The History of Riverside Park in Lynchburg, Virginia (unabridged)

By Heidi F. James
Before the Park was a Park
Before anyone “owned” the land at Riverside Park, located between 2100-2238 Rivermont Avenue in Lynchburg, this part of Virginia was Monacan Indian territory.  There was a big encampment of Monacan Indians several miles up the James River, not far from Holcomb Rock, but on the Amherst County side, in Bethel.  There is now a park and public river access on that site called Monacan Park.  It is easy to imagine the Monacan Indians fishing in the river and spending time on the small islands just off what later became Riverside Park.

In 1624, when Virginia became The Colony and Dominion of Virginia, under British rule, the land was considered to be owned by England.  Ownership next passed to John Bolling, a descendant of Pocahontas and John Rolfe.  By this time, the upper James River at Lynchburg was called the Fluvanna River, named for Anne, the daughter of King James II, who was Queen of England from 1702-1714.  On June 1, 1750, Charles Lynch, an immigrant from Ireland, acquired 1,590 acres of the Bolling lands.  When Lynch died in 1753, he left some of his land, including that which would become the park, to his son Christopher Lynch.  In 1786, Christopher’s brother John, who had inherited the land that later became downtown Lynchburg from their father, petitioned the Virginia General Assembly for a charter to establish the town.  He was busy operating his ferry, and Lynchburg quickly became a boom town, busy with trade and commerce, mostly revolving around the tobacco industry.  No one was thinking about a park at this time.

Christopher Lynch willed the land that would become the park to his daughter, Nancy.  Nancy was married to Methodist minister Samuel Mitchell, who organized the first Methodist Society in Lynchburg in 1802. The Mitchells sold 1000 acres to Lewellin Jones on March 16, 1803, which included the future park land and the islands in the James.1   A few years later, on June 1, 1805, George Cabell became the next owner when he bought 737 acres of the 1000 acre tract from Lewellin Jones for $15,000.2  The deed to Cabell states, “the high lands and low grounds and islands and fisheries lying on James River that the said Lewellin Jones owned.” When Cabell bought the property, it was woods and farmland. In 1815, he built Point of Honor on the tip of his extensive property so that he would have a view of the river and downtown Lynchburg. By then, the river was busy with bateaux traffic between Lynchburg and Richmond, and turnpikes were being improved to make travel on land easier.  The Lexington Pike ran along Dr. Cabell’s property right past the future Riverside Park on the way to Lexington, Virginia. (Portions of the pike were later incorporated as parts of Rivermont Avenue). Dr. Cabell died in 1823 and left his estate to his son, William Lewis Cabell.  William was married to Eliza Daniel and, as they had no heirs when they both died of tuberculosis in 1830, the extensive tract of land was left to Eliza’s father, Judge William Daniel, Sr.  He moved to Point of Honor and managed the farmlands until 1839, when he died and left the majority of his estate to his son William Daniel, Jr. 

William Daniel, Jr. served as a Judge of Lynchburg’s General Court in the 1820s and was elected to the House of Delegates in 1831.  In 1846, he was elected to the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia and served until the Civil War.  Daniel was instrumental in organizing the Lynchburg-based Virginia and Tennessee Railroad.  In 1845, he offered his land and Point of Honor for sale, either as one piece or as lots.  It ended up being sold as lots and Daniel’s Hill was created, with Cabell Street its main thoroughfare.  In 1852, William built a new house up the hill from Point of Honor which his second wife, Elizabeth Cabell, named “Rivermont.”  It stands on F Street, between Cabell and Norwood Streets in the Daniel’s Hill Historic District.  He retained ownership of the land from his house, Rivermont, up to Riverside Park. According to a map by the Confederate Engineers Bureau, dated 1864, there were no other significant dwellings on this property.  During the Civil War, the land where the park sits may have been used as a Confederate Camp. Relics of the Civil War that have been found on the grounds of the park lend credence to the idea.

