In addition to being a beautiful city park where the outdoors can be enjoyed with a view of the Richmond skyline, Belle Isle is dotted with the remnants of hundreds of years of history. Scattered throughout the island are historic ruins from many eras of the United States.
Originally a Native American settlement site, this small 540-acre island on the James River was at one point explored by the famous John Smith. In the early 1800s a nail factory was built on the island, the ruins of which can be found on the east end of the island, where they are quite hard to miss.
The island is most notoriously known for its role during the Civil War, during which it was a Confederate prison camp. The prison was equipped to house 3,000 Union prisoners, although, based on varying accounts there were over two to three times that amount during certain parts of the war. Thousands of prisoners died while imprisoned on Belle Isle. However, the remains have since been removed.
There are the remains of an old oil and explosive materials storehouse, as well as an abandoned hydroelectric plant from the early 1900s on the south side of the island, with a beautiful view of the river rapids below. Consider heading to the west side of the island to take in the expansive view of the James River and be sure to look across the water to see the multiple dams as well as the massive Hollywood Cemetery on top of the hills.
Know Before You Go
Even getting to the island is an adventure. It is accessible by a pedestrian and cycling bridge on the north side that runs directly underneath the Robert E. Lee Bridge, and from the south side by crossing the bridge below the park access at 22nd Street or simply by jumping across the river rocks along the south bank. The easiest way to access Belle Isle is by parking in the free parking lot off of Tredegar Street, just north of the island.