Dueling Maps of the Towpath, Again?

Nothing better than a good history rumble, and RVAHub.com may have started one with a post on the history of Harvie’s Pond that tries to reintroduce some troubling assertions about the history of the James River and Kanawha Canal.

What’s particularly worrisome is how RVAHub.com is glossing over the earlier debate itself.

From a 2013 post on this site, entitled “Dueling Maps of the Towpath”:

Venture Richmond Director Jack Berry gave a presentation on the proposed amphitheater at the July meeting of the Oregon Hill Neighborhood Association. One the main assertions Berry made was that the tow path on the south bank of the canal was only 12 feet wide until it was enlarged in the 1880s to make way for the railroad. He wants to remove over half of the tow path on the south bank of the canal, from 25 to 12 feet to improve the sight lines of the the proposed amphitheater.

Disproving Berry’s assertion is the 1848 plat of Lewis Harvie’s property on file at the Henrico Courthouse (Plat 3-417), which is far more detailed than the Morgan map cited by Berry. This plat is of such detail that it actually gives the dimension of the tow path as being 30 ft. wide at the location of what is now Venture Richmond’s proposed amphitheater. (See measurement on the attached Henrico Plat below the word “Path” to the left of the “House.”) The east-west street above the canal is the same width as the tow path and is also labeled “30 feet wide.”

This 1848 Henrico plat establishes that the towpath was at least as wide as it is today during the canal’s primary period of significance, and long before the railroad purchased the right-of-way on the canal bank. This canal was carefully engineered with an impermeable “puddled” clay layer that would be irreparably damaged if half of the south canal bank is removed.

Sadly, this has happened. In late June, early July of 2014, Venture Richmond ignored citizen concerns and compromised the integrity of the historic canal.

In doing so, Venture Richmond and City government ignored the findings of a large report on this historic area that was completed earlier that year. That report concluded with this paragraph:

In 1989 a joint Virginia House and Senate resolution honored the bicentennial anniversary of the opening of the James River Canal, recognizing that the “James River Canal, around the falls of the James River in Richmond, Virginia was the first operating canal system with locks in the United States,” and recognizing the canal, “… as a valuable, scenic, historic and economic resource to the Commonwealth and its capital city.” The James River and Kanawha Canal has survived and been treasured as a remarkable feature for a dozen generations. Will we be the generation that jeopardizes the canal, allowing the tow path embankment of this rare, historic structure to be cut because it blocks the view of a rock band?

It’s definitely worth noting that Jack Berry, as the Executive Director of Venture Richmond, dishonorably broke a repeated public promise to this community and government. From neighbor Todd Woodson:

“It is outrageous that Venture Richmond is breaking its repeated promises to submit the amphitheater plan to an impartial state and federal review through the Section 106 process. We have spent a year researching the canal, and we have documentation that the current tow path and and embankment are authentic and will be greatly damaged by the amphitheater plan.”

Flash forward to 2016 and the same Jack Berry is now running for Mayor, complete with a slick video and lots of support from the Ukrops and other members of the local corporate oligarchy. Does anyone doubt that Berry, if elected Mayor, will put his backers’ corporate interests over the concerns of citizens and neighbors? As the election draws nearer, there are other important points to consider and I will try to get to them, but this “history debate” says a lot about the character of Berry. Also, is Venture Richmond is disingenuously delaying its interactions as they wait to see if Berry is elected or not?

Sure, a lot of people may not care that much about a nerdy debate over old maps, water levels, and historic preservation (though it should be held in higher regard based on future planning, and more!), but the bigger picture is who owns the history as we get ready to elect our new leaders. Sadly, I cannot help but compare this RVAHub.com post, which puts forward Venture Richmond’s version, with previous attempts to push Venture Richmond’s propaganda (to the point of dishonestly suggesting that this neighborhood is against the Folk Festival). The stance of this community news site is that the history belongs to all of us, and while different interpretations are certainly welcome, they should not be used as tools of corporate hegemony to the detriment of the community and the truth.

