Brown’s Island epitomizes the idea of the “urban riverfront” with its stunning views of the city skyline as well as of the natural beauty of the James River. It is a six acre island bordered by Haxall Canal to the north and the James River to the south. The main access point for its many visitors throughout the year is the Foundry Park Bridge at 5th Street, making Brown’s Island a key part of Richmond’s Riverfront Canal Walk.
tHE ORIGINS OF THE NAME
Brown’s Island was apparently not always an island! In fact, according to Richmond planning and development review documents, it likely started as a mere sandbar that transformed into an island over time from a “combination of pilings, alluvial deposits and fill” in the late 1700s. By 1826, Brown’s Island had gained its very first settler, Elijah Brown, for whom the area is named. Brown uprooted himself from his home in Rhode Island and migrated several hundred long miles to settle in Richmond, Virginia. He later established himself as a member of the community by taking a job at the Virginia Manufactory of Arms as a local gunsmith. Interestingly, a later settler - by the name of Neilson - tried to rename the island Neilson’s Island. Unfortunately for him, his name never quite caught on, and Richmonders today continue to call it Brown’s Island.
Just a few decades after Elijah Brown settled himself in Richmond, Brown’s Island - like much of the South - became embroiled in our nation’s bloodiest conflict - the Civil War. The island, as the site of the critical Confederate States Laboratory, was right in the thick of the war effort. The C.S. Laboratory, which produced ammunition and explosives for the Confederate Army, had previously been located on 7th Street in the city but was moved to Brown’s for safety reasons after several minor explosions occurred. Little did Richmonders know, the largest explosion had yet to come.
On Friday, 13 March 1863, an explosion ruined large sections of the building and collectively killed and wounded more than forty of the workers, many of whom were young women. It is likely that the choice to move the ammunition operations to the Island saved many lives, yet still, some Civil War historians believe this event - with its consequent great loss of munitions - contributed to the eventual Union victory.
industrialization and deindustrialization
The wartime ammunition plant appeared to be only the start of industrialization on Brown's Island. Much like nearby areas, such as Belle Isle, Brown’s Island quickly became a predominantly manufacturing locale. Power plants usually need easy access to moving water for both energy and cooling purposes, making Richmond’s islands an ideal location for them. In 1894, Richmond Union Passenger Railway constructed a coal plant, which was quickly followed by Virginia Power’s hydroelectric plant in 1899. The coal plant then shut down before reopening as Dixie Paper Mill in 1916, which was bought by Albemarle Paper Company just three years later. In 1936, Virginia Power opened its own coal plant, joining its existing hydroelectric plant and continuing this industrial trend.
As industry in Richmond declined over the course of the mid-to-late 20th century, the island began to evolve into the scenic location that we know today. The hydroelectric plant’s production dropped throughout the 1950s and 60s before finally closing its doors in 1968. The Virginia Power coal plant also closed down after enduring severe damage in 1969 from Hurricane Camille, and Albemarle Paper Company eventually donated their property on Brown’s to the city of Richmond for park use. In 1987, Brown’s Island became a part of Richmond’s James River Park System, completing its journey through deindustrialization.
Today, Brown’s Island is a fantastic city attraction covered with lush green grass and shaded by sycamore trees. Much to the joy of locals and tourists alike, it is open every day for the public from sunrise until sunset. Although few reminders of its past remain, Brown’s Island has taken on a new identity as a popular venue for concerts, like the Richmond Folk Festival, as well as a place to relax and escape the city.