The Park » History of the Park
In past centuries, the James River was a source of food and life for indigenous peoples. After English colonization, it served as a primary transportation hub bringing tobacco to Atlantic ports for shipment to Europe. As centuries passed, the River became an industrial waterway and open sewer. By the mid-20th century, the Richmond-area had turned its back on the James and there were few healthy fish for fishermen or birds of prey. Public access to the River was prohibited given its polluted status.
Realizing the value of the James as a source of recreation, as well as the impact of pollution on public health, several citizens worked to increase public access and improve water quality of the River. Their work led to the creation of the James River Park, a series of natural areas bordering rocks and rapids along the Falls of the James. Since its creation, the Park has grown from nearly 100 acres to over 600 acres and growing.
Today, Richmond area residents take pride in the beautiful River that flows through it and use it to its capacity. In the 21st century, the Park routinely wins accolades for its multi-use trails and is celebrated for its natural beauty, fisheries, and wildlife.
A Momentous Gift
In the 1960s, John W. “Jack” Keith, Jr., and Charles J. “Joe” Schaefer, Richmond natives and self-described “river rats,” investigated the ownership of many of the River’s islands and tracts along the shore. After extensive research and legal work, Mr. Schaefer and Mr. Keith became the owners of several islands and parcels along the River in what is now the Main Section of the Park.
In 1972 Jack and Joe donated the land to the City of Richmond with the agreement that it would become public parkland. This land served as the first piece of the James River Park. Their efforts began the tradition of volunteer work and citizen input that characterizes the James River Park today.
Citizens Save the Day
During those years, in 1966, Louise Burke formed, along with Dr. R. B. Young, the Scenic James Council to oppose a proposed highway along the south side of the James. In 1967, they held a “Farewell to the River” hike for Mrs. Burke’s Girl Scout troop and a newspaper reporter. Resulting publicity galvanized the citizenry to protect the natural beauty of what are now the Pony Pasture Rapids and Huguenot Flatwater portions of the Park.
Thanks in large part to the foresight and generosity of the above-mentioned citizens, millions of people have enjoyed the natural beauty and life-enhancing activities available in this unique greenspace. In 2009 the City of Richmond recognized the value of the Park by putting in place a Conservation Easement that preserves and protects hundreds of acres of the Park from future development. Annually, in conjunction with the Capital Region Land Conservancy, the Friends of the James River Park conduct inspections of each parcel of the James River Park subject to a conservation easement to assure no violation have occurred.
In 2013, after 32 years of service, the Park’s first Manager, Ralph R. White retired. His dedication and hard-work set a standard of care for the Park, and won him recognition as the 2006 recipient of the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award. Nathan Burrell, the Park’s trail manager since 2003 was selected as Ralph’s replacement. His appointment came after a nationwide search and review by a citizen advisory committee. In 2018 Nathan’s role in city parkland management expanded when he became the Manager of the Southern Division.
Bryce Wilk, most recently the Assistant Manager of Pocahontas State Park, has taken the helm as Park Superintendent. Bryce and staff work very hard to preserve the park, enabling generations to come to explore JRPS and love it like so many do today.
Did You Know?
The James River Park is the most heavily visited park in Richmond, receiving nearly two million visitors a year – most of whom are not city residents. Yet, this public park is funded solely by the City of Richmond.
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