After William Daniel, Jr. died insolvent in 1873, attorneys for his estate hired Edward Sixtus Hutter and his brother, J. R. Hutter, to divide the large tract of land into over 100 lots, which were offered for sale.  Edward bought several lots including Rivermont house, in 1874.  He later formed the Rivermont Company, named for his house.   His new company built the Rivermont Bridge, named Rivermont Avenue, and turned the old Daniel estate into a new neighborhood called Rivermont, complete with street lights, street cars, and a 20-acre park called Rivermont Park.  Rivermont Park was opened in 1893 and was not a public park owned by the City, but was owned and operated by the Rivermont Street Railway Company.  The park had a casino for summer performances by troupes from as far away as New York, a band stand, a penny arcade and a dance pavilion. It was located where the First Church of Christ Scientist and the Mayflower, Cavalier and Rivermont Park apartments now stand.  The park closed shortly before the Riverside Park was established.
On September 22, 1876, before the neighborhood named Rivermont was created, City Council asked the Board of Health to find a suitable lot outside the City limits for a proposed new smallpox hospital.  On February 3, 1881, the City agreed to tear down the old Smallpox Hospital, burn the parts of the building that were unsafe and sell the parts that were safe to use the proceeds to improve a new lot and “two wards for each colour to be built at a cost not to exceed $1,500.”  By June 4, 1881, the new smallpox hospital was completed within the area later encompassed by Riverside Park. The “City Infirmary” appears on a map done by the city that dates between 1884 and 1891.3  It is located at the end of Oxford Street, which juts to the right off of what is now Columbia Avenue.  Oxford Street no longer exists, but it appears that the Smallpox Hospital, which consisted of three or four buildings, was located where the swimming pool was later placed in Riverside Park.

River View Park—A Forerunner to Riverside Park
On October 8, 1883, William Duval Adams bought two lots, #71 and #95 (as platted by the Hutters) totaling 40 acres, which would make up the majority of Riverside Park, for $1,274.55.4  Not even six months later, on March 25, 1884, Adams sold them to the City of Lynchburg for $1,900.00.5 In the City’s Annual Report for that year, an entry about the purchase states “to acquire real estate adjoining smallpox hospital grounds.”6   The city map mentioned above, which dates between 1884 and 1891, refers to the park parcel as “River-View Park” (see footnote #3).  The next documented reference to this land by the City is in 1893, when the Superintendent of Parks and the first champion of Riverside Park, R. C. Driver, states that “the Industrial Society is asked to vacate the grounds of Miller Park, they will soon take possession of the public Hospital grounds in Rivermont.”7 Then, in 1894, E.C. Hamner, of the Committee on Parks for the City of Lynchburg, presented a lease of the Smallpox Hospital tract between the City and the Lynchburg Fair Association.  The lease would be for a period of 15 years and the lot was to be fenced in and used for annual fair exhibitions. The Industrial Society and the Agricultural and Mechanical Society were part of the Lynchburg Fair Association.  These groups sponsored a fair each year to highlight farming practices, industrial inventions to aid farmers, such as the chicken incubator which was displayed around 1895, and agricultural advances to promote better crops. State and county fairs were very popular during the mid to late 1800s, with the first state fair taking place in New York in 1841 and the first Virginia State fair taking place in Richmond in 1854. The Lynchburg Fair had been taking place at Miller Park, but was moved to the location at Riverside Park at the turn of the century.  Smallpox was almost eradicated by this time and most people had been vaccinated, so it was considered safe to locate a fair near the hospital buildings.8

In 1897, the City Engineer reports that “the chain gang was used for a few days in January in collecting piles convenient to be crushed, the many surface stone with which the River View Park was cumbered; it being the intention of the committee to use this material at some future time in the construction of walkways, drives, etc.”9 In 1903, we find in the report of the Superintendent of the Park, R.C. Driver, the statement, “Having noticed for some time the steady growth of Rivermont, I would suggest that you should not lose sight of the fact that one of the prettiest parks could be created where now stands the Smallpox Hospital.  Roads could be temporarily laid off and trees planted accordingly, so that they would have time to grow before other improvements become necessary.  Such an undertaking would, no doubt, be welcomed by everybody living in that part of the city.”10 The City Council must have agreed, as they purchased two more lots in the area in 1903, increasing the acreage from 40 to 47.11  In 1904, Driver stated in his report to the City, “Owing to the amount of work yet needed to be done at the City Park, work at the Riverside Park was, with the exception of the purchase of seven acres of land, temporarily abandoned.12

