Tobacco and Trolleys: Industry and Transportation
Antebellum Architecture
Richmond's African American Heritage
The Continuing legacy of Historic Preservation
Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary
Belle Isle

Historic Belle Isle

Belle Isle
Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

Belle Isle is a rocky, mostly forested island in the middle of the James River, which flows through the center of the City of Richmond. William Byrd I acquired the island in 1676, and it remained in the Byrd family for a century. The island is an outdoor recreation haven with a rich history tied to early industry and the Civil War.

Belle Isle has been the site of a number of industrial operations beginning with a nail factory in 1814 and a mill in the same decade. Belle Isle Manufacturing Company built the Richmond area’s first chartered rolling and puddling mills on the island in the 1840’s producing nails, bar iron, boilerplate, and other works of iron. This company became the Old Dominion Iron & Nail Works, which by 1860 was one of the premier nail manufacturers in the country and still occupied the island as late as 1910. The remains of an historic iron foundry are still visible. The island’s granite offered ready material for the operation of stone crushing plants. A former quarry is still accessible on the north side of the island, not far from the James River’s Hollywood Rapids. The shell of an early 20th century hydroelectric plant stands on the south side of the island, visible from the footbridge to the south bank of James River Park.

Belle Isle view

Belle Isle
City of Richmond Department of Community Development

During the Civil War, the island was home to the Confederacy’s largest military prison, which housed captured Union prisoners in tents surrounded by a stockade. At its maximum capacity in 1863, the prison held 10,000 Union soldiers, with tents for only 3,000. With no barracks for the prisoners, exposure to the elements was a large factor in what would prove to be a staggering death toll on the island.

The 540 acre island is known now primarily for its outdoor offerings, which range from strolling and picnicking to running, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, kayaking and canoeing. A running and bicycling path circles the island, offering easy access to popular sunbathing and wading spots. Fishing is also popular in the waters surrounding the island.

Plan your visit
Belle Isle, a city park, is located in the James River at US 1/301and is open to the public for no charge from dawn until dusk. For additional information call 804-646-8911 or visit the City of Richmond James River Park System website.  The island is only accessible by foot, bicycle, or boat.  The easiest way to it is from the north side of the James River, via a pedestrian bridge suspended under the Lee Bridge.  The access point lies just west of the historic Tredegar Iron Works at the base of S. 5th St.  
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