaining areas, and food and drink service areas.

A new Pump House, powered by electricity and housing newer hydraulic technologies, was constructed just to the east of the old building, which was abandoned in 1924.  During World War II, most of the iron and steel in the building was removed.  The City essentially mothballed the old Pump House building, and friends of the building and the James River Park have managed to keep the building stabilized over the past two or three decades.  The City’s Department of Parks, Recreation, and Community Facilities has recently stated its interest in rehabilitating the building as a museum and new JRPS Visitor’s Center and is proceeding with those plans.

There are three canals running east-west in the Park.  The most northern one is the Power Feeder canal, or feeder canal, built in the early -1880s along with the immense   Pump House.  This feeder Canal  ran the turbines for pumping water from the same canal up to Byrd Park.  It is fed by a split from the Kanahwa canal to the west of the  Pump House. This canal is used today mainly for showing full scale bateau replicas. It is crossed by a cor-tan service bridge just adjacent to the west end of the Pump House building, and the Power feeder canal contains a CSO pipe, which is visible in low water conditions.

The second, or middle canal, is the part of the Kanahwa Canal system, which was started in the 1820s, to circumvent the rapids near Richmond’s growing industrial production center.  In fact, in the Central Business District today, the Kanahwa Canal led to a large Turning Basin, located in the vicinity of the Omni Hotel today.  The Pump House Park is also known as the Three Locks Park, because it contains two granite canal locks, which are about 3 miles upstream from the Turning Basin downtown.

The lowest canal, which currently does not contain water (but it does contain water and sewer lines) is the beginning point of the James River canal system, which was the first canal system in the United States.  This canal, begun in 1786-17899, was to connect Richmond with Lynchburg and parts of Virginia further west, opening the frontier to commerce and further settlement.  George Washington, considered the father of this and other canal systems, passed through here when he traveled this section in 1791.  A small granite archway can be seen here, commemorating his visit and involvement, and the park has constructed a small overlook platform and placed informational signage to interpret this historic structure and the site.

There is a wooden bridge that lead over the Kanawha canal lower lock and there are two  bridges that lead over the Kanawha canal upper lock.  Just north, is the upper canal split, where the Power Feeder canal begins.

A small trail on the southern shore of the Kanahwa Canal continues west for a few hundred feet, and ends at the fence on the western park property line.


Because the park has been described as a “spaghetti-bowl” of utility easements, and perhaps because of the historic significance of the buildings and structures in the park, a separate section in the Conservation Easement was developed for the Pump House Park.  The main utility easements are shown in CE 015 (Revised); note that there may be other smaller utility easements (and older infrastructure) in the park, dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries.  The park’s southern boundary is the Railroad easement also shown.


A small electrical line serves the Pump House building, although a request for expanded power service is in progress.  It is believed that there are currently no other services to the Pump House Park.

Conservation Values

Natural Resources Values:  Three canals run east-west through the site, with room for adjacent bike and ped trails in select portions.  Currently, the park is land-locked, by City DPU property to the north and east.  However, the James River / Kanahwa Canal continues east past Maymont, to stop near the Lee Bridge.  This is not far from the western end of the Riverwalk Canal, and a large part of the property which is the “missing section” of canal, is owned by the National Park Service (the Richmond Civil War Park in the old Tredegar Iron Works).  In the farther future, perhaps these two canals could be united, or transfers between one canal and the other, could be accomplished to reinforce tourism and a linear park from the Great Shiplock to the Pump House and beyond.

In a large sense, the linkages between these east and west landmarks has already been accomplished for Bike and pedestrian use.  Although the City’s water collection plant is a mile west (upstream) along the canal, and security concerns may continue to limit public access in its vicinity, from the Pump House Park there are several other ways to improve access to the James River and other future greenway connections (vicinity of Pow’hite Parkway, the colossal Railroad bridge, private easements, etc)

The Park currently attracts a relatively limited number of visitors, though all find its beauty (the brooding gothic Building, the abundance of water, historic canals) and tranquility very soothing.  Once an area of energy and activity, it now slumbers in in disuse.  However, with City plans to renovate the building, making it the new visitor’s Center and redeveloping the upper dance area for public and private dining and entertaining, Pump House Park would become the western centerpiece of the City’s GREAT Park System (especially if water access and connections to the eastern canal system are realized).   More visibility and traffic to this site would reinforce other active and passive recreation activities, and expand Nature and History-oriented study, education and activity.  Natural Heritage resources unknown.   

Scenic Values:  Views of the James River from the canals and footpaths are limited, but the site itself, with its historic buildings, canals and locks, and tantalizing view westward, make the park a visual feast. The panoramic view from the open southern side of the dance area is breathtaking, even in its wild and overgrown condition today.  With thoughtful landscaping, this could be one of the most visually interesting and attractive historic sites in the City.

Landscape Values: The Pump House Park contains a half-dozen major landscape aspects:  three canals on terraces of different levels; a huge, brooding, Victorian gothic granite structure sandwichwed between two of them;  an abundance of flowing water and a waterfall or two at the historic locks;  a steep forested slope framing the park’s northern side and very close proximity to the Mighty James just to the south; and batteaus and future canal rides, what’s not to love?

Historic Values:  Numerous; the James River and Kanahwa Canals; the Washington Arch; the old Pump House building designed by City Engineer Col. Cutshaw (with other major structures also designed by him still standing in Richmond, the basis of a thematic historic significance) and even the mid-1920s newer pump house and feeder canal.  The old quarry, the old canal toe-paths, the two “Three Mile Locks: with their gates and granite channels, and artifacts in the canals.  An already rich historic site, still harboring much undiscovered history.

Other BLD Materials

  1. PHP II –P: Pictures & Captions: 11pages, 44 pictures with captions
  2. PHP II –P: Appendix P: GIS coord points, photos, captions and/or descriptions
  3. PHP II –P: GIS map with major features identified, 44 GIS photopoints