One hundred and fifty years ago, Richmond's waterfront bustled with business and trade, workers and travelers, hotels, saloons, and tobacco warehouses. Along the canals, barges were towed by teams of horses and mules. Batteaux for carrying freight plied the river and the canal around the rapids, and passenger boats, called "packets," left for Lynchburg every other day.
Richmond has now restored its historic canals. Once again, boats can bypass the beautiful but treacherous falls of the James River for a leisurely trip through the city. And a pedestrian path offers a walk through Richmond's new riverfront district that is also a journey through four centuries of history.
Along Richmond's riverfront are sites of millennia-old Indian trade routes and of early Colonial settlements. Tredegar Iron Works buildings have been restored, and the remains of bridges burned when the Confederates evacuated the city still stand. Tobacco warehouses, electric trolleys, and an early African American church have all left their mark. Their stories, and many others, are now told along the Richmond Riverfront Canal Walk.
First envisioned by George Washington in 1774, the canals were to be part of a continuous transportation route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. By 1789, initial construction of portions of the canal around the falls to the west of downtown had been completed by the James River Canal Company. Ultimately part of the James River and Kanawha Canal system, this canal entered the city from the west and ran behind the Tredegar Iron Works to a basin between 8th and 11th Streets. From there, a series of locks, known as the Tidewater Connection Locks, connected the basin to the Richmond Dock. Also completed by 1789 was a millrace, later known as the Haxall Canal, which was initially dug to power a local flour mill.
The canal system eventually extended as far west as Buchanan, Virginia. But it was the railroads, not the canals, that finally fulfilled Washington's dream, and in doing so they spelled the end for the canals. Soon after the Civil War, rail lines were laid over the old canal towpaths, and except for two locks preserved at the bottom of 12th Street, these unique waterways disappeared from the city. That is until 1995, when public and private partners joined forces to restore a portion of the original canals and create the new riverfront district that can be enjoyed today.