An old Civil War prison camp is enough to fuel ghost stories, but several abandoned structures also contribute to Belle Isle’s mysteries.
It’s not often local folklore and urban exploration collide at a city park, but Belle Isle in Richmond, Virginia has a lot to offer curious visitors. Picturesque bike paths and hiking trails past long abandoned structures fuel visitors’ imaginations, and stories of wandering ghosts in blue have been shared for decades. Is there any truth to these tales?
Traces of human activity on Belle Isle date back hundreds of years, starting with American Indians who found the island in the James River ideal for fishing. Captain John Smith explored it in 1607, and locals called it ‘Broad Rock Island’. Following in his footsteps, the area’s first White settlers carried on the Indians’ activities by building a fishery.
Other industry soon followed with an iron and nail factory in 1814 and a granite quarry. By the 1860s, this industry had attracted a small community, but their idyllic life was interrupted by war. When Virginia seceded in 1861, the Confederate government found Belle Isle an ideal place for a prisoner of war camp. Rushing water on all sides discouraged escape, as did the artillery pieces pointed at the camp.
As many as 30,000 Union prisoners of war were held there between 1862 and 1865, peaking at 10,000 in 1863 with tents for only a third of the population. Conditions were horrible. The Confederacy could barely care for men its own armies, let alone its numerous prison camps. Disease, starvation, and exposure took a toll, and as many as 1,000 prisoners died on the island.
In the twentieth century, the Virginia Electric Power Company operated a hydroelectric power plant on Belle Isle. The ruins of the power plant and the nail factory can still be seen to this day. Filmmakers deemed the empty cement structure sufficiently creepy to form a backdrop for one scene in the movie Hannibal (2001).
The City of Richmond opened Belle Isle as a public park in 1973, building hiking trails, bicycle paths, and placing interpretive signs explaining the history of the island. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.
Since opening to the public, visitors have described strange encounters with phenomena ranging from disembodied voices to twinkling lights and anomalous photographs. Many attribute this activity to the ghosts of Union prisoners of war, but “orbs, voices and shadowy figures” have also been seen around the remains of the hydroelectric plant. Other visitors report being hit by small stones thrown by unseen hands.
According to Beth Brown, author of Haunted Battlefields: Virginia’s Civil War Ghosts (2008), one hiker heard disembodied footsteps behind him when he was alone on the trail. Brown herself reportedly encountered moving cold spots around the old nail factory, and claimed to record a voice asking, “Where are we?”
“I continue to hear about experiences with shadow people there and mysterious lights in the woods at night, sometimes two or three stories a week,” she concluded. These tales, grounded in a tragic history, add an air of mystery to what would otherwise be a tranquil and picturesque city park.
Belle Isle is located in the James River in downtown Richmond, Virginia. There are two pedestrian access points: the Belle Isle Suspension Bridge on the north side of the island, off Tredegar Street and Brown’s Island Way (parking lot available) and an entrance off Buttermilk Trail at Riverside Drive and W. 21st Street. There is a parking lot off Riverside Drive west of 22nd Street. The island is open dawn to dusk.