The Change of Command for Canal Street

By Martin King

The city of Richmond experienced a change in the traditional use of the spaces around Canal Street in the mid twentieth century as needs for central locations developed, and space became increasingly valued and filled.  These changes can be seen through the photographs, which have survived the years. Though the spaces on Canal Street have always been considered valuable, the characteristics for which the people cherish them changed with the developing markets of the city and the nation.  Even so, these spaces have always served as a place of commerce and industry.  While the street’s purpose was originally defined by its proximity to the James River, the development of the railroads and later of the automobile and the interstate highway system transformed the face of Canal Street and its utility.  The twentieth century saw the flow of wealth on Canal street change direction from the blue collar to the white collar works as the businesses changed.

The success of the railroads and unreasonably high cost of the Kanawha Canal led to the first change for Canal Street.  Marking the end of the docks and the beginning of rail yards, this change redefined the usefulness of the area around the river.  While serving as a rail hub for the area the street continued to survive, but it lost its monopoly which it enjoyed with the canal.  As new methods of transportation were developed, refined, and made available on a large scale, Canal Street lost even more of its grip on the shipping and logistics market which it had relied on for so long.  The shift in special value led to another change, which can be seen in photos of Canal Street from the era.  The first is the future site of the Federal Reserve Bank, which opened a branch on Canal Street in the mid 1970s.[1]  To make room for such an impressive building, the old parking garage warehouse was demolished.  The second shows the rubble from the demolition the C&O Railroad warehouse, which would serve as the site for the development in projects for the James Center.[2]  This site was planned to be headquarters for the development of the area while fitting in with the surrounding area of Shockoe slip warehouses.  The third photo, taken in 1981, depicts the atmosphere and demeanor of the streets few remaining inhabitants.[3]  Historically Canal Street was a place where laborers worked hard and earned their pay, but as time passed the businesses of Canal Street relied less heavily on workers.  The community reflected this.  All of these photographs show the response of the street to the needs of the city and of the times.  The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond was the beginning of the financial industry’s settlement in the area of the Canal.  The James Center projects and the Kanawha Memorial Plaza were designed to help the city remember the past as it moved into a better future, while the final photograph depicts the somber mood of the working class inhabitants of the community, who became an ever less important aspect of Canal Street as the twentieth century progressed.  These changes were brought about by the failure of the canal initially, and were pushed forward by the movement towards the financial industry.

The Federal Reserve Bank is the backbone of the American financial industry and the City of Richmond is the proud home of one of the twelve branches.  The officers of the branch broke ground for a new Canal Street bank building on April 19, 1975 which would change the city skyline, but it would have a much greater effect on the area up close.[4]  The railroad industry on Canal Street had been failing for a long time, as there was too much competition and too little demand to keep it afloat.  The new industry which the city would turn to for sustenance was finance; with the new building and eager hearts Richmonders embraced the change.  Ironically, the site for the new building was the former home of a parking garage which served those who worked those for the railroad.  A speaker at the ground-breaking event reminded his audience, “The area used to be little more than a railroad yard but was slowly being transformed.”[5] This shows that Richmonders were ready for progress and change, because the area referred to as “little more than a railroad yard” had faithfully served as the spine of commerce for the city for many years.  The railroad, which had provided so much for them in the past, was readily being pushed out and forgotten to make way for financial titans.  On the day of ground breaking, visitors who knew the struggles of the community already observed signs of revitalization in the area.  The building, which was estimated to cost over fifty million dollars, brought new life to the economy of the area by hosting a surge of workers, and eventually housing the offices of numerous employees.[6]    However, while the bank brought wealth and power to the area, it pushed out the mostly lower-class local residents who worked there.  Nonetheless, the bank served as a beacon, attracting other institutions to the area around Canal.  Though the bank had been under criticism for controversy over expenditures in the recent past, it was a powerful economic booster forecasting nothing but growth on the horizon.  The Federal Reserve Bank resurrected Canal Street as an important place among the streets of Richmond.

