Belle Isle
James River Park System Richmond, VA
(804) 646-8911

Twenty-three years ago, getting to Belle Isle required low waters, bravery, and luck with the rocks. As energetic and curious college students, my friends and I would visit the island to lie on the rocks, explore, and play around the ruins of unexplained structures. I never knew much about the island and was not inquisitive enough to question its history. It was just another fun place to go in Richmond.

Several years ago, I heard that a 1,100 foot-long pedestrian suspension bridge had been built to make access easier. I took my kids to explore but their ages made just getting across the footbridge an adventure. We never actually made it around the 54-acre island. The footbridge was satisfying enough with its incredible views of the James River and Richmond skyline.

A few years later, we went back and unexpectedly hit a weekend where they were re-enacting the role of the island during the Civil War. It was a prisoner-of-war camp. My kids were strong enough this time to explore more of the island, yielding questions about old buildings and interesting things we came upon for which I had few answers.

My, how time changes things! On a recent trip, we found nice signs scattered along the trail (which circles the island and is handicapped accessible) that actually explained the history and unknowns. From these signs, we learned more interesting facts about the island, which led to even more questions. We explored the remains of a turn-of-the-century metal working factory, an old hydroelectric power plant (that supplied enough electricity to run the trolley system), and the ruins of a plant that made horseshoes, nails, and spikes. We read many explanations of the islandís use during the tragic time of the Civil War. Recreational opportunities such as hiking, kayaking, fishing, rock climbing and rappelling abound.

In an interview with Mr. Ralph White (park manager and city naturalist), I was thrilled to learn even more about Belle Isle. He can supply you with much more information that I can provide in this column. I suggest you call him and ask for the Belle Isle...A Self Guided Tour Back Through History brochure which he wrote, as well as the article Belle Isle: A Historic Treasure by Robert B. Giles. Both writings provide excellent background information. A two page article on Things To Do On Belle Isle provides great ideas of things to do with kids. There is a $1.00 re-printing fee for this worthwhile information.

It was indeed wonderful to learn more about this amazing island. Mr. White explained that the City of Richmond is in the process of installing huge pipes to handle street run-off environmentally, and at the same time is re-constructing the old canals that ran along the river. In two years, this extensive project will provide even more learning opportunities. Itís neat to know that the downtown Richmond area continues to get even better.

DIRECTIONS: 64E to 195S (Powhite).
Just before Powhite Bridge, see major intersection (Downtown Expressway - aka RMA).
Take RMA through toll booth (50 cents).
Take second exit which says Second Street - and puts you on Byrd Street just before Second Street.
This is where you will begin seeing Belle Isle signs.
Take Byrd Street and follow signs to Fifth Street.
Turn Right at sign for Belle Isle. Go one block to the river and take another right onto Tredgar Street.
Drive to parking area on right and follow sidewalk to the foot bridge.
Strollers, wheelchairs, and bikes are easy to take.
Admission is free.

Mary Wilson...

Belle Isle is within the James River Park System

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