Monday, January 23, 2017

Crossing the James

The shores of the James River in downtown Richmond are rife with recreational opportunities: pedestrian bridges, riverwalks, green space, rock climbing spots, and even National Park sites such as Tredegar Iron Works, the National Historic Landmark that is now a part of the Richmond National Battlefield complex. It was an unseasonably warm, but overcast day when we emerged from Tredegar and headed across the street to explore the riverfront.

Immediately across Tredegar Street a bridge crosses to Browns Island, a park that often hosts festivals, concerts and art displays. Dozens of pathways crisscross the island, which was formed in formed in 1789 with the development of the Haxall Canal. Named for its first settler, Elijah Brown, the land was at one point divided from Johnson’s Island by a spillway; today the two islands are one. We found the canal lock system interesting to observe, but the lure to cross the river was strong and we didn’t linger long.

Commemorating the African-American boatmen of the James River

The T. Tyler Potterfield Pedestrian Bridge crosses the James from Browns Island to Manchester, on the southern bank of the river. The first few hundred feet feature an art exhibit entitled “Three Days in April 1865: Follow the time line of the devastation and of the emotions of defeat for many and of the exhilaration and triumph for others as expressed by witnesses during the evacuation and burning of Richmond.” When the capital of the Confederacy fell to the Union army in the days following the defeat at Petersburg, the city burned; quotes from participants & observers tell the story of those three days.

The exhibit ends with pictures and descriptions of the evacuation routes used by the Confederates, with the modern-day vista compared to what the view would have looked like 150 years ago. The remnants of the Richmond-Petersburg Railway Bridge were clearly visible, the supports the only remnants of the bridge burned by retreating troops. Although it was rebuilt the following year, it burned again in 1882.

We continued across. The supports of what was formerly called the ‘dam walk’ (and now is the pedestrian bridge) are concrete piers, built in 1901 to divert water into the canal during low-water spells. Rails up top carried cranes that could lower diverters between the piers, both of which examples of are displayed on Brown's Island. The bridge opened last year after 15 months of construction that was continuously halted for high water, spawning fish, even the drowning of a homeless woman; the dangerous hydraulics formed by the river surging over what's left of the 116 year-old levee walls helped fuel the turbines that drove the first street car system in the US.

The south end of the pedestrian bridge connects with the James River Park System, a 550-acre riverside park that offers hiking, paddling, fishing and other activities – even rock climbing. The concrete and granite pilings of the old Richmond-Petersburg Railway Bridge have entertained rock climbers since the 1980s. Anchors and other permanent climbing apparatus assist climbers, while overhead a lookout tower stands guard over the river.

Heading west along the river will connect visitors with the Buttermilk trail and the Belle Island trails, while crossing east through the climbing area takes you under the Manchester Bridge (US Route 60) and to the Manchester Floodwall walk. The views of the bridges, historic relics, downtown skyline and James River are phenomenal, but it was time to turn around.

In fact, I had asked the boys to turn around about halfway over the pedestrian bridge, but was quickly rebuffed by my eldest son who proclaimed “I want to be able to tell dad I walked across the river!” Well, we had walked across the river, and as we made our way back across we took in the scenic views of downtown Richmond.

Upon our return to Brown’s Island we walked under the Rivanna Subdivision Trestle, which is the upper level of Triple Crossing. Richmond is the only place in the US where three different rail lines pass over one another in one spot. Today the crossing is operated by Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation, and although there has never been a documented three-way train meet at the crossing, it is still a popular destination for rail enthusiasts.

After crossing back to the mainland visitors can walk east along the Canal Walk towards Triple Crossing, while heading west along the river will take you to the Belle Isle Pedestrian Bridge – which leads right back to Belle Isle on the south shore of the river. We lingered in the gardens of Haxall Headgate Park, an educational site to demonstrate the benefits of riparian buffers.

Having retrieved the car we drove back east along the river, paralleling Browns Island, past Triple Crossing, all the way to Great Shiplock Park. The very east end of Chapel Island, the lock connected the James River with the Richmond Dock, completing the James River and Kanawha Canal system that bypassed 7 miles of falls on the James. Interpretive displays offer the history of the Kanawha Canal locks, which were built between 1850 and 1854. After examining the locks we explored a small section of the island, which although beautiful was rather polluted, and so we didn’t stay long. An interesting fact; in March through June the fishery in this area is influenced by anadromous fish which are migrating from salt water to fresh water on their annual spawning runs.

