Belle Isle (Richmond, Virginia)

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Not to be confused with Belle Isle State Park, located on the Rappahannock River in Lancaster County, Virginia..
Belle Isle
People on rocks of Belle Isle, James River, Richmond, Virginia.JPG
People on the rocks along the James River on the northern side of Belle Isle
Belle Isle (Richmond, Virginia) is located in Virginia
Belle Isle (Richmond, Virginia)
Location James R. at US 1/301, Richmond, Virginia
Coordinates 37°31′45″N 77°27′13″W / 37.52917°N 77.45361°W / 37.52917; -77.45361Coordinates: 37°31′45″N 77°27′13″W / 37.52917°N 77.45361°W / 37.52917; -77.45361
Area 54 acres (22 ha)
Architectural style Industrial Archeology
Governing body Private
NRHP Reference #


VLR # 127-0455
Significant dates
Added to NRHP March 17, 1995
Designated VLR January 15, 1995[2]

Belle Isle is a 54-acre (220,000 m2) island of the James River in the city of Richmond, Virginia.[3] Once home to a nail works, granite quarry, and hydroelectric plant, during the American Civil War, it was used as a prisoner-of-war camp. Today it serves as a city park. Belle Isle has many bike trails around the island, and has a small cliff used for rock climbing instruction.

It is accessible to pedestrian and bicycle traffic via a suspension footbridge that runs under the Robert E. Lee Memorial Bridge from the northern shore of the James. Except when the water level of the James is high, it is also reachable by foot from the southern shore via easy boulder-hopping. Visible from the island are Hollywood Cemetery, the old Tredegar Iron Works, and Richmond city's skyline.


Belle Isle was originally known as Broad Rock Island. It was first explored by Captain John Smith in 1607. In the 18th century the island was occupied by a fishery. In 1814, the Old Dominion Iron and Nail Company completed a nail factory. During the 1860s, the island was inhabited by a village complete with a school, church, and general store.[citation needed]

Civil War[edit]

A Union soldier under medical treatment in 1864, eight weeks after his release as a prisoner at Belle Isle.

The island served as a prison for Union soldiers during the American Civil War. Between 1862 and 1865, the island was home to about 30,000 POW's and as many as 1,000 died, though accounts vary with the South claiming the death rate was low, while the North claimed it was very high.[4]

The Battle of Walkerton was the result of a failed Union attempt to free them.[citation needed]

In April 1864, Peter DeWitt, Assistant Surgeon at Jarvis Hospital, Baltimore, received a number of prisoners recently released from the Prisoner of War camp at Belle Isle. He described the "great majority" of the patients as being:

"in a semi-state of nudity...laboring under such diseases as chronic diarrhoea, phthisis pulmonalis, scurvy, frost bites, general debility, caused by starvation, neglect and exposure. Many of them had partially lost their reason, forgetting even the date of their capture, and everything connected with their antecedent history. They resemble, in many respect, patients laboring under cretinism. They were filthy in the extreme, covered in vermin...nearly all were extremely emaciated; so much so that they had to be cared for even like infants."[5]

In May 1864 Lucius Eugene Chittenden, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under President Lincoln was sent by the President to investigate freed prisoners from Belle Isle. In a memoir titled Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration published in 1891 he gave his eyewitness account of the prison camp. He reported the shock Lincoln shared at learning that prisoners had been left to freeze and starve to death in the shadow of the Confederate Capital.[6]

The nail factory was re-opened after the Civil War and remained in operation until 1972.[3]

Twentieth century[edit]

The abandoned hydroelectric plant on the southern side of the island, behind the emergency vehicle access bridge

The Virginia Electric Power Company built and operated a hydroelectric power plant on the island between 1904 and 1967.[3]

The original Lee Bridge was built over the island in 1934 and replaced by the current version in 1988.[3]

Belle Isle was formally made into a park in 1973.

Belle Isle Park today[edit]

A view from the northern bank of Belle Isle, across the James River

Belle Isle offers Richmonders the opportunity to view wildlife in its natural habitat, at a location only a few minutes from the heart of the city. Songbirds, ducks and blue herons are a common sight. Squirrels, small amphibians and reptiles also inhabit the island.

Belle Isle is a great place for people with a love for the outdoors. Popular activities of adults and youths alike include walking the trails, swimming in the James River, rock jumping, sunbathing, birdwatching, kayaking in the James, and boulder-top picnicking only feet away from fierce rapids. The island also offers many old and ruined buildings, among other run-down sites along the trails.

Because it contains many trees and is remote from constant human presence, the island is home to some animal wildlife, an uncommon presence within the city's borders.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2009-03-13. 
  2. ^ "Virginia Landmarks Register". Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Retrieved 19 March 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c d "Belle Isle National Register Nomination". Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Retrieved 27 August 2012. 
  4. ^ "BELLE'S ISLAND WAR PRISON". Civil War Richmond / From: The Charleston Mercury, August 7, 1862 / Mike Gorman, Virginia Military Institute. Retrieved 16 February 2011. 
  5. ^ United States Sanitary Commission, p.179, Narrative of Privations and Sufferings of United States Officers Retrieved Feb 6 2010
  6. ^ Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration Retrieved August 2012

External links[edit]