Celebrating the Pump House

In 1879, the City of Richmond was still trying to rebuild from the devastation of the American Civil War. Richmond hired an engineer and VMI graduate, Wilfred Cutshaw, as city engineer, and Cutshaw began an ambitious project aligned with the City Beautiful movement. City Beautiful imagined shared civic spaces, arboreal beauty, and inspiring architecture blending to create a harmonious social population.

Cutshaw brought those ideals to the creation of Monroe Park, Arthur Ashe Boulevard, and Byrd Park. He created places to contemplate the stunning vistas from Gamble’s Hill, the Chimborazo Hills, and Libby Hill. His projects spearheaded the planting of tens of thousands of trees throughout the City.

One of Cutshaw’s finest creations may have been the Pump House for Byrd Park.

Built between 1881 and 1883, the Pump House pulled water from the James River and pushed it up the hill to the Byrd Park Reservoir, which provided the entire City of Richmond with household water. While a small canal brought water from the James to the Pump House, it also sits alongside the Kanawha Canal, which is famous in its own right. The Kanawha, originally surveyed by George Washington, was the home of the first commercial lock in America, and also became the first commercial canal in Virginia. The locks and canal allowed commerce to flow from the Lower James River and Chesapeake Bay westward into the interior of Virginia, with thousands of boatsmen and millions in goods passing the Pump House.

For decades, the Pump House was a popular spot for both Richmond residents and visitors to the City. Small boats could bring people from Downtown Richmond up to the Pump House where they could enjoy the cooling breezes off of the River. The upper floor of the Pump House was a ballroom, and people would revel in a night of music and dancing before floating back down the Kanawha to the City proper.

Sadly, the Pump House no longer pumps water, and Richmonders no longer dance beneath its gabled roof. It stopped being used in 1924, and was gutted, its pumps and metalworks sold off in the leadup to World War II. At one point, it was slated for demolition.

Jessica Stone Hendricks Photography

Fortunately, we have some wonderful allies in preserving the Pump House in the Friends of Pump House. This non-profit, made up of a team of volunteers, has worked to raise awareness and funds, with the hope of one day opening the Pump House again to the public. The City of Richmond would seem to agree, and helped to fund a study for the Pump House, with a detailed examination of the history of the site, the current status, what it would take to reopen it to the public, and some examples of what a restored site would look like.

We hope that you’ll soon take a stroll down to Pump House Park, and join us in calling for its restoration.

* Featured Image via Friends of Pump House and Jessica Stone Hendricks.

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