From 1904 until 1908, not much was happening in Riverside Park.  In the latter year, Driver recommended: “In regard to improvement at Riverside Park I suggest that no trees should be planted until the gullies have been plowed and filled and some portions properly graded and well set in some soil binding variety of grass, as it has been proven by past experience that a course of improvements taken in the opposite direction generally proves to be a failure and time as well as money is wasted.”13 Also in 1908, the city annexed the area from Belvedere Street up to Randolph Macon Woman’s College from Campbell County.  This annexation included the park grounds.

From 1909 to 1916, the City used the park grounds primarily as a tree nursery.14 Some four acres were cleared and planted with about 5,000 seedlings of various kinds.  In addition, more mature American Elms were planted in the park, and preparations were made for further improvements.  In April, 1909 the City of Lynchburg changed the name of the street that runs parallel to Rivermont Avenue along the park grounds from Yancey Street to Riverside Drive.  It was also during this period, in 1912, that the Young Men’s Christian Association opened its playground on the former Jones Island.15   

In 1914, Driver made a big push for the development of Riverside Park, and also revealed that many of the tree seedlings had been given away:

As that section of Riverside Park which is now occupied and used for nursery purposes will sooner or later become part of the park scheme, several thousand trees have been disposed of by giving them to citizens who wished to embellish their homes.  Riverside Park received considerable attention by way of improving the grounds with planting of trees and sowing grass.  Most of the trees for this purpose were taken from city nurseries.  Wishing to make the planting of a somewhat botanical value, trees not in stock or of unusual quality had to be purchased.  As the grounds had not been under cultivation for the past twenty years, much in the way of fertilization needs to be done to bring the newly sown grass to perfection and to produce the desired effect.  As the grounds proper are rather rolling, the rules of landscape architecture could not be strictly adhered to, and the trees were planted more with the view of acting as soil binders and for protection of the grass during the most heated part of the summer months.  Still, enough open vistas for various games have been left open to fill all needs and wants for some time to come. 

Foreseeing the prospective future of this park, I beg to suggest that 198 feet of roadway leading from Rivermont Avenue to the main entrance should be provided and perhaps the building of a pavilion of considerable dimension on the highest point would add much to the importance and attractiveness of this most valuable property which the city owns.  Any one who has had the pleasure to see the view for miles around from this particular point, will readily agree that “None Such” can be greater in scope and in beauty, and for that and for this alone this newly planned park is worthy of a considerable more consideration as well as appropriation.16

In 1916 Driver added, “It is also necessary that some improvements should be done in Riverside Park in order that it may be used by the public from time to time.  This park can be made one of, if not the most picturesque parks in Virginia.  It is my desire also to root, prune and transplant the young trees growing in our nursery which number several thousand.”17

In 1917, the City of Lynchburg knew they would need a school in the Rivermont neighborhood and began making appropriations for that.18 Also in 1917, they hired Mr. George Reed to become the new Superintendent of Parks. He remained in the position until his death in 1949 and was instrumental in the development of Riverside Park. In 1921, the cornerstone was laid for the erection of the Garland-Rodes Elementary School at the entrance to Riverside Park.

A City Park is Created
In 1922, the City of Lynchburg made significant advances in the development of Riverside Park. They hired C.R. MacKan, a landscape architect from Roanoke, to come up with a plan for the park.  He suggested the creation of a “lake” with a sandy beach made by building a dam, a huge pavilion overlooking the lake with a dance floor and place to purchase soft drinks, an alpine pass along the cliff leading down to the river, and plantings to be done in large masses, with both trees and shrubs. He suggested that the best place for specimen trees would be to the east of an athletic field, which could be located near Rivermont Avenue.  He proposed a bird sanctuary near the road to the Y.M.C.A. Island.  Most of his plans were implemented in some fashion, witness the fact that the “lake” was realized in the form of a swimming pool, sometimes called a “concrete lake.”

