I might be biased but I am convinced that Richmond is at the epicenter of all things beautiful and mysterious. Its historical and natural places routinely conjure feelings of peace mixed with memories of war, awe tempered with solemnity, and permanence grappling with change. It makes me feel downright restless sometimes, like I better get it right before it’s too late – but that is only the mortal half of it. So, when the seasons change and Halloween approaches, I look at our monuments and wildernesses with slightly more urgent and probing eyes. There are some places that have that certain feeling, even when you visit by yourself – you are not alone.
I’ve taken photos of some of my favorite places and altered them to have a seasonal look. Some of these sites have historical credentials that are undeniable, others are spots that I have just happened upon, but for some reason they linger in my imagination.
Enjoy them while you still can…
Belle Isle, James River Park System – 5th & Tredegar Streets
If you don’t feel something otherworldly here, you just aren’t paying attention. Richmond has a long and sometimes tumultuous history, and Belle Isle has been there for every part. The noisy rapids that encircle it echo the feeling of ancient unrest. The site of a Native American fishing camp, colonial race track, bawdy saloons and heavy industry, this place has seen more than its fair share of wandering souls. Of course, its most famous historical use was its role as a prison camp during the Civil War where more than 1,000 Union troops perished from deprivation. The ruins and holes on the island’s landscape remind happy park visitors that they are not the first to stroll on its paths – and won’t be the last.
Sir Moses Montefiore and Beth Torah Cemeteries – Jennie Scher Road
Everyone knows that Richmond abounds with beautiful burial grounds. Hollywood, Shockoe and Oakwood are known to most. Sir Moses Montefiore and Beth Torah are a little off the beaten path in Richmond’s east end. These Hebrew cemeteries were started in the second half of the nineteenth century and are nestled at the foot of Fulton Hill. They beautifully balance the tension between change and stasis. In an area of the city that struggles to keep pace with development and combat crime, these quiet resting spots seem little impacted by the activity around them.
The Pump House – 1708 Pump House Drive
This beautiful gothic edifice was built in 1882 and supplied drinking water to Richmond straight from the river and canal. Water-powered turbines on the ground floor drove the pumps that sent water uphill to the Byrd Park Reservoir. The upper floor was a dance hall and public gathering spot. It is fun to imagine the parties and dances that happened upstairs while the large turbines and pumps hummed along downstairs – the band must have had to play really loud. Operations closed in 1924. Local paranormal investigator, Robert Bess, believes the building is haunted and claims he has captured spirits there with his “Parabot” chamber. I witnessed one of his events when I was the Environmental Educator at the James River Park System – I’ll just say it was fun. I have spent many days and nights alone at the Pump House; repairing floors, removing graffiti and installing various fixtures. The creepiest thing I saw was a northern water snake rising out of one the turbine pits. It is my favorite building in Richmond.
Abandoned House Site and Cemetery – secret location
Out of respect for the family’s privacy and consideration for its sensitive location, I will not share the address of this place. I stumbled upon it one day while working in the field. The family burial plot was recognizable even before I saw the solitary headstone. The ground is covered with periwinkle, an evergreen vine that was often used in old cemeteries as a symbol of eternal life. The ground is also pock-marked with rectangular depressions – caused by the collapse of wooden coffin lids. All of the burial shafts are oriented east to west in typical Christian fashion. The heads of the deceased are at the west end and the feet point east so that when the dead rise again they will face the morning sun. A dense thicket of trees and vines veils the cemetery and crumbling house from a six-lane suburban highway that buzzes just a few yards away.
Foushee/Ritchie Mill –North Bank Park, James River Park System
This all-but-forgotten ruin is worth the long walk. Tucked away in the most remote part of the James River Park stands this quiet granite structure built around 1820. It was built by Doctor William Foushee and later sold to Thomas Ritchie. Records indicate it was “ruined” by the 1830s. It stands unprotected on the north bank of the James River and was likely subjected to damage from frequent floods. Today, revelers with spray paint feel compelled to use it as a canvas for their bumper sticker philosophies- no art, just random names and less-than-witty slogans. It seems that the Earth itself objects to this desecration. Heavy vines are slowly pulling the stone blocks back into the subterranean bosom from which they were cut.
Presquile National Wildlife Refuge – Chesterfield County
This is as remote as Richmond gets. The island refuge can only be accessed by boat and is only open by appointment or on a handful of public days during the year. The James River Association and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service recently started the James River Ecology School there. Students can have an immersive education experience in the wetlands and meadows that host thousands of migratory waterfowl. I was lucky enough to attend a James River Advisory Council meeting there last week. I have to confess, the first thing my eyes were drawn to during the tour was the historic cemetery (within view of the student bunkhouse). I can imagine the kinds of stories kids might tell knowing that they are spending the night near a two hundred year old grave yard. This is a place where the next generation is inspired to care for creation while being reminded of the souls that came before.
James River Steam Brewery – Rockett’s Landing
I love all kinds of spirits. Beer is one of my favorites. This place combines some of the things I hold most dear: history, the James River, and Yuengling. In September 1865, just months after the Civil War, David Yuengling Junior started this brewery on the banks of the James. It was an immediate hit. Richmond has always been a thirsty town. In his 1856 book, Richmond in Bygone Days, Samuel Mordecai recalls at least a dozen taverns and breweries that he frequented (which says just as much about Mordecai as it does Richmond), but in the somber days after the Civil War the city’s thirst was greater than ever. A number of breweries were established, many of them by northern businessmen eager to tap into the newly opened southern market. The James River Steam Brewery was one of the largest. It boasted a five story brick brew center, a beer garden and pavilion named Scheutzen Park, and underground fermentation and storage vaults. The brewery closed during the economic depression of the 1870s and the five story brew center burned in 1891. Today, only the underground tunnels and granite façade over the James survive. The Rockett’s Landing community plans to convert the tunnels into a restaurant. It looks as though sprits may once again flow through the old tunnels.
I have taken hundreds of pictures of these and other Richmond haunts over the years. On Halloween night, I think I’ll have a Yuengling and look through them and choose which ones to write about next.