Richmond’s Centrepiece: The James River

After experiencing a fascinating tour through Richmond with our guide and author Tyler Potterfield, one could quickly realize that the James River was the heart of everything about the historical city of Richmond. It is the centrepiece of Richmond – both historically and scenically.

As with many great cities across the world, such as London, New York, Sydney, and Cape Town, Richmond is right on the banks of a body of water. Water is something that can serve a whole number of purposes to mankind, and will continue to do so for a long time. Water helps with the service of power, the provision of food, usage as a transport route, and simply supply the eye with a pretty picture.

The James River was the reason the original settlers came to reside at Richmond’s location, as they were not able to get past the rapids. Despite this fact, this has clearly become a blessing in disguise as, over time, the River has been and the people use it for many functions – both good and bad, even if the intentions were proper.

The River’s usage has changed dramatically over the 150 years since the Civil War. My bet would be that the younger generations of Richmonders know that the James River has a lot of history and embodies a lot of what the city is about; but they would not know much detail and what the history actually is.

This is why I feel the authorities in Richmond haven’t reaped the full benefits of the river. The James River is one of a very small group of places in Richmond that has not changed physically in the last century and a half. There is not much emphasis on the river today whilst there is huge emphasis on so-called ‘historical’ sites, such as Monument Avenue, which have actually changed their appearance a few times since the Civil War. Being from abroad, I suppose it is natural for me to compare it to places that I am more familiar with and am more accustomed to. Now I appreciate that Richmond is not of the same scale or stature of a London or a Cape Town, but even larger cities put emphasis and great pride in their water. Both London and Cape Town have tours, schemes and events that travail the River Thames and the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront respectively. Ask a true Londoner about the Thames or a Cape Town resident about their Waterfront, I’m sure you would get a pretty interesting response. Going through the city I cannot remember seeing signs that directs one to any River activities that take place. The James River Association ( is clearly looking at widening the public knowledge about the River, something that should have been done earlier.

Having been used as a huge source of power in the Civil War era to power mills and factories, today the river stand on its own, with no reference to what it used to be and the history that it carries with it. There are a number of activities available to do on the River, all these can be found on the website, including Kayaking. As alluded to previously, there is not much signage or enthusiasm to the fact that you can kayak on the James, or any other activity to that matter. There seems to be little emphasis on the purpose of the James River today.

Why doesn’t Richmond make its pride of the James River more known?

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3 Responses to Richmond’s Centrepiece: The James River

  1. urse4rp says:

    The comparisons you made between Richmond and other large cities were really interesting, especially because you are able to provide a unique perspective. Most major cities are on a larger river or have access to a port. Those cities which have developed elsewhere have been the product of improved forms of transportation. In class we talked about how the purpose of the James River has shifted as the public has required different things of the landscape. Throughout history it has served as a beautiful view, artistic inspiration, a resource to power technology and industry, a battleground and, most recently a site for recreational activities.
    Out of everything else in the landscape this is the one feature that has remained the most constant. The only changes have been the build-up and erosion of small islands, changing shorelines, and the pollution. In comparison to the rest of the city, which has been filled in, leveled out, constructed, destroyed, and rebuilt, the James is a consistent part of the history and landscape. And Potterfield suggests the same thing by constructing his story starting at the James River and connecting each area of the city back to it in one way or another.
    I definitely agree that the historical significance of the river is being completely overlooked. And as you mentioned the Thames in England is the center of several tours. A fair portion at the beginning of “Nonesuch Place” denotes how Richmond obtained its name because of how similar it looked to areas in England. The James River was compared with the Thames on numerous occasions, so it only seems fitting that it would garner the same appreciation as well!

  2. urcm9qf says:

    This is a very interesting post that gets to the heart of what the course is about and wishes to accomplish. Throughout our class discussion last week I remember Dr. Ayers bringing up many times the drastic inaccessibility of the public of Richmond to the James River. The major reason for this inaccessibility is the poor planning of the city developers to not allocate land along the river as public parks and water docks. Simple decisions made prior to our existence accumulated to give the city of Richmond its current situation with the James River. As Tyler Potterfield writes in the afterword of “Nonesuch Place”: “the good and bad decisions of the past are well worth considering when making choices that will determine the future of the Richmond landscape. The words of the great landscape historian Samuel Mordecai from 1850 seem particularly apt in 2009: ‘what would not some cities give to the privileges that we have thus abused?’ “(131). Potterfield pinpoints the dilemma of decisions made with no foresight to the future. The inaccessibility and lack of emphasis on the James River is a product of history and the accumulation of decisions made without a focus on the river as a staple of the city’s image.

    Possibly foreign cities were planned by individuals that more consciously thought of their cities future image and structure around their cherished water sources. The planners of Richmond were not respectful of the historical importance and role that the James River played in the founding of the city and its existence.

  3. Drew Patenaude says:

    First and foremost this is an unique topic that represents a lot of what we talk about in class, in the first weeks of Mapping American History. I loved the comparison you had with the waterway in Richmond to the major cities around the world and how you described in almost a thesis like sentence that, “Water helps with the service of power, the provision of food, usage as a transport route, and simply supply the eye with a pretty picture.” The James River is the heart of Richmond and you proved that it needs to be more important in the peoples eyes. I liked the fact that you present a question at the end of “Why doesn’t Richmond make its pride of the James River more known?” You back this question up nicely in the final paragraphs explaining how people in Richmond are in fact helping out to give the River more fame amongst the people. Overall a solid and different paper that really attacked what the roots of the James River in the city of Richmond.

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