Natural, U.S. history of James River more accessible at Lawrence Lewis, Jr. Park
Lawrence Lewis, Jr. Park packs a whole lot of natural and human history into just 26 acres on the north bank of James River below Richmond in Charles City County.
The park is on a section of the tidal fresh James that curls through historic plantations and early American and Civil War history.
But this stretch of the James River also supports a significant portion of the James River's summer and winter populations of the bald eagle in Virginia. It is almost certain that a visitor will see an eagle from one of the observation decks or the 285-foot fishing pier.
Together, the James River plantations and eagles are at the center of the story of how this park came to be in 1993 and how its future will unfold.
Patti Jackson, former executive director of the James River Association, recalled the early history of the park.
"The Lower James River Association had been formed in 1976 by waterfront landowners in Charles City County, " said Jackson. "They wanted to create a voice in matters having to do with this part of the river."
The group undertook an assessment of river issues, and one thing was clear: The majority of county residents, as well as visitors to the region, could not get to this section of the James.
Lawrence Lewis, Jr., was one of the members of this early group. Lewis was a financier and philanthropist with a penchant for history and a second home on the Weyanoke Peninsula on the James. He understood that most local citizens were only able to access the riverfront with the permission of landowners.
Meanwhile, tucked between Weyanoke to the east and Westover Plantation upriver was a small but historic slice of land and a deteriorating wharf at the end of Willcox Wharf Road, less than a mile south of Route 5, the major east-west thoroughfare in the southern county.
Once an active stop along the commercial river route, the existing wharf had fallen into disuse since its last incarnation as an oil depot. "Folks were starting to use it as a garbage dump, recalled Judith Ledbetter, an active volunteer historian at the county's Center for Local History.
Jackson noted that it was good timing. Lewis had the resources to purchase the land and give it to the county. The James River Association brought in private, state and federal partners to help fund the necessary studies for permits and the construction of park facilities. Jackson remembers Lewis as a strong personality, who "had a reputation as someone who got things done."
Even so, the bald eagle was still in recovery, and there was concern about human activity "flushing the bald eagles," according to one permit document. Jack Miniclier was public works director in the early '90s when the park was being planned.
"We tried for a boat ramp and a fishing pier, but only the fishing pier was approved," Miniclier said. "The park could open, but conditionally: dawn to dusk from April to September. No motorized craft. No boat launch."
Since the park opened, interpretive signs and picnic facilities have been added. Alfred Crump, parks and recreation director for Charles City County, said these are well-used. "We've had weddings and family reunions. The Board for the Aging and the Parks Advisory Committee often meet here."
A paved trail leads into the woods, where native oaks and hickory are full of mast for foraging squirrels and deer. An observation deck juts like the prow of a ship over the marsh. With its benches and roof, it makes a covered outdoor classroom.
Just down the road are a parking lot, the pier and the freshwater James, which is more than a half a mile wide here and has a 3-foot tidal change. Next to the pier, rotting pilings from the previous wharf offer perches for osprey and green herons.
This section of the river has been inhabited for at least 8,000 years, according to the Archeological Society of Virginia, whose library is at Kittiewan Plantation on Weyanoke Peninsula.
As English settlers displaced Chief Powhatan's Indian confederacy, seasonal fishing camps gave way to tobacco fields. Schooners and small craft that plied up and down the river replaced dugout canoes.
Leaders of the newly formed colonies and the United States came from plantations that arose from land grants after the Jamestown settlement. Capt. William Byrd, founder of the city of Richmond, gave rise to a dynastic family of influential Virginian politicians. William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, and William Tyler, the 10th, were both born in Charles City.
In 1864, Gen. Ulysses Grant's Army of the Potomac marched 20 miles from Cold Harbor to cross the James by ferry at Dr. Willcox's wharf and by a hastily constructed pontoon bridge at Weyanoke Point. More than 45,000 Union troops crossed to the "South side" of the river on their way to Petersburg, an attack that nearly ended the Civil War.
Until 1938, the wharf was in constant use for river transportation and commerce. County native Mary Ellen Greene recalls the family story of her mother's arrival as a newborn aboard the SS Pocahontas from the Norfolk Hospital where she was born in the early 1900s. She has numerous photos of travel by the steamships that brought mail and goods to wharves along the river.
These days, it's the fishing that draws folks to the ADA-designed pier that reaches out to 13-foot depths. The James supports a healthy smallmouth bass population for sports fishermen. There are also blueback herring, alewife, catfish and striped bass in their seasons.
A short boardwalk from the lower parking lot leads across a small freshwater wetland to a wooded trail.
A second platform on a promontory between the wetland and the river provides an overlook for eagles, barge traffic and sunsets in the winter. In the summer, an understory screen of bayberry, dogwood, fringe tree and young oaks hides the river from view.
Standing in this wooded buffer, a visitor might be tempted to think that this is what the land was like when Smith first ventured upriver in 1607.
Access, history and a sense of place have combined to land the Lawrence Lewis, Jr., Park on the Capt. John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail and the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.
The park is also on the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail and the Lower James Water Trail.
The Presquile National Wildlife Refuge and several Wildlife Management Areas flank the river nearby. Also nearby, the Rice Center for Environmental Life Sciences focuses research on the science and policy of large rivers such as the James.
Upriver, the Harrison Fish Hatchery raises shad and studies the rare Atlantic sturgeon.
The recovery of the eagle - called "the greatest devourer" by Capt. John Smith - has been dramatic here, owing to the large tracts of protected land and slow development as well as the plentiful habitat for eagles to forage, breed and nest.
Miniclier, now county administrator, says the county has committed funds in next year's budget to match hoped-for grants to improve the park and provide the next level of access - an improved launch for canoes and kayaks.
Eventually, if the eagles continue to thrive and the county can navigate the permits, there may even be a boat ramp for small, trailer boats.
Keenan Smith, one of Lewis' daughters, reflects on the park that bears her father's name.
"He preferred to give anonymously, but maybe closer to the end of his life, he was thinking more about legacy," Smith said. "He felt strongly that every county citizen should have access to the river."
At a site where perseverance, vision and know-how have prevailed through the centuries, it seems the right legacy for Lewis, whose strong feelings and get-it-done attitude made it possible for others to enjoy the pleasure of some river time.
Lawrence Lewis, Jr. Park
Lawrence Lewis, Jr. Park is open daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. October through April and 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. May through September. It is 0.8 miles south of Virginia Route 5 and the Virginia Capital multi-use trail.
Its amenities include a picnic area, comfort station, fishing and birding pier, a short swamp boardwalk leading to a wooded trail and observation decks.
For information, call the Charles City County Recreation Department at 804-652-1601. Other related websites include:
- Charles City County
- Captain John Smith's Adventures on the James River
- James River Plantations: A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary: www.jamesriverplantations.org/ or www.nps.gov/history/nr/travel/jamesriver/
- James River Eagles
- "In River Time: The Way of the James," by Ann Woodlief.
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