In the City of Lynchburg Annual Report of 1922, Reed reported that he cleared underbrush, graded roads, laid pavement, paths and walkways, and hoped to have the park ready for opening in the 1923 season.  Also, in 1922, E.A. Beck, Lynchburg City Manager, wrote a letter to Elmer Fisher, secretary of the Lynchburg Gun Club, asking the club to remove their building and cease their use of the park.  The City had received numerous complaints from people concerned about their safety while boating on the river and about the noise the Gun Club was making.  Since the City planned to establish a park, the Gun Club had to go.    

In 1923, Reed stated in the City of Lynchburg Annual Report that work continued on the roads in the park and that footpaths for the Alpine Pass were made with salvaged flagstones, which were cut into the bluff on the south bank of the river.  An article in The Advance dated May 22, 1923, reports that the Alpine Pass will feature corduroy lookouts or observation points “where sightseers may go out over the tops of huge boulders and from these points of vantage get a beautiful river view.”  The paper stated that the Alpine Pass would draw interest from botanists across the country with its rich concentration of botanical specimens including fern beds.  While work was being done on the Alpine Pass, mostly using convict labor, a natural spring was discovered. Reed had a concrete basin placed at the mouth of the spring so that hikers could enjoy a drink of cool, fresh water.  The location of the spring is shown on a city map of Riverside Park.19   He also reported that 162 trees were planted for shade and decorative purposes and that their placement was selected to avoid interfering with the views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the James River.  Most of the trees were moved from the old city nursery in the park. The ravine west of the caretaker’s cottage was cleared of undergrowth to “develop a garden of flowers popular in times gone by.” A tar-treated roadway was laid throughout the entire length of the park giving access to all points in the park and connecting to the Y.M.C.A. Island playground road.  

The natural basin was selected as the site for the swimming pool and construction began in December of 1923 with the excavation being done by convict labor.  An article in The Advance dated June 28, 1923, reported that the “concrete lake” would be much larger and more impressive than the pool in use at Miller Park and that it would be “located just southeast of the location of the smallpox hospital, so that the dam will be about the location of the old buildings, which have been removed.” The swimming pool officially opened on August 9, 1924.  It was 210’ long and 50’ wide at the upper end and 70’ wide at the outlet with a depth of 1” to 8.5’ at its deepest.  It could hold 500,000 gallons of water and took 23.5 hours to fill.  It featured a beach of sea sand from Ocean View Beach that was 35’ long which connected to a 420-locker bath house with four rooms, each being 15’x 24’ that could be used for changing.  Two of the rooms were for men to change, one was for boys, and one was for women and girls to share.  (My, times have changed!)  The season that year only lasted until September 13th but the City reported attendance of 7,796 people.  That is an average of 217 people per day for 36 days.  Also taking place in 1924 was the planting of 89 15-year old trees relocated from the old nursery to line the driveways for shade, the seeding of 1.5 acres to add to the lawn. Paths and walkways were extended, rustic fences were erected along the drive that would lead to the Y.M.C.A. island at sharp curves, 90 climbing roses were planted, and picnic grounds were supplied with water and tables at a grove near the swimming pool.20

Riverside Park was wildly popular by 1925 with pool attendance during the summer reaching 30,961 swimmers.21  Park attendance was recorded as 284,342 for the year.  Lights were put in place around the pool and an “old-fashioned garden” was developed below the swimming pool.  A cascade waterfall from the pool wound its way under rock and log bridges through gardens and formed small ponds on the way to the river. Around 550 Rhododendrons were procured from the Pedlar River watershed and planted on the shady slope in the park garden. An article in The Advance, dated July 30, 1925, stated that “Necking, spooning or petting in Riverside Park will, if it is done by occupants of automobiles parked in that resort, have to be done with head lights burning on the cars, for orders were issued today from the City Manager’s office…” It must have been a very romantic spot!

In 1926