For years the James River was an industrial waterway that the Richmond-area turned its back on. In the mid-20th century, public access to the river was prohibited given its status as an open sewer, and there were few healthy fish for fishermen or birds of prey.
Several area citizens worked to improve water quality and public access to the river and their work led to the creation of the James River Park System, a series of natural areas which borders rocks and rapids along the Falls of the James. Today Richmond area residents take pride in and full advantage of the beautiful river that flows through it. In the 21st century the Park routinely wins accolades for its multi-use trails and ahhhs for its natural beauty, fisheries, and wildlife.

A Momentous Gift

In the 1960s, John W. “Jack” Keith, Jr., and Charles J. “Joe” Schaefer, Richmond natives and self-described “river rats,” investigated the ownership of many of the river’s islands and tracts along the shore. After research and legal work, Mr. Schaefer and Mr. Keith became the owners of several islands in and parcels along the river in what is now the Main Section of the park.

In 1972 they donated the land to the city of Richmond so it could become the first piece of the James River Park System. Their efforts began the tradition of volunteer work and citizen input that characterizes the James River Park System today.

Citizens Save the Day

In 1966, Louise Burke formed, along with Dr. R. B. Young, the Scenic James Council to oppose a proposed highway along the south side of the James. In 1967, they held a “Farewell to the River” hike for her Girl Scout troop and a newspaper reporter. Resulting publicity galvanized the citizenry to protect the natural beauty of what are now the Pony Pasture Rapids and Huguenot Flatwater portions of the Park.

Growing Green

Millions of people have enjoyed the natural beauty and life-enhancing activities available in Richmond’s backyard, thanks in large part to the foresight and generosity of devoted citizens. Of course, longtime Park Manager, Ralph R. White, recipient in 2006 of the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award, and his dedicated and hard-working staff, all part of Richmond’s Department of Parks, Recreation, and Community Facilities, do yeomen’s work with a barebones budget.

Increased park usage continues to put a strain on the park, and volunteers, such as the Friends of the James River Park, are always needed to lend a hand. Richmond recognized the value of the park in 2009 by putting in place a Conservation Easement that preserves hundreds of acres of the Park forevermore, honoring those who created and care for our gem on the James and enabling generations to come to explore JRPS and love it like so many do today.