A 1970 proposal for Belle Isle included a marina, fountain and restaurants. image courtesy of the Personal papers collection of Carlton S. Abbott, The Library of Virginia
The temporary closing and recent repairs to the Belle Isle pedestrian bridge — damage caused by concrete that plummeted off the Lee Bridge — posed an inconvenient nuisance. But if the 1969 City Council had approved a $6 million James River parks plan, we all would be looking at a much-altered Belle Isle.
The Richmond Department of Recreation and Parks hired Williamsburg-based landscape architects Stanley and Carlton Abbott to devise a parks plan. The senior Abbott, a designer for the Blue Ridge Parkway, presented a blue-sky vision.
The Abbotts proposed a monorail running from Belle Isle to downtown, plus restaurants, a conference center and auditorium grouped around a large fountain on the island. The multiphase '69 blueprint also called for the transformation of the mothballed Byrd Park Pump House into a centerpiece for historic Three Mile Lock. Travelers could visit a canal information center and dinner theater in the pump house. A boat ride would take passengers from a Maymont Park turning basin to the city's settling basin. Stanley Abbott suggested eventually opening the downtown portion of the canal.
That a parks concept of any kind went before City Council that spring 40 years ago was testament to the work of conservationists and '60s-era idealists who recognized the value of the James River.
In November 1964, the city won a four-year battle with the Southern Railway Co. when the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Richmond could acquire a 16-acre tract between 42nd and 25th streets along Riverside Drive.
Then, nothing happened.
The park effort worked its way into the city system through the cajoling, wheedling and persuasion of city planning director A. Howe Todd (later part of an effort preserving canal locks by the former Reynolds Aluminum factory); parks supervisor Reinier Henriksen (who encouraged the formation of Great Shiplock Park); and activist-conservationist, boat builder, scientist and photographer Newton Ancarrow.
By 1968, the city wanted to buy 13 acres on the eastern tip of Belle Isle for conversion into a park. Federal money couldn't be used for the whole project because it couldn't be used to buy structures. Old Dominion Iron & Steel, which occupied those parcels, expressed no enthusiasm about leaving because it started there in 1813 as a nail foundry.
In July 1968, a combination of federal, state and local grants and matching funds created a parks budget of $557,000 — short of the $720,000 called for in the city's capital-improvement plan. Todd wanted to swap Old Dominion's Belle Isle holdings for property near Deepwater Terminal, but Old Dominion proved unwilling.
On Jan. 1, 1969, a seven-year, $6 million parks project was revealed to the public. News stories included Abbott's modernistic conceptual drawings of a much-changed Belle Isle. Drawings and maps showed the proposed Richmond Metropolitan Authority expressway replacing the serpentine Riverside Drive, then bridging the James and lancing the city's midsection.
Those millions didn't include the monorail. That detail was proposed for "a private entrepreneur through franchise arrangement." Between Belle Isle and Williams Island, the plan incorporated nature trails, picnic pavilions, footbridges and comfort stations.
The editorial pages of both newspapers expressed approval of a park — though not necessarily the development. The News Leader cautioned that "Belle Isle's charm stems from its natural wildness." The plan was "futuristic and visionary," but the project could instead become "a showcase of the errors that man can make when he confuses development with conservation."
Activists like R. B. Young, John Pearsall and Louise Burke took these words to heart when they successfully fought the RMA's idea of burying the Pony Pasture under six lanes of asphalt.
The park's first phase, on the south bank between the Boulevard and Lee bridges, opened October 1970, much reduced from the high-concept Abbott version. Hurricane Camille, which destroyed land and killed many Virginians the year before, made the city leery of complicated improvements, and Agnes, which blew through in 1972, validated the anxiety. Belle Isle became accessible only by a barge used as a ferry. The floods damaged the Old Dominion plant, and the firm moved to Chester.
In 1972, the state created the Falls of the James Advisory Committee and designated the section of the James between the Huguenot Bridge and Belle Isle as "a historic river with noteworthy scenic and ecological qualities."
Dedicated environmentalist Ralph White was hired as the parks' naturalist in 1980. His guidance and inspiration created a cadre of dedicated maintenance volunteers. Today, the waters (at least west of the Boulevard Bridge) are cleaner than ever, and animals, including bald eagles, are returning to the river and its banks.
This February, City Council approved a conservation easement to ensure against development of 280 acres of parkland between the Huguenot Bridge and Great Shiplock Park, and embracing river parks on both sides of the river.