A Glimpse of the James River

Martin King


Mapping American History

A Glimpse of the James River

The most significant memory I took from our tour of Richmond was the view of the James River from Libby Hill.  This view, which resembles a view of the Thames River from Richmond Hill in England, is the site for which Richmond was named.  I couldn’t help but recollect the lasting influence of England on our country and the irony that such an important city was named after a place in the country from which it broke away.  Not only was it a splendid view of the surrounding area, but it also provided a vantage point from which, with the direction of our guide, I was able to discern where we had previously been and the path on which Richmond had developed.  The most captivating factor, however, was that I could see the epicenter of the early tobacco industry.  This is a topic which has both troubled and fascinated me from an early age and it was quite an experience to witness the place where everything happened.  In addition, Libby Hill seemed to have a different feel or ambiance to it than the rest of our tour, both on the bus or walking.  I am inclined to think that it was due to the historic neighborhood just in the opposite direction of the view, but nonetheless, I felt that the place had an innate significance to it.

The incredible view offered more than just mystic scenery for me by revealing the geographical framework on which the city lies.  Still being new here in Richmond, the view provided a tangible sense of direction and offered a firsthand account of the seven hills of Richmond, as our tour guide, Tyler Potterfield, put it.  This was something that I was completely unaware of prior to this trip and I found it quite interesting that the geography had created natural barriers between the neighborhoods and well as between the industrial and residential sections of town.  In hindsight, it makes perfect sense but coming from a completely flat area of the world I had never really stopped to think about how the affects of geography are still present in what I consider to be a modern city.

The Tobacco industry’s “powerhouse” just below Libby Hill really captivated my attention as well.  As an American youngster, I received conflicting messages about Tobacco because it was drilled into me that it was an evil substance (which I won’t disagree with), however, both of my parents smoked.  That being said, I would like to take a different point of view when studying the history of Richmond.  Despite preexisting prejudices, tobacco has provided a lot for the city of Richmond.  Being that Richmond was essentially the “Tobacco Capital” of the world for a long period of time, it is hard to overlook the masses of money it has brought the city and all the things that money has provided for this city.  Though our recent reading of Nonesuch Place by Tyler Potterfield never specified where much of the money came from, it is hard for me to imagine that a significant portion of the money used to shape the landscape of this city did not at some point come for the revenues of Tobacco, despite other sources of industry.

My final observations from Libby Hill are indeed from the most obvious source, the James River, and have to do with the tie between the city and the ground it sits on.  Though it seems almost silly to me given my experience with rivers, I have become fond of the river after just a few visits.  The falls of the James are indeed beautiful; however, they are also very important.  They provide a substantial and abrupt drop in elevation.  Furthermore, they bring an end to the navigable section of the river, and have harnessed a critical resource to the city since its existence, natural power.  Had any of this been different, the city would likely have been founded elsewhere.  In addition to it likely not carrying the name “Richmond”, it would be a very different city because of the geography.  From the tour and our reading, it has become emphasized to me that geography has played an imperative role in the development and maintenance of the city over time.  The separation of the neighborhoods by natural land formations, both based on ethnicity and wealth, and the separation of industrial sections and residential areas of town, based on the location and shape of the river, could not be replicated elsewhere.  The city has been and is fundamentally tied to the ground it sits on.

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1 Response to A Glimpse of the James River

  1. urpl4ut says:

    The last sentence really sums up the essay in a great way. The fact that Richmond’s unique geography had such a dramatic impact on the city’s historical progression is fascinating. The irony of Richmond’s name also struck me; I hadn’t thought of it that way. In a sense, the city’s name is a testament to the connections people (namely William Byrd) had to their British roots. English culture is preserved here through the name “Richmond,” and I think it is both ironic and fitting that we pay tribute to the land that gave birth to the United States.
    Another point you make–that tobacco was a large source of money for the city–is a fact of great importance that I believe Potterfield rarely mentions, if at all, in Nonesuch Place. Tobacco has been a part of the area’s history for many years… just around the bend in the river that we viewed from Libby Hill is the Philip Morris manufacturing plant, a massive economic force in the Richmond area. Money from tobacco has flowed into the region for centuries, and it is because of Virginia’s geography and climate (as well as the labor of countless slaves) that the state was able to produce such large amounts of the lucrative crop. Money allowed people to construct buildings and change the Richmond landscape in its early history, and it continues to do so today, so your discussion of the source of such money is very thought-provoking.

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