Thursday, January 20, 2011

Pedestrian Bridge to Belle Isle

You may have noticed a theme to the first group of essays. They are along the James River or Kanawha Canal - and to me are the best cluster of interesting places in Richmond. Occasionally, I will ride my bike to work on a 5-mile path designed to pass each of these very special places. The coolest part of the trip is traversing the pedestrian bridge that connects the north bank with Belle Isle. I usually get off my bike and walk the quarter mile just so I can enjoy the scenery.

The addition of this bridge twenty years ago made the island’s natural resources and history much more accessible. Previously, the only access was from the south. To get there, you first had to find a place to park along Riverside Drive, know where to cross the railroad tracks, and be willing to cross a dam or the wood vehicle bridge.

Suspended by cables from the Route 1 (Lee) bridge, the pedestrian walkway hangs delicately in contrast to the massive concrete pylons and roadway above. The arcing sections are high enough to challenge those like me who have a fear of heights. The view of the skyline and Hollywood Rapids is spectacular and well worth the short walk from the Tredegar Street gravel lot.

On a good day, activity is all around. There are hundreds of geese, ducks, and possibly even a heron visible from the bridge. Unless the water gets too high, you will usually see a group of kayakers playing in the class 3 & 4 rapids a couple hundred yards to the west.

Look to the northwest and see the tomb of President Monroe in Hollywood Cemetery and a hydro-electric power-plant that forms the base of an office building for Dominion Virginia Power. Along the northwest bank is Tredegar Street and the remnants of the Civil War-era iron foundry. Stone bulkheads from abandoned train bridges create a rhythm across the river.

For most of the last 200 years, Belle Island was an industrial site. Remnants of that history are still visible and will be the subject of a later essay. The island's history includes its use as a Civil War prison camp for as many as 10,000 captured soldiers - most held without shelter. I strongly recommend finding the prisoner diaries and the accounts of Walt Whitman before going. It will provide an eerie perspective when you next walk around the island.

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