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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

Belle Isle

Amidst the roaring rapids of the James River and the towering skyline of downtown Richmond, Virginia, Belle Isle stands out as one of the South’s most significant historical and industrial landmarks. From humble beginnings as a modest Native American fishery, this 54-acre island exploded with activity following the arrival of European settlers in the 17th century. William Byrd was the first to purchase the land in 1676. His son, William Byrd II, the founder of Richmond, converted Belle Isle into the city’s premier industrial center in 1742. Over the next couple of centuries, Belle Isle would change hands numerous times and serve a wide variety of purposes, laying host to an iron and milling foundry, a hydroelectric plant, and even a notorious Civil War POW camp. Today, the island is one of Richmond’s most popular recreational areas, far removed from its industrial days, with crumbling infrastructure scattered across its scarred landscape.

Location of the Civil War POW Camp

During my visit to Belle Isle, I hiked the Single Track Trail, a 1.5-mile loop around the island. I started out in the parking lot along Tredegar Street and made my way along the Connector Trail to the island. The Connector is roughly a half-mile long and features a suspended pedestrian path underneath the Robert E. Lee Memorial Bridge, providing visitors with a spectacular view of the James River. As I walked across I could see the ruins of the Richmond-Danville Railroad Bridge to my left. It was nicknamed the “Bridge of Sighs” by captured Union troops as they were transported across to the Belle Isle POW camp.

Near the end of the Connector Trail, I saw the rusted framework of the Old Dominion Iron and Steel (ODIS) Company. The remains of this factory were constructed around 1895. ODIS was one of the nation’s finest foundries, known for its advanced metallurgy and casting techniques. They even manufactured tank hatches in conjunction with the Chrysler Motor Company during World War I.

Stepping off the Connector Trail ramp, I entered the vicinity of the Civil War POW camp and cemetery. The Belle Isle POW camp was constructed under the orders of Confederate Provost Marshall General John H. Winder in July 1862. The small 6-acre camp was originally intended to act as a holding site for Union prisoners before they were exchanged or transferred to larger camps further south. During its first few months of operation, nearly 5,000 Federal troops arrived at Belle Isle. In September 1862, following the formation of the Dix-Hill Cartel—the first official prisoner exchange system of the Civil War—the few remaining Union POWs were taken off the island and the camp was closed.

The camp reopened in January 1863 following logistic and communication breakdowns between the exchanging parties. Belle Isle quickly overpopulated with POWs—a majority of them were members of the 2nd Tennessee Volunteers—exceeding its 3,000 person capacity three-fold. Since the camp was intended to be temporary, there were no permanent lodgings to house the prisoners. Some fortunate individuals managed to cram themselves into wet, rotting tents; however, many were left exposed to the elements. As Union surgeon De Witt C. Peters described, “…thousands lay all last summer, fall, and, winter, with nought but the sand for their bed, and the sky for their covering.”

As the war dragged on, supplies fell incredibly short. Daily rations for the prisoners were reduced to a slice of cornbread (sometimes with whole kernels and husks baked in) and fetid beans and broth. Sometimes the prisoners were able to acquire rancid meat and consume the maggots which laden the carcass as a source of protein. Others resorted to luring dogs across the camp line, killing and eating them. Camp Commandant Lieutenant Virginius Bossieux’s French poodle was one of the victims.

Single Track Trail

The camp closed again on March 24, 1864, but reopened a couple months later on June 7 to hold Federal troops captured during the 1864 Richmond campaigns. Belle Isle closed for the third and final time on April 3, 1865, shortly before Richmond fell to the Union Army.

In total, about 30,000 POWs were held at Belle Isle. According to Confederate records, over 1,000 men died on the island, while Union sources claim the number was more like 15,000. The true number of dead may never be known. Graves were scattered across the island and some may have eroded away into the James River over the years following floods. But one thing is certain, death was commonplace at Belle Isle. The lack of tents and warm clothing, coupled with poor nutrition and disease, caused men to die in droves from starvation and exposure, sometimes up to 25 per night. Those who managed to survive were mentally and physically weakened, their bodies atrophied and skeletal, their minds forever scarred by the horrors they witnessed during their internment.

Today, the camp is marked by a few granite slabs and low mounds of dirt which marked the “dead line,” an area where prisoners were shot on-site if they crossed. Since there were no permanent structures on the camp site, the island was quickly evacuated and returned to the city of Richmond following the war. The area of the camp, to the left of the Connector Trail ramp, is situated underneath modern infrastructure, unassuming and overgrown. The cemetery is located to the right along the tree line. The bodies were exhumed in the late 1800s and only shallow depressions of the graves and broken granite markers remain.