Hydro-Electric Proposal and Future Of James River

This morning some people were surprised by this headline in the Times Dispatch: “Application filed for hydroelectric project at Bosher’s Dam”.
If they had attended the author’s talk earlier this week, they might not have been. Tredegar Iron Works and other Richmond industry relied and used hydroelectric power well into the last century.
For myself and perhaps other Oregon Hill residents, this recalls earlier conversations and speculation about riverfront development and ambitions.

Hopefully, regardless of whether the hydroelectric proposal happens or not, it adds on pressure to do something to improve the river’s health and accessibility AS WELL AS forcing Dominion Power to do more with distributed, renewable energy.

Was the City’s utility department authorized to oppose this proposal, submitted in February? And if so, by who?

This also figures into a Kanawha Canal restoration goal that ‘public private partnership’ Venture Richmond unofficially announced earlier this month. I guess the local media is still not ready to report or discuss this yet, but the devil will be in the details- including water levels and water use, recreational opportunities, whether Venture Richmond will respect neighbors’ very reasonable concerns going forward, and costs in relation to other priorities. The City’s Department of Public Utilities manages the Kanawha Canal level as well as the City’s river level. Yes, there’s a Richmond Riverfront Plan, but we all know how these plans are pretty subjective- for example, there’s no Tredegar Green amphitheater in the Plan and there was a previous canal restoration plan that has been thrown aside.

Going back to this hydroelectric proposal, it may be that upriver (and more affluent) neighbors are able to ‘NIMBY‘ it, or maybe the environmental issues with even micro-hydro-electric at this site are too large to overcome, or maybe there is even more interest in the longterm in getting rid of Bosher’s Dam altogether. But the point is, this proposal and others should be part of a more open, public conversation over the future of the James River, local energy/water policy, and our local government.

RVA Archeology Hosts Public Lecture POSTPONED

UPDATE: This event has been postponed.

UPDATE: Due to an unavoidable development, the RVA Archaeology meeting and public lecture will NOT be held this weekend. We are working to reschedule it and will let you know when there’s a new date.

RVA Archeology is hosting a public lecture and business meeting this Saturday. From the FaceBook event page:

We will be hosting our first meeting and public lecture of the new year on Feburary 6th, 2016 at the Richmond Public Library! The meeting will be from 10-12 for members, and then at 12:30 Archaeologist Lyle Browning will give a presentation entitled “Riparian and Riverine Sites in the Richmond Falls Zone”, discussing the many archaeological sites that are part of the James River in Richmond!

‘Tredegar Green’ – Still No Response To Neighborhood Concerns

Venture Richmond, a very powerful special interests group, still has plans to apply for re-zoning the Tredegar Green property near Oregon Hill. Venture Richmond has talked about the need for Oregon Hill to compromise on the site’s planned use, and discussions between Venture Richmond and the neighborhood have been conducted over the last few years. However, the lawyer representing Oregon Hill, Andrew McRoberts, reports that there has been no reply from Venture Richmond representatives, not even a confirmation of the letter he sent outlining Oregon Hill’s very reasonable wishes over six months ago. All other inquiries by all residents of Oregon Hill had likewise been ignored (so much for “public-private partnership”).

The latest Venture Richmond communications to City staff reveal gross inadequacy:
No real commitment to event management planning- crowd, parking, trash, etc.
Sound levels are to be monitored, but this is meaningless because there is no decibel limit on sound, etc.
No height limitation (even though the DCC zoning would allow any owner of the property to build up to 95 feet in height by right — right in front of the Va. War Memorial’s view of the river!)

All the media has reported is that Jack Berry, Venture Richmond’s Executive Director, is planning to run for the position of Mayor of the City of Richmond. Perhaps he thinks he can do an even better job of putting off the public’s concerns than the current Mayor.

