The fall line in the James River at downtown Richmond that provides the best urban white water in North America is why Richmond is where it is.
As the early Native Americans paddled their canoes up and down the James centuries ago, the falls that they had to portage around presented a good opportunity to stop for the night. One of the largest Native American settlements in the Mid-Atlantic was the home to the Powhatan Nation, and it was near their village at Henricus that the earliest Europeans arrived in 1611. It wasn’t until 1737 that William Byrd II commissioned Major William Mayo to lay out a street grid for what Byrd decided to name “Richmond” because of the view from Libby Hill. The bend in the lower James reminded him of the river Thames in Richmond, England.
As Richmond grew, so did its dependence on the James River. It was a conduit for commerce. It provided water for drinking, for bathing, and for industry.
As much as Richmonders relied on the James, it also became a convenient spot to get rid of things Richmonders didn’t want. This included garbage, sewage, and the detritus of the industry and manufacturing that called Richmond home. Part of the impetus for creating Hollywood Cemetery in 1849 was the fact that the random burial of bodies within Richmond was polluting the James River. By 1975, the condition of the James River had become so poor and polluted that Governor Mills Godwin, Jr. shut it down for fishermen. He mandated that fish caught within 100 miles of Richmond could not be consumed.
Not everyone viewed the James River with the same callous disregard.
Charles Schaefer was a Boy Scout Troop leader. He recognized the value of the James River and its miles of shoreline and many islands. In the early 1960’s most of that land was privately owned, and Shaefer had a hard time finding good river spots for his Scouts to camp. Fortunately, Schaefer had attended the Virginia Military Institute with a man named John Keith, Jr., and Keith had grown up to be a real estate lawyer. Like Schaefer, Keith also called Richmond home.
Richmond being Richmond, the duo discovered that many of the parcels and islands that dotted the James River had long been tied to individual persons and families.
A prime parcel, a stretch between Reedy Creek at Forest Hill Park and Powhite Creek at Willow Oaks Country Club belonged to a woman who had inherited the property in a 1789 land grant. She saw value in what Schaefer and Keith were trying to do, and agreed to give the property over to them. Once they had the deed in hand, they donated the land to the City of Richmond for preservation as recreational property.
In 1972, the City of Richmond combined the parcels from Schaefer and Keith with other, smaller donations of land and created the James River Park System.
Since 1972, vast improvements have been made to the James River Park System, both preserving the natural beauty of the Park while improving our access to it. And every few years, another sliver of green space gets added to the collection. On April 15, the Capital Region Land Conservancy (a non-profit dedicated to preserving our natural and historic land and water resources) announced that it was acquiring just over 5 acres of riverfront land along Dock Street. This land will allow the Virginia Capital Trail to leave its shared route along Dock Street and will provide more river access to both residents of and visitors to Richmond. Capital Region Land Conservancy will forever protect this land from development, and it will be given to the City of Richmond for an expansion of our public parklands.
Next year will mark 50 years since Charles Schaefer and John Keith, Jr. made that initial donation of land. We imagine that the Powhatan and William Byrd would have a hard time recognizing the Richmond of today. We imagine Schaefer and Keith would be proud of where the James River Park System is today, and likely thrilled with our mission to preserve and protect it. Our plans to improve access for everyone would certainly please them as well.
- All images via Dave Parrish Photography