I made a right onto the Single Track Trail and walked about a third of a mile until I got to the granite quarry pit, which operated on convict labor during late-19th and early-20th centuries. The Single Track Trail was originally used as the railway for the quarry. Winches hauled granite from the pit and carried the loads down to the eastern end of the island for transportation. The ruins of the operating station are located just outside of the quarry. The smooth rock faces of the quarry make it a popular rock climbing spot today. There are also a couple of accessory trails that can take you to the top of the quarry pit and see some undisturbed Confederate earthworks.

Bulkheads that connected to the turbines in the hydroelectric plant

Looping around the west end of the island, I came across the headgate cleaner for the hydroelectric plant. The cleaner acted as a filtration system for trash and debris to prevent damage to the plant’s turbines. A mechanical rake—used to clean leaves, twigs, and smaller debris from the slits of the filter—sits at the mouth of the trail to the headgate. I walked across the headgate and climbed down a flimsy yellow ladder to access the south side rocks, a collection of large boulders on the banks of the James.

After spending some time on the shore, I got back on the trail and arrived at the abandoned hydroelectric plant. The Upper Appomattox Company (later the Virginia Electric Power Company) constructed the plant in 1904, which powered the ODIS foundry and Richmond’s trolley system. The plant operated for over 60 years, but ran high maintenance and operating costs. Silt, logs, and other debris from the river frequently damaged the turbines and required extensive repairs. The plant was closed in 1967 in lieu of cheaper fossil fuel alternatives.

The ruins of the transformer and turbine buildings still stand today and are accessible to adventure-seekers and urban explorers. The route to the buildings, however, is rather inconspicuous. The trail to the plant is adjacent to an old platform and stairway, obstructed by a padlocked door. I followed it down until I reached a 19th-century stone wall and mill race. A metal pipe, roughly three feet tall, protrudes from the wall and acts as an access tunnel to the ruins. I definitely needed to squat-and-waddle my way through! Once I was on the other side, the transformer building stood to my left and the larger turbine building to my right. The dilapidated appearance of the buildings and the prolific amounts of graffiti conjured an eerie, forsaken atmosphere. I was in a constant state of astonishment as I wandered around the site.

Ruins of the Rolling, Milling, and Slitting Factory

I spent about fifteen minutes at the hydroelectric plant before jumping back on the trail. I ran into another set of ruins about a third of a mile down the trail. The crumbling brick wall that stood before me belonged to the Belle Isle Rolling, Milling, and Slitting Factory. Built in 1815, this facility was one of the first industrial centers established on the island. The factory imported scrap iron from England and converted into nails, wire, and horseshoes. During the Civil War, it manufactured armor plating for ironclad warships, such as the CSS Virginia. The factory was abandoned at the turn of the century following the establishment of the ODIS plant.

One final structure laid ahead on the homestretch of the trail. The Ironworks Oil House served the foundries on the island during the late 19th century. The building acted as a storage shed for volatile chemicals. It was built into the earth so that, in case there was an explosion, the surrounding soil would muffle the blast.

I had a wonderful experience on Belle Isle! My favorite feature of the island was being able to explore all the abandoned buildings and derelict structures. That was beyond amazing! As for the hike itself, I ended up walking a little over two miles in about 90 minutes. This trail is incredibly flat and not very long, making it suitable for hikers of all levels. There are, however, a few of caveats. First, the island is extensively littered with trash, aside from the abandoned buildings. The polluted appearance definitely detracts from its significance. Second, Belle Isle is usually very crowded, as it is a popular recreational destination for locals. So if you prefer to hike in solitude, this isn’t the place for you. Lastly, and this is solely a personal critique, I wish they would attempt to preserve the POW camp in better condition and make it more accessible to tourists. However, these disparagements shouldn’t prevent you from visiting the island! A visit to Belle Isle will make a great addition during a trip to Richmond. Trail Rating: 7/10

Read De Witt C. Peters' summary on Belle Isle and other Confederate POW camps on Google Books!

Read the Hiking through History review on the Belle Isle trails!

Click THIS LINK for read Union POW accounts on Belle Isle and view original digitized pictures of the camp!

Check out the Indians to Industry Audio Tour for the Belle Isle Single Track Trail!

Read this thesis for more information on Confederate POW Camps!

Visit Encyclopedia Virginia for more information on the Belle Isle POW Camp!


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