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Chapter 11 - Grace Street & Belle Isle

Gordon parked his car downtown on Grace Street. Most of the businesses on Grace had been boarded up for years, and most of the people on the sidewalks were homeless. Like other downtowns in America, Richmond had moved to the suburbs, but some new businesses were emerging on Grace, while some businesses had held on through the blight.

 

A rope hung down from the trestle’s underbelly. Teenagers lined up to swing out and drop into the water. “You want to do the rope swing while we’re down here?”

 

 “Not in these wool pants,” Hezekiah said, looking out over the placid river.

 

Jimmy and Hezekiah took the sidewalk leading to the 1,000-foot-long Belle Isle pedestrian bridge.

 

The footbridge’s concrete arch spans and aluminum guardrails made it look like a roller coaster track suspended from underneath the Robert E. Lee Memorial Bridge.

 

Once on the hanging footpath, the constant west wind, funneling down the river, hit the boys in the face. Shaded from the summer solstice sun by the Lee Bridge above,

 

the boys looked downriver and

 

upriver at the granite basin of bedrock and boulders created 325 million years ago, when Africa collided into North America, pushing up the Appalachian Mountains. The basin was the river’s fall line, where it passed from the
piedmont to the coastal plain.

 

The falls provided power to turn waterwheels for industry, and in the nineteenth century, some of
America’s largest flour mills were built here. . . . Today, the falls provided the best
urban white water in the country.

 

At the end of the footbridge, they stepped out from under the shade of the big bridge and onto Belle Isle, a fifty-six-acre island in the river. The island was a wilderness in the middle of the city, furnishing refuge for wildlife, both natural and human.

 

The boys passed an overgrown field, partially surrounded by a dirt mound border two-and-a-half feet high. It marked the deadline for the Belle Isle Civil War prison camp, a precursor to Andersonville.

 

A mountain biker passed the boys as they slipped into a shady lane that sliced cleanly through a jungle of trees, grapevines, and poison ivy at the base of the island’s wooded ridge.

 

They walked a couple hundred yards beside the river, then hopped down to the river rocks, back into the sunlight to view Hollywood Rapid.

 

The Class 3+ rapid with a six-foot drop got its name from its proximity to Hollywood Cemetery, located on the hill across from the swift water.

 

Jimmy surveyed the river. Anglers sought smallmouth bass, while great blue herons sought whatever fish they could swallow. A few mothers watched their kids closely at the temporary swimming hole above the big rapid.

 

“I like it here.” Hezekiah stared into the swirling green-and-white hypnotic hydraulics.

 

“We’ll have fun. They’ve got some great people to work with down there at the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier.”

 

He looked down river at the city’s skyline, then returned his eyes to the boys.

Grace Street Commercial Historic District

Belle Isle

Tredegar Beach

Pony Pasture

The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier