The island on which you are standing has a rich and varied history. The first record of what is now Chapel Island - a peninsula of land running from 14th Street to Pear Street - may well have been the first record of Richmond. When Captains John Smith and Christopher Newport sailed up the James River, Smith's diary described "mountains" to the right (Church Hill), "plains" on the left (Manchester) and the "ocean" (the Fall Line rapids) before them. It is possible the name "Chapel" could have originated at this time for on May 24, 1607, Newport erected a cross around the present day location of 14th and Cary Streets.
In 1816, the Richmond Dock Company built three basins forming a ship harbor and a series of wooden locks to serve as the City's primary shipping terminal. The James River Company purchased and improved the lock system to complete the "tidewater connection" in 1854. It consisted of five stone locks, the improved Richmond dock, and the Great Ship Lock, over which you walked to get here.
The canal era ended in 1880 due to competition from rail transport, but the area around you continued to serve as an industrial site. From 1898 to 1903, great ships were built here at the Trigg Shipyard, which produced vessels of war such as steam torpedo boats and destroyers. As you walk around the island's trails, you will come across the only remnants of the Trigg Shipyard - the large concrete walls just southwest of the canal bridge.
Today, five acres of the island's 25 acres are natural and accessible for recreation. A major portion of the island is covered by the retention basin for the City's Combined Sewer System (CSS) as shown inthe aerial image above.
Thanks to a grant from the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program and the help of many volunteers, the City of Richmond, and the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission (RRPDC), there is a half-mile gravel trail winding around the island with interpretative signs like this one. The grant also funded a kayak canoe launch just down the path to the left, which gives access to the tidal section of the James River. The island is accessed by a now immovable 1929 bascule bridge leading to a Norfolk Southern railway siding.
Keep eye out for poison ivy, a climbing, vine with clusters of three leaves. The sap of this plant can cause a rash on your skin, even from a light brush from the leaves, if you come in contact with the leaves or sap, you have about half an hour to wash with cool soapy water.