Richmond: more than a Civil War destination

By | Category: Travel destinations

Roads,trains and canals

Some time ago, CD-Traveller mentioned that 2011 sees the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War.

The US tourist officers have been pushing it hard for the last 18 months or so and the celebrations – if that is the right word – will go on until 2015, 150 years after the war ended.

So I have been to Richmond in the state of Virginia, the capital of the confederate side to see what this Richmond offers for the visitor. My abiding memory has just tenuous links to the civil war however. Unfair as it may seem, the last thing I saw (apart from the railway station) is the memory that might stay with me the longest. It is of elevated freeways merging and crossing over each other, while underneath is an elevated railway line and a canal below that.

It shows energy and industry and in some ways that typifies Richmond. For it was a hive of industry in tobacco, flour and iron. Down in this part three railway lines cross over each other, the only such sight in the US. Remnants of the Tredegar Works down by the canal (free to enter),  show just how big and important Richmond was as a manufacturing hub.

Tredegar Iron Works

It is said that a third of all the arms used by the confederacy were made here, and outside the complex sit two cannons.

With all this industry it needed the railways so things could be shipped in and out, faster than the canals could provide. It is unfair because this occupies a small part of the city down between Main Street station and the canal. But this industrial heritage is important to Richmond and explains, in part why it became the capital of the confederacy.

It is down here that the canal has been restored and now is a popular destination for locals on the weekend. There is about a three mile walk – or running track if you prefer since there seemed to be so many joggers the day I was there. Or take a brief canal cruise, where your guide will be in period dress. Go out over the James River and not only can you see the criss-crossing bridges but you can see the remnants of past bridges including one that went to a small island, Belle island, where thousands of prisoners were held during the civil war and another which was used to flee the city as it was torched towards the end of the civil war.

That is why if you come to come to the United Sates particularly to explore the civil war period and you are short on time, then make Richmond your base. In the city and within an easy driving area, you can see a great deal of the heritage of the confederacy. As Richmond was the capital it has the White House of the confederacy (if the North can have one, so can we goes the story) as well as the house of the vice-president.

The Confederate White House

In fact this White House isn’t really white now and maybe it never was. It’s a sort of beige and nowhere near as impressive as the state capitol building which is of purest white. In this complex of buildings is the governor’s mansion which has been in continuous use since 1813, the longest in the USA.

Richmond and its inhabitants have a long record in public service as five US presidents have lived here and connections are easy to find even just in street names. In one long road, Memorial, there are statues to some of them as well as civil war leaders such as Jefferson Davis, (the Confederate president) and generals Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart. And there are two other modern figures that are commemorated as well. Arthur Ashe, the tennis player is commemorated on Monument Avenue and the dancer, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson on Leigh Street. All of these are clearly marked on the free map you can collect from the tourist bureau on Marshall Street next to the convention centre and that is a good place to start since it is surrounded by historic buildings and sites. At the moment it also houses a car that the gangster, John Dillinger used just before his death. As it is, there are two bullets in the car fired by lawmen at the escapee and his girlfriend.

Hardly a block away is one of the earlier houses, that of John Marshall, plus the White House and an old building, once a house and then sheltering arms hospital, “a haven of mercy for impoverished Virginians. Today it houses the counselling service of the Virginia Commonwealth University! (In some places it seems as though the VCU is the city since it seems to have buildings everywhere. Even the bookshop, Barnes & Noble, is in a university building.) And the capitol is only a short walk.
Talking of getting around there is no city rail service and the buses, whilst being cheap at $1.50 a ride, run at lengthy intervals at weekends and some, not at all on Sundays. (like the airport-downtown service.) So apart from the middle, a hire car is probably going to be an option. It certainly will be if you want to visit nearby battlefields or other places connected to the civil war. But you will probably need one if you go to the children’s museum. There are two sites and the one on west Broad Street is for the smaller children. The Children’s Museum is quiet in the week, but the car park was full on the Saturday I went. Outside there are some sponsored exhibits. Next door is Macdonalds. Now that is brand placement!

The Science Museum of Virginia and kugel

It has the advantage of being next to The Science Museum of Virginia and its Planetarium. Outside there is a Kugel, a half-ton ball of granite that floats on water but much more fun is a smaller one to the left which any child can turn against the way it is spinning. With the big one outside the entrance, it is much harder to physically turn it against its natural movement. And they will get their hands wet in the water as well so two pleasures! The Granite sphere at the Science Museum is the biggest in the world.
Quite often when you visit a place, you don’t see where people live because it is unlikely that any of the things you want to see are there. But if you go to the Bojangles statue, walk down Leigh Street because it is the shortest way to the tourist office. And you pass block after block of houses that show a little bit of the “south.” I was lucky. The weekend I was there was the 2nd Street Festival and Leigh Street takes you straight into it. There was music (at least three outside venues – all free) knick- knacks to buy; an vintage car exhibition and a fashion show. Plus food. It would have been rude not to try the scallops. And the crab. And the shrimp. And the trout and whiting and catfish. And even the hot dogs and hush puppies (a ball of sweet something or other which is deep fried and served almost as an accompaniment to deep fried fish). This is one of many festivals. At different times of the year there is a Filipino, Italian and an Irish one (guess when?) plus others. And outside the city the Virginia State Fair is held each September/October when 200,000 people come to see it.

Canal Journey

So Richmond isn’t a city where a day will suffice to see it all. After all my walking, the canal cruise was an ideal way to ease out of the day. You probably need two or three days for just the city and a few more if you visit the civil war sites outside which I didn’t have time to do.

That will have to wait for next year, when they commemorate some of the big battles of 1862.

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