The second photograph shows an expansive pile of rubble, which was the aftermath of the demolition of a no longer needed C&O Railroad warehouse; the area would soon become home of the effort to revitalize a small area through the James Center project for the city.  This project was intended to revamp the face of the site, with a non-intrusive impact on the skyline.  Another goal of the project was to become more user-friendly and welcoming to guests.[7]  The architects accomplished this through small design characteristics, such as wider sidewalks and more expansive openings.    Much of this historic area had become run down and forgotten, but this project served to make a space which people would want to be in, instead of avoid.  The James Center made the area around Canal Street a pleasant place in which to spend time.  As far back as the 1800s the area was known for being a less than desirable part of town, next to the industrial sludge of the river, but as wealthier individuals from big corporations spent time on Canal Street an effort was made to improve its atmosphere.  Unfortunately, the James Center was intended to benefit the individuals who commuted to the area.  Nonetheless, the James Center served as a role model for future sites like the Kanawha Plaza, which is effectively the front yard of the Federal Reserve Bank.  It serves no functional purposes besides being a park and a memorial to the success of the canal and the heritage of the street.

The final photograph brings to view the working class of Canal Street, are the people who suffered the greatest strife during the twentieth century.  Since the early nineteenth century, the people of Canal Street had earned their keep through the hard work of laborers, but with the closing of the railroad and rise of banking, this was coming to an end.  An average worker could not count on a job from a bank, or large institution, based on the ability of his two hands.  The inhabitants of Canal Street may have seen a new liveliness to their street because of big business, but they were finding it harder and harder to earn money near their homes as big business employers of the area sought more qualified applicants.  This pushed many of the residents out of the surrounding neighborhoods of Canal Street and helped create what it is today.  There are very few residents of the street where there once were because the downtown area around Canal Street has become almost exclusively large businesses and plazas, leaving no room for people to live even if they could afford it.

The most recent chapter in the story of Canal Street tells a sad tale of change.  The street’s proud history of the working class has been overshadowed by skyscrapers and men in fancy suits.  Even though it is true that the shipping industry of Richmond and the South shifted far away from Canal Street just half a century ago, the scars of labor are already becoming difficult to pick out.  Areas which used to be docks and rail yards are now filled in and support office buildings and plazas which cater to people who do not even inhabit Canal Street.  Walking down the street, one gets the feeling that the atmosphere inside the buildings exists in stark contrast to that outside of them.  Businesses occupy Canal Street because of its central downtown location, not because of its proximity to the James River for transportation, but for scenery.  There are gates on every entry and bars on many ground floor windows, which separated success from hardship.  Though the wealth and importance of Canal Street was originally in the hands of laborers when the Kanawha Canal was conceived, the nineteenth century saw it shift completely into the hands of corporations as rail yard workers were left behind and forced away.


[1] Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center  P.71.37.133b       Photographed by Michael O’Neil 1970.

[2] Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center V.86.228.292        Photographed by Clement Britt 1985

[3] Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center V.85.37.1623 Photographed by Tommy Price 1981.

[4] Richmond Times Dispatch. “Federal Reserve Bank Ground Breaking.” April 19, 1975.

[5] Richmond Times Dispatch. “Federal Reserve Bank Ground Breaking.” April 19, 1975.

[6] Richmond Times Dispatch. “Federal Reserve Expenditures.” July 14, 1975.

[7] “History.” James Center. Accessed April 27, 2011. http://www.thejamescenter.com/history.html.


[1] Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center  P.71.37.133b       Photographed by Michael O’Neil 1970.

[2] Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center V.86.228.292        Photographed by Clement Britt 1985

[3] Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center V.85.37.1623 Photographed by Tommy Price 1981.

[4] Richmond Times Dispatch. “Federal Reserve Bank Ground Breaking.” April 19, 1975.

[5] Richmond Times Dispatch. “Federal Reserve Bank Ground Breaking.” April 19, 1975.

[6] Richmond Times Dispatch. “Federal Reserve Expenditures.” July 14, 1975.

[7] “History.” James Center. Accessed April 27, 2011. http://www.thejamescenter.com/history.html.

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