Folk Festival and a (Deliberately) Missed Opportunity

For eleven years now I have enjoyed attending the annual Folk Festival held on Richmond’s riverfront, a short walk from the neighborhood. This year was no exception. I caught such great acts as the Cambodian American Heritage Dance Troupe, The Campbell Brothers, Feedel Band, Grupo Rebolu’, Zedashe, and others. For me the highlight was two sets of wonderfully cosmic jazz by the Sun Ra Arkestra. Sure, I could nitpick, but overall the Folk Festival Committee continues doing an excellent job with programming the festival. Having dabbled in music booking and management, and having volunteered for the Folk Festival in the past, I have some idea of the challenges they face.
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This past weekend was blessed with great weather and the crowds were there. There were still a few issues with traffic and jackasses parking illegally in the neighborhood, but it was better than some previous experiences with riverfront events. Hopefully these issues can be negotiated in a respectful manner so that they are not issues in the future.
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That said, a huge opportunity was missed to highlight one of Richmond’s most important historical resources. I am, of course, talking about the James River and Kanawha Canal, designed in part by George Washington, built with slave labor, and the biggest and most significant public project in Virginia’s antebellum period. Among other common sense proposals for the new “Tredegar Green” area, neighbors have repeatedly requested a sign or historic marker west of Tredegar Iron Works for the Canal, listed since 1971 on the National Register of Historic Places. How many of the estimated 200,000 or so festival attendees knew about the historic Canal they were walking by? Venture Richmond left it without any sign and treated it like just a regular drainage ditch.
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How many of the artists who performed on the ‘VCU Health stage’, set up IN THE CANAL, knew the historic significance?
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It was a bit surreal to watch the Irish group The Alt perform on this site where Irish immigrants had toiled and died, without any acknowledgement by the festival. A simple sign, as requested, would have worked.

At times, Richmond leaders and academics talk about how Richmond history is so much more than the Civil War, and how more pre-Civil War accomplishments and stories need to be told. Despite all this talk, Richmond’s leaders often do not live up to their promises in this regard. (Something the late Mark Brady and many others have experienced). Sometimes they are more interested in destroying these important legacies, sometimes to the point that they jeopardize future opportunities.

The Folk Festival is great at sharing and presenting stories of people from all around the world (and we all hope it continues to do so), but that is why it is so incredibly disturbing when Venture Richmond ignores and diminishes our own.

Railroad in The Penitentiary Basin

The Penitentiary Basin was dammed at the beginning of the 19th century, between Oregon Hill and Gambles Hill and below the Va. State Penitentiary. It served as an important turning basin for canal boats traveling the James River and Kanawha Canal. Canal boats offloaded supplies, and there was a canal boat building business in the Basin. The 1876 Beers Atlas shows the Basin below Oregon Hill at a time when canal boat traffic was being replaced by the more versatile railroads. In March 1880 the James River and Kanawha Company conveyed all of the canal property to the Richmond Alleghany Railroad, and the Penitentiary Basin soon was filled in and became a busy rail yard with turntable and machine shop. The 1889 Baist Atlas shows the remarkable transition from the previous decade as the extensive railroad infrastructure replaced the canal boat traffic. The water from the James River and Kanawha Canal continued to power the waterwheels at Tredegar Iron Works well into the 20th century. The attached photograph shows a steam engine beside the canal filling up with water from the tower located at the former Penitentiary Basin. Pratt’s Castle on Gambles Hill can be seen directly above the water tower. The former Penitentiary Basin is now owned by NewMarket Corporation, and it is hoped that they will be respectful of the rich history of this site.

Photo credits:
Canal/Railroad photo, Library of Virginia;
Baist Atlas, 1889, VCU Libraries;
Penitentiary Basin, Beers Atlas, 1876, Library of Congress

canal photo  (Library of Va.)Baist_Atlas_of_Richmond_VA_1889-Penitentiary basinPenitentiary Basin, 1876 Beers atlas