by Charles Pool.
There is a canal preservation alert in the city of Richmond, Va. where Venture Richmond has revealed plans to irreparably damage one of the oldest sections of the James River and Kanawha Canal in order to improve the sight lines for a proposed amphitheater.
This section of the canal was built shortly after the James River Navigation Company was chartered in 1785 with George Washington serving as its first President. The canal, now on the National Register of Historic Places, was of immense importance to the development of the region. As Mary Wingfield Scott wrote, “When it is remembered that as late as 1859 the canal tonnage exceeded the freight on all four railroads entering Richmond, it may readily be seen how important the completion of the canal was for the industrial and mercantile development of the city.”
The threatened section of the canal sits below the bluff of the historic Oregon Hill neighborhood, which has many close ties to the canal. Benjamin James Harris who owned the now demolished Belvidere estate was an early engineer for the canal, and his father, James Harris, was the first General Manager of the James River Navigation Company.
Another neighborhood connection to the canal is the surviving home of Samuel P. Parsons, who was the General Superintendent of the canal in 1840 and oversaw its expansion to Lynchburg. Parsons wrote a letter to his daughter in 1840 from Scottsville describing his frustrating progress on the canal: “I have now disposed of getting the boats higher up the canal than Joshua Falls Dam twelve miles from Lynchburg. To this point they may, I think, go in about ten days. Like most other public work in Virg’a things are managed with tails in instead of a head.” While still under construction, Parsons advertised to hire lock keepers “with sober and steady habits” for over 30 locks on the canal. The advertisement stated that the lock keepers “will not be allowed to sell groceries, or any other description of merchandise,” but permitted would be, “having a shoe, harness, saddle, cooper’s and tailor’s shops.” Parsons printed regulations for the canal’s newly opened portion, “No boats of a width more than thirteen and a half feet will be permitted to pass … above Maiden’s Adventure Dam,” and the boats, “are not to be moored or fastened to the tow-path…”
Another important connection of the Oregon Hill neighborhood to the canal was the Messler family who had a canal boat building business in the nearby Penitentiary basin. The Messler family lived in the Jacob House which is the oldest structure to survive in Oregon Hill. The Va. Navigation and Canal Society was instrumental in the preservation of the Jacob House, writing letters to encourage VCU to reconsider their plan to demolish the structure. The Messler family was photographed by Levy and Cohen building a canal boat in April 1865 shortly after the fall of Richmond. http://www.mdgorman.com/images/shipyard1.gif
It is ironic that the Venture Richmond is proposing to damage the canal because the city is spending over $300,000 to keep from damaging the canal when constructing a new bridge just east of the proposed amphitheater. Samuel Parsons’ words ring as true as even, “Like most other public work in Virg’a things are managed with tails in instead of a head.”
Venture Richmond claims that they need no building permit before implementing this proposal, so time is of the essence in taking action to prevent this destruction of this original section of the Kanawha Canal. There is strength in numbers, so we are encouraging everyone to contact these Venture Richmond board members with your concerns: University or Richmond President Dr. Ed Ayers firstname.lastname@example.org; Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones, ASKTHEMAYOR@RICHMONDGOV.COM; Richmond City Council President Kathy Graziano, email@example.com . Be sure to copy the message to Venture Richmond Director Jack Berry, firstname.lastname@example.org .
Dr. Bill Trout wrote a letter to email@example.com
Dear Mr. Berry,
Could you please encourage those planning the new amphitheater at Ethyl, near the Lee Bridge, to think creatively to avoid destroying part of the Kanawha Canal?
The canal, on the National Register of Historic Places, has been there for over two centuries. The course of the canal there is still intact and clear. Instead of damaging it, please make every effort to keep it intact as one of America’s most important historic sites, a monument to George Washington and the industry of early Virginians. It’s not worth destroying part of it just to build a larger amphitheater. It would be like slicing into a Civil War fort to build a bigger visitor parking lot.
Would it be possible to forward to me a copy of the present plans?
William E. Trout, III, Ph.D.
Past president, American Canal Society and the Virginia Canals & Navigations Society
417 Phillips Street, Edenton, NC 27932, 252-482-5946