The city of Richmond, Virginia is steeped in history since its designation in 1780 as the capital of Virginia and its status as the capital of the ill-fated Confederate States of America. Like its Civil War rival Washington, this city is located at the furthest inland point on the James River, accessible to oceangoing ships but distant enough from the ocean as a safeguard from a foreign invasion. Like Washington, Richmond also has numerous urban streams flowing beneath its streets and a canal paralleling its main river.
n the above 1865 photo from the Library of Congress collection, Shockoe Creek flows through a devastated city. In the following decades as the city rebuilt and grew, this stream would gradually disappear from the map.
Topography of Richmond
On the map above, steep slopes outline the valley of Shockoe Creek running to the east of Church Hill, the city’s high point, where Patrick Henry’s gave his famous Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death speech at St. John’s Church in 1775. The plateau facing James River between Shoeckoe and Gilles Creeks was originally a Powhatan village and the creek’s name has native roots believed to mean “flat rock” after a significant boulder at its mouth.
On the 1864 map above Shockoe Creek flows through the city’s center but the slave auction houses and prison are conspicuously absent as the mapmaker was likely a Unionist.
Shockoe’s Black History
As in many other urban stream examples, low-lying land is susceptible to flooding and as a result the poorest communities are usually found along a stream’s course.
The district known today as Shockoe Bottom was lined with numerous slave auction houses in the antebellum period, a slave jail and nearby neighborhoods of free blacks within sight of where horrific abuses took place. After decades of glorifying the Confederacy, today’s Richmond where half of the population is black is bringing to light the city’s black history. In 1998, the City Council authorized the Richmond Slave Trail Commission to research and designate places of important in local black history. Their product was a walking trail that closely follows the buried stream bed of Shockoe Creek.
What’s there today
The district of Shockoe Bottom, despite is central location is relatively underdeveloped, lying in the shadow of the approach to the Main Street Station. Old warehouses, cobblestone-covered alleys and vast parking lots take up the space atop the former stream bed.
Looking south on Crane Street from Broad Street, one sees parking lots and the Main Street Station. This site is currently the subject of a debate between building a minor league baseball stadium here or keeping construction low scale with the neighborhood’s history in mind.
In a tight parcel sandwiched between the parking lots and a Interstate 95 is the site of Lumpkin’s Jail, where slaves were held prior to auctions. Those who perished while in custody were buried in a nearby field, known today’s as Richmond’s African Burial Ground. In 1867, the former slave prison was redeveloped for a black seminary, transforming the site from the “Devil’s half acre” to “God’s half acre.” By 1876, the seminary had relocated and industries were built in its place.
Looking south from the exit 74C on the northbound Interstate 95, Shockoe Bottom appears to have plenty of space for development, parks, and the possible daylighting of the creek. One such plans envisions Shockoe Bottom as a major center for black history (it was the second largest slave trading center in the South after New Orleans) with a portion of the creek restored to the surface. In contrast, Mayor Dwight Jones’ baseball-oriented plan for the neighborhood leaves on room for the creek.
At Dock Street and South 17th Street is a park underneath a twist of highway ramps. Here is where Shockoe Creek entered the James River and Kanawha Canal, which parallels its namesake river, enabling boats to avoid the river’ cataracts. The low-lying park tends to flood during heavy storms, with the water penetrating as far as the Main Street Station, briefly recreating the creek above the surface.
As the canal within the city has been developed into a Riverwalk-type park and a Shockoe Design District along its banks, the same could happen with a daylighted Shockoe Creek, depending on whether Mayor Jones’ plan strikes out. This year’s mayoral election may determine the site’s future.
Note: I will be presenting a lecture on my book this Thursday April 7 at 6:30 p. m. at the NYPL Mid-Manhattan Library. Hear the story of Manhattan’s hidden waterways and a chance to purchase a signed copy of the book following the talk.