View from locks over canal towards Richmond

To conclude our day on the James we continued east to the Boathouse at Rocketts Landing seafood restaurant. The community was named for Robert Rockett, a ferry operator in the mid-1700s. A prosperous seaport from 1790 to 1830, the area eventually became more of a manufacturing center for tobacco - the nearby Lucky Strike and Philip Morris plants a testament to this history. We ordered dinner, and from our second floor perch above the river we watched the sun set over Richmond, the lights of the city gradually becoming visible in the waning daylight. Here the river makes a big curve south, some 20 miles later reaching City Point (part of the Petersburg National Battlefield Historic Site), from where it turns east again on its route to Newport News, the Chesapeake, and finally the Atlantic. The next day we would be following the river on its easterly journey, once again traveling back through history - but this time to the days of the Revolutionary War and the first European settlers…

View of Richmond from Boathouse at Rocketts Landing

For a guide to Richmond's Canal Walk area, visit the RVA riverfront website here.

Great Shiplock Park

Friday, January 20, 2017

Touring the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site

While in Richmond, another historic site to visit that might bring a respite from Civil War battlefields is the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site. Managed by the Park Service, it is also a National Historic Landmark and a National Historic Site. Located at 110½ E. Leigh Street on "Quality Row" in the Jackson Ward neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, the site was established in 1978 to tell the story of the life and work of Maggie L. Walker, and to preserve the restored and originally furnished Walker home.

From the National Park Service website: “Maggie Lena Walker devoted her life to civil rights advancement, economic empowerment, and educational opportunities for Jim Crow-era African Americans and women. As a bank president, newspaper editor, and fraternal leader, Walker served as an inspiration of pride and progress. Today, Walker’s home is preserved as a tribute to her enduring legacy of vision, courage, and determination.” Mrs. Walker was the first woman to serve as president of a bank in the US, among many other accomplishments, including what was possibly the first school strike of the civil rights movement when Maggie’s class staged a boycott to protest the inferior graduation facilities offered to the Colored Normal School.

The Walker home was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1975. It includes several buildings, but the crown jewel is the building Maggie lived in from 1905 until her death in 1934. Our visit began at the Visitor Center at 600 N. 2nd St. in the Historic Jackson Ward. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, this neighborhood was one of the most prosperous black communities in the U.S. The banks, insurance companies, stores, theatres and other institutions were all black-owned and operated, and today Jackson Ward is considered the birthplace of African American entrepreneurship.

The view from the Visitor Center of the 1890s rear-addition to the Maggie L Walker home

The Visitor Center faces the courtyard across from the Walker home. Previously these were all the backyards of the homes on “Quality Row” here on E. Leigh St. The Walker home expanded over the years to accommodate their growing family and eventually annexed the entire yard; when the historic site was created the fences were knocked down, the neighboring duplexes were restored to their 1925 appearance, and exhibits and park offices were installed. We watched a short movie on Mrs. Walker’s life and accomplishments, and then headed over to the house for a Ranger-led tour.

Lauris found some of the titles on Mrs. Walker's shelves familiar!

As we were the only guests on this particular tour, the Ranger was able to tailor his presentation to the boys interests; we learned about Mrs. Walker’s life in Richmond through the minutiae of everyday life (ice boxes, washboards and writing desks) as well as a fascinating portrait of a more intimate nature (old photographs and Mrs. Walker’s library). Our guide was patient and knowledgeable, and the boys stayed on their best behavior through the end of the tour when they were presented with Junior Ranger badges.

The boys giving the Park Service Jr. Ranger pledge

Our visit to the Maggie L. Walker Historic Site was short, not more than a couple of hours. However, during that time we received another piece of the puzzle that is this historic area of Virginia, one that offers a completely different perspective than that of war-torn Civil War Richmond. We tucked that knowledge securely away (along with our Junior Ranger badges) and headed towards the James River for yet another puzzle piece – the Virginia State Capital

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

On the battlefields of Richmond, Virginia

It was a journey backwards through history; starting in Petersburg where the key battles were fought resulting in Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox Courthouse, then a stop at City Point (Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s strategic river & rail junction during the siege of Petersburg), and then on to the embattled Capital of the Confederacy. Located less than 100 miles from the Union Washington, D.C. capitol, Richmond, Virginia served as the capital of the Confederate States of America for (almost) the whole Civil War. Due to its tactical importance because of location on the James River and at the center of multiple rail lines, the city was a primary target of the Union Army. The most famous series of battles were the Peninsula Campaign (1862) & the Overland Campaign (1864), and it was this extended proximity to fighting that necessitated the construction of numerous hospitals and military prisons in city limits. The city finally fell to Union forces on the same day that Petersburg was lost – April 3, 1865 – and large portions of the city were destroyed by fires set during the evacuation.

