Belle Isle, in the James River in downtown Richmond, Virginia, opened as a public park in 1973. During the American Civil War, it was a prison camp for Union POWs. 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. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.
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.
This black, cast iron dog stands in silent vigil over the grave of Florence Bernardina Rees in Hollywood Cemetery, 412 S. Cherry Street in Richmond, Virginia. Florence (1860-1862) was less than three years old when she died of scarlet fever. Her parents were Thomas B. and Elizabeth S. Rees, who to my knowledge aren’t buried nearby.
According to folklorist L.B. Taylor, Jr., the dog used to stand outside a shop on Broad Street, and Florence would pet it and dote on it as if it were real. When she died, the owner placed it by her graveside. Another legend says the cast iron Newfoundland was placed in the cemetery to avoid being melted down and turned into bullets during the Civil War. Whatever the reason, visitors love leaving tokens of their affection for little Florence.
Monument to Maj. Gen. George Edward Pickett in Hollywood Cemetery, 412 S. Cherry Street in Richmond, Virginia. George E. Pickett (1825-1875) was a US Army officer who joined the Confederate Army at the outbreak of the American Civil War. Pickett was wounded at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill in 1862 but is mainly known for leading an ill-fated attack at the Battle of Gettysburg popularly known as Pickett’s Charge.
His career ended ignominiously when he lost the Battle of Five Forks in 1865, just eight days before General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Pickett was married three times. His third wife, LaSalle Corbell Pickett, was 18 years his junior.
Designed by William H. Pratt and dedicated in 1849, Hollywood Cemetery at 412 S. Cherry Street in Richmond, Virginia, contains a veritable who’s who of Virginia history, including two U.S. presidents, two Supreme Court justices, six governors, and 22 Confederate generals. Its 130 undulating acres are the final resting place for approximately 65,000 people, including up to 18,000 Confederate veterans who fought in the American Civil War. The cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.
This lovely, open air mausoleum contains the body of President James Monroe. Monroe (1758-1831) served in the Revolutionary War and was fifth president of the United States, from 1817 to 1825. He is best known for presiding over the “Era of Good Feelings,” when political partisanship was low. He supported recolonization of freed black slaves back to Africa, resulting in the country of Liberia, which named its capitol Monrovia after him. He was married to Elizabeth Kortright Monroe and the couple had three children.
Monument to John Tyler in Hollywood Cemetery, 412 S. Cherry Street in Richmond, Virginia. Tyler (1790-1862) was 10th president of the United States, from 1841 to 1845. He was born into a family of Virginia gentry and, as vice president, became president after President William Henry Harrison died after a few months in office. President Tyler’s most notable accomplishment was the annexation of Texas in 1845.
A majestic bronze angel dedicated to William and Dorothea Rueger in Hollywood Cemetery, 412 S. Cherry Street in Richmond, Virginia. William Rueger (1857-1936) was born in Richmond and his wife, Dorothea W. Vocke (1859-1909) was a German immigrant from Vlotho in North Rhine-Westphalia. The couple had one son.
William Rueger owned a hotel and saloon, carrying on the family business from his father and grandfather. He opened the luxurious Hotel Rueger at 901 Bank Street in 1913, which later changed hands and became the Commonwealth Park Suites Hotel. The angel’s scroll reads “They that lie here rest in peace.”