Sunday, January 30, 2011

Byrd Park Pump House

Though neglected, one of the more interesting historic structures in Richmond is the pump house at the bottom of Byrd Park.  It claims the oddest combination of program functions I’ve ever known. 

The primary purpose of the late 19th Century building is to house water pumps powered by waterwheel.  Water was pushed uphill to the reservoir about a half mile away.  Though this pump house is no longer in use, the later pump house next door still supplies drinking water to Richmond.

The other use of the building was as a venue for dances and concerts – on the open balcony at the top floor.   From this vantage point, you could look down on the canal and locks, hear the water as it poured out of the spillway, and see across the natural beauty of the James River.  A sign at the site alludes to people arriving by canal boat to enjoy the performances.  I’m curious if that romantic scene ever occurred.  Perhaps there’s a photo of it within the archives of the Valentine Museum.

The gothic revival building was designed by the City Engineer in a gothic revival style.  It has many characteristics of a church and is highly ornate.  The windows are tall and slender with gothic arches at the top.  These features do a great job of disguising its utility. 

The canal locks are themselves an interesting object within the site.  There are two channels for water running parallel to the river.  Both are fed from a point up-river.  The upper one supplied water to turn the waterwheel in a sudden drop.  The lower one contains the series of locks which used to raise and lower small boat traffic around the rapids on this section of the river. 

The stonework for the locks and building is said to have come from a small stone quarry 10 yards from the front of the building.  Granite such as this was quarried at several points along the stepped falls of Richmond.  It provided an important resource for 18th and 19th Century development.   Two other quarries can be found along the western stretch of Riverside Drive near the Pony Pasture and in the center of Belle Isle.

Finding this spot is rather tricky at the moment.  There is road work being done in front along Pump House Road.  Access is blocked from the Boulevard Bridge side near the toll booth.  You now must wind your way to the west side of the Carillon and do the tricky left turn near the entrance to Kanawha Trace.  The grounds are overgrown as you can see in the photos, but are fairly easy to walk.


  1. What's the purpose of that tall structure in the bottom photo? Is the city taking care of this historic place that look like it is well preserved except for the grounds. Is the waterwheel still there? Nice article.

  2. The tall monumental object appears to be an overflow pipe. It might be up high enough to allow water to flow when the river is flooded. I'll try to find out.