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Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Richmond's Secret Castle - The Pumphouse - Redux*

Tucked away behind the Carillon and Dogwood Dell is one of Richmond's secret gems. J Rockers and river rats are well familiar with it, but it is little known among the Richmond diaspora. So if you've been there and done that, just come along for the ride. If this is new to you then welcome to hidden Richmond.

Complete with it's own moat

This is not going to be a history lesson, but we could all benefit from some basic facts. Seeing no need to rewrite history, I'll let Discover Richmond do some of the heavy lifting.

The Byrd Park Pumphouse was built in 1882 and provided drinking water for the city for more than 40 years.

As the James divides to pass Williams Island in Richmond, a small intake gate on the north shore feeds water into a narrow concrete channel. It empties river water into settling basins beside the river below Agecroft Hall. After dropping its load of silt in the slow waters of the settling basins, the water is filtered, cleaned and treated before passing to the pumping station at the foot of Pumphouse Drive.

In 1881, a gray granite Victorian Gothic Pump House was constructed beside George Washington's James River and Kanawha Canal. From there, water was mechanically pumped up to the 26-foot-deep reservoir in New Reservoir Park (renamed Byrd Park in 1906.)

Today, the old Pump House, once home to open-air dances on the upper level, stands patiently waiting for more loving care.

Loving care has come at last to the pumphouse. For several years now JROC volunteers and others have been working to restore this gem to it's former glory. It's a labor of love that has shown slow but steady progress. I spent one exhausting day there hauling water from the canal and scrubbing out a decades worth of dust and cobwebs. You'd think a pumphouse would have running water.

Today, the old Pump House, once home to open-air dances on the upper level, stands patiently waiting for more loving care.

Discover Richmond...

In the heyday of the Pump House, debutantes dressed in Victorian-era hoop skirts glided with their dates on the pine dance floor of an elegant open-air ballroom overlooking the gentle rapids of the James River.

Guests arrived at the hall by waterway, boarding a boat at Seventh and Canal streets from where mules would tow them up one of the nation's oldest canals. Later, wealthy residents of the Fan District rode horse-drawn carriages along the newly built roads in Byrd Park. They called it the Pump House, although it did much more than generate drinking water for the people of Richmond.

After the turn of the century, as the city expanded westward, the regard for which Richmonders held the Pump House fell, as did the social status of its guests.

But inside, volunteers and James River Parks Manager Ralph R. White are restoring the dance floor and wood-paneled walls and stabilizing the roof.

It was built in 1882 by the city's engineer, Col. Wilfred E. Cutshaw, who also oversaw construction of Old City Hall and designed Byrd Park. Cutshaw intentionally designed the granite structure to serve as a pumping station as well as a fancy dance hall, sparking much criticism.

But as soon as the Pump House opened, it served as a grand music hall where Richmond's wealthy gathered on Saturday nights. Belles strutted their stuff not only on the dance floor but also on a high catwalk that overlooked the first-floor pumping machinery.

Today the Pumphouse a mix of local flavor and history, part former grandeur and part haunted house. It's seen a lot in it's long history and if walls could talk, the stories it could tell. Here's to future stories. You can help make it happen. Join JROC, Friends of The James River Park or just come out and visit with you family and friends. Tell others about this great Richmond treasure.

Larger slideshow on Picasa


Take your last right before going south over the Nickel Bridge.
Take your first left going north.

All photos are original and may be freely shared. Proper attribution and referrals to this site are appreciated.

James River Park System
Historic Richmond
James River Outdoor Coalition
Discover Richmond

*First published April 10, 2009.

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Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing about the Pumphouse. I live in the Fan and never knew about it. I'll have to visit. Is there a website with hours, etc.??

Thanks again!
(ps, I have a blog as well, but on food: http://twospoonsrichmond.com/Two_Spoons_Richmond/Two_Spoons_Restaurant_Reviews/Two_Spoons_Restaurant_Reviews.html
I know, I have to do something about the long webpath, its on the agenda for tonight!)

Paul Hammond said...

I can live for two months on a good compliment.

Thanks Rebecca!

p.s. Work on the URL and get back to me.

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