Climbers begin the ascent of the Manchester Wall at the south end of the new Tyler Potterfield Bridge.
If you’re among the tens of thousands of people who have ventured across the newly constructed T.
Tyler Potterfield Bridge over the past few months, you’ve likely seen a “Mayan Ruin”-looking bridge
abutment on the south side of the James River. This is the Manchester Wall, one of Richmond’s most
uniquely utilized historic features.
The Manchester Wall is the principal remain of the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad Bridge, which was chartered in 1836 and constructed of granite quarried from rock in and around Richmond. The bridge was intentionally burned down during the evacuation of Richmond in 1865. While rebuilt in 1866, it burned down again in 1882 after sparks from a passing locomotive ignited the supporting timbers, leaving only the granite abutment and pillars intact. This confirmed the foresight of a Richmond newspaper circulated between 1862-1865, which wrote, “The whole structure was designed with…a just regard to strength and durability. [The] piers of imperishable granite will remain as proud monuments.”
For over 100 years, the pillars and abutment stood as a quiet vestige to Richmond’s history, with regards to both wartime and industrial strategy, for no additional efforts were made to reconstruct the bridge after the second burning.
Then, something unlikely happened. In the 1980’s a small group of people categorically considered on
the social fringe – rock climbers –realized a new vision for the wall, namely, to create a climbing haven within Richmond’s urban core. They cleaned the wall and pillars and carefully added hardware in increments up the wall to protect fellow climbers against ground falls.
The back of the Manchester Wall during construction of the Potter Bridge.
In the ensuing 30+ years, several generations of climbers have climbed and been stewards of the wall.
Astride this effort, climbing has transitioned from a fringe lifestyle to a mainstream sport. Two additional indoor climbing gyms are coming to Richmond: the first Virginia location for Triangle Rock Club and a second location for Peak Experiences. Beyond this, various forms of climbing will be represented in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Why is this important? Because the tremendous expansion of interest in climbing creates a
corresponding and proportional impact on the climbing resources we enjoy, including the Manchester
Currently, climbers enjoy the majority of the Richmond’s outdoor climbing areas via the James River
Park System, which has sole jurisdiction over the area. Organizations and businesses, including the
American Alpine Club, James River Outdoor Coalition, Peak Experiences and Passages Summer Camp, the VCU Outdoor Adventure Club, and numerous volunteers have played a role in maintaining and advancing opportunities to climb.
Most of these efforts have been successful, though not all without controversy. However, the unified
core of these efforts is a desire to maintain this unique and historical space in Richmond for current and future climbers. For, as one climber wrote, “climbing is a way to express my love of life in the grandest form and on the grandest scale possible.”