Richmond National Battlefield reflects the diversity of the city’s assets during the Civil War; the Park's resources include the site of a naval battle, a key industrial complex, the Confederacy's largest hospital and dozens of miles of original fortifications. A complete tour of all ten units would require an 80-mile drive: Chickahominy Bluff, Beaver Dam Creek, Gaines’ Mill, Glendale, Malvern Hill and Drewry’s Bluff from the 1862 Seven Days’ Battles, and Cold Harbor, Fort Harrison, Parker’s Battery and Totopotomoy Creek from the 1864 Overland Campaign. In addition, the National Park Service managed Richmond Battlefield includes Chimborazo Medical Museum (one of the largest military hospitals of its day), and Tredegar Iron Works, the Confederacy’s most important iron foundry and rolling mill.

Tredegar is a good place to begin a tour of Richmond National Battlefield. The Visitor Center has exhibits and movies to introduce the story of Richmond during the Civil War and the battlefields around the city, and the 9-acre site contains five original buildings, a historic canal wall, ruins and artifacts. We started our explorations on the second floor of the visitor center in the Map Room where we picked up Junior Ranger books & checked out the children’s corner before heading upstairs to the third floor to watch the introductory movie and examine the exhibits.

At its height, Tredegar employed 800 free and slave laborers, making it the fourth largest iron works in US history. Founded in 1836, it harnessed the power of the James River and the Kanawha Canal, and together with other foundries made Richmond the center of iron manufacture in the southern US. Already well known when the Civil War started in 1861, Tredegar operated 24 hours a day to meet the Confederate demand for artillery and ammunition, producing 1,100 cannons in addition to the casemates of several warships that include CSS Virginia (a reconstructed USS Merrimack). On April 2, 1865, warehouses along the James River were being burned by evacuating Confederates, and Tredegar was only saved from this fate by an armed battalion of workers who blocked the attempt of the mobs to destroy the foundry buildings. The iron works would play an important role in rebuilding the South after the war.

Ulysses S. Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign began with the Battle of the Wilderness near Fredricksburg, and ended with the Siege of Petersburg. The campaign was part of a coordinated surge across the South, and the pressure ultimately stretched the South’s resources beyond capacity. One of the Overland sites included in the Park is Fort Harrison, and because of its former reputation as the strongest point on the Confederate line of defense (as well as being the only fort that fell in 1864), we decided to make it the second stop on our Richmond battlefield tour.

After the Battle of Cold Harbor (where 16,000 lives were lost in a two week period), General Grant crossed the James River and directed his main effort against Petersburg. In a surprise attack designed to prevent Lee from shifting his troops south, Union soldiers captured Fort Harrison on September 29th. As the Visitor Center at the fort is seasonal (and closed during the winter), we instead headed out on the half-mile self-guided walking trail of the battlefield that features signs and details of the battle and on the fort.

In 1864 most of the Confederate forces were in Petersburg and there were only about 200 Confederate defenders at the fort. These soldiers were poorly armed and the Union attack overwhelmed the fort quickly with relatively few casualties. If it wasn’t for the failure of Union forces at the other Confederate forts in the coordinated attack, the military significance of the victory would have been greater. As it was, the fort was enlarged by the Federals, and together with Fort Brady served to protect Grant’s supply system from Confederate gunboats moving downriver.

We had hoped to make a couple more stops, at the Cold Harbor and Gaines’ Mill units. However we got so carried away at Tredegar Iron Works that we ran out of time, and so further exploration of the Richmond battlefields will have to wait. However, this wasn’t the end of our Richmond explorations… Stay tuned for more adventures in this historic Virginia city!

My favorite monument of the trip, on the grounds of Tredegar Iron Works

Monday, January 16, 2017

Exploring Petersburg National Battlefield

Living in the Upstate puts us within easy driving distance of historic coastal cities such as Charleston and Savannah, but anything further (like Wilmington or Jacksonville) requires a bigger travel-time commitment. This time we had our sights set on Richmond, Virginia, to accompany the husband on his business trip, Richmond being ‘coastal’ in so far as its location on the James River and proximity to Chesapeake Bay. However, it took a long weekend to make the excursion a reality, as Richmond is a good six hours by car from our hometown of Greenville.

The drive to Richmond isn’t as exciting as recent visits into the mountains; the scenery was mostly flat as we drove north through Charlotte, then east to Greensboro and Durham before turning north again to cross into Virginia. Shortly before reaching the state capital we arrived in Petersburg, whose location on the fall line of the Appomattox River assured it a large role in commercial activities in Colonial times, as well as in the railroad business in the 1830s. Because of this rail network, Petersburg was key to Union plans to capture the Confederate capital (Richmond) during the Civil War.

Battlefield sites from the Siege of Petersburg (1864-1865) are located throughout the city and surrounding area. To better understand the chain of events that led to the end of the war at Appomattox Courthouse, we headed to Petersburg National Battlefield, where the longest military event of the Civil War unfolded over a period of 9½ months. The trench warfare resulted in 70,000 casualties, but on April 3, 1865, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant finally cut off the last of Petersburg’s supply lines (and subsequently those to the Confederate Capital). Only six days later Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered.

The 2,700 acre park contains a 16-stop driving tour which takes visitors through all four units of Petersburg National Battlefield from east to west, starting with General Grant's Headquarters at City Point on the James River, then to the Eastern Front (where the initial assaults and the Battles of the Crater and Fort Stedman occurred), on to the Western Front (and Poplar Grove National Cemetery, both currently CLOSED), and finally to the Five Forks Battlefield. We opted to start our explorations at the Eastern Front Visitor Center, first by watching a short video and taking a look at the displays and artifacts on display, then taking a hike from the Visitor Center to Confederate Battery 5. This was one of the strongest earthworks on the original Confederate defense line, and the trail led us to the “Dictator,” a mortar used to shell Confederate batteries north of the Appomattox once Federal troops captured the line on June 15, 1864.

Although an extensive trail system (10 miles of wooded nature trails that allow bicycles, horses and hikers) connects the various points of interest within the Eastern Front unit, we opted to drive the 4-mile Park Tour Road, stopping at several of the points of interest for a closer look. The Junior Ranger Booklets we picked up at the Visitor Center were an excellent addition to the educational experience, also providing a good idea of which stops would be more interesting to the boys. For example, stop #3 at Confederate Battery 9 features examples of siege fortifications and other structures which can be explored and viewed up close without compromising the integrity of the sensitive earthworks - which in most cases are all that remain from the lengthy battles that took place here more than 150 years ago.

Our last stop in the Eastern Front unit was stop #8, the Crater. On July 30, 1864, Union troops exploded a mine under the Confederate Battery in an attempt to break through Lee’s line. The follow-up attack failed miserably as the poorly-led Federal soldiers ended up heading into the crater created by the blast, instead of around it as had been planned. Confederate reinforcements arrived, closing the gap in the line and cutting off support to the Union forces still in the crater; 10 hours of fighting later the episode was over, ending in 5,500 casualties. The ½ mile hike leads around the crater, and features the tunnel entrance, the crater, and multiple monuments.

From the Eastern Front we chose to continue on our tour ‘backwards’ to Hopewell and the City Point Unit, as the Western Front Unit was closed and the Five Forks Battlefield a ½ hour journey out of our way to the southwest. In contrast Grant’s Headquarters at City Point was just 15 minutes to the east, and the promise of a walk on the James River finally clinched our decision. Appomattox Plantation at City Point served as offices for Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his staff, the strategic location on the James River receiving over 100 ships a day at the height of the siege. The site was also the location of the largest field hospital of the war, with its own rail connection and pier. This riverside position was responsible for our very first impression of the City Point Unit, when soon after parking our car a bald eagle coasted by on the air currents overhead - leaving us all chins tilted back and mouths agape.

The Plantation House

The 100 year old, 2,300 acre Appomattox Plantation was the home of Dr. Richard Eppes and his family until 1862, when Union forces arrived via the James River. Used as the offices of U.S. Quartermaster Rufus Ingalls and his staff during the siege, it wasn’t until March of 1866 when the family was able to return to the property (which by then was in near ruin) to rebuild. We started our tour in the Plantation House, which also serves as Visitor Contact Station. The boys signed the visitor log, traded in their completed Junior Ranger booklets for badges, and after receiving a few recommendations from the ranger we headed out to tour the property.

Grant's cabin

The plantation grounds included a smokehouse, dairy shed, laundry, telegraph office, stable and other structures, but not all are still visible today. Visitors can view the cabin where General Ulysses S. Grant stayed during the siege (and where his wife and son joined him for the last three months of the siege).

We continued our exploration by descending to the James River waterfront area, which served as the location of supply wharves during the siege. Additional informational kiosks, viewing decks and a decent amount of shoreline to explore kept the boys occupied until the sun started sinking lower in the sky, at which point we knew it was time to head north across the Appomattox and into Richmond – something it took Union forces almost ten months (and 42,000 casualties) to accomplish. Our drive was only about 30 minutes, but it did take us past Fort Harrison, foreshadowing for the next day’s visit of Richmond National Battlefield Park…

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Yet Another Baltic Christmas - Day 24, Priecīgus Ziemassvētkus!

Priecīgus Ziemassvētkus! Linksmų Kalėdų! Häid jõule! May your holidays be warm and bright, and may the New Year bring health and happiness!!!

I’m very grateful to everyone who contributed to this series; in the form of posts, photographs, illustrations and ideas. As to the readers, the friends who commented and translated, and those who put me in contact with bloggers and authors all over the world, a heartfelt paldies - the series would not have been a success without you. A special thanks to Inga, whose beautiful logo is gracing each post in this third iteration! There is a Latvian saying trīs lietas, labas lietas (three things are good things), and truly this third year of the Baltic Christmas series has been ‘a good thing’ for me… On this final day of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas I’ve put together a chronology of all the posts we’ve seen this month; I hope it helps facilitate a revisit to your favorite post, and serves as a reminder for any that you might have missed.

After kicking off the series on December 1st, Day 2 brought a rundown of all the Baltic Christmas markets scheduled for the month. On Day 3 we visited a market that had already taken place – Seattle’s Bazaar – through Inta Wiest’s photos.

On Day 4 the Lithuanian Honorary Consul Dr. Roma Kličius shared photos of the Lithuanian Christmas tree at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The following day (Day 5) we traveled to the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago where all three Baltic countries have Christmas trees displayed as part of the Christmas Around the World Celebration.

Author Daiva Venckus returned to the series on Day 6 with her post on
Lithuanian pre-Christian rituals and superstitions in today’s Catholic celebration. Then on Day 7, the 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas gift guide, followed by Inga’s Latvian Honey Torte recipe on Day 8.

Day 9 was musings on modern day piparkūku baking, and Day 10 featured a Latvian Christmas story by Margarita Stāraste Barvika, introduction by Inga.

On Day 11 we headed into Latvia’s National Forests with Māris and Nora in search of a Christmas tree. Then on Day 12 Karl Altau joined us with his post Wishing you a Mixed-up Estonian Melting Pot Christmas!

The Kristaps Porzingis Santa ad was on Day 13 (along with some other fun things concerning the Latvian Knicks player), and then on Day 14 we welcomed Lithuanian author Jenn Virskus with her memories of making žagarėliai with Teta.

Day 15 brought a quick round-up of a few Baltic drink options ranging from cocktails for a themed holiday dinner party to a digestif for a quiet after-shopping gift wrapping session with your husband.

Daina, from the blog Latvian-American Adventures and Opinions joined us on Day 16 with a post on celebrating the winter solstice. On Day 17 I touched on a Latvian favorite holiday staple, pelēkie zirņi (or grey peas).

Let the Journey Begin’s Ilze explored the Rīga Christmas market with us on Day 18.

On Day 19 we welcomed Catherine Nurmepuu, a first-generation Estonian-American, to the series. She wrote about Christmas with her Estonian grandparents, and shared a way for us to include our ancestors in our holiday celebrations.

It was back to Lithuania on Day 20, to visit the Vilnius Christmas market with Elizabeth from the blog In Search Of. Day 21 brought us Inga’s recipe for Aleksandra torte, as baked by Holden’s test kitchen.

I was delighted to have my grandmother join us on Day 22 with her comparison of Christmas past and present! And finally on Friday (Day 23) I shared five links for you to check out while taking a break from your final Christmas preparations.

I hope you enjoyed this third year of counting down the days to a Baltic Christmas! We’re so thankful to have been part of your holiday preparations this month, and hope you found some Christmas spirit here on Femme au Foyer. I wish you and yours a very merry Christmas and a fantastic New Year.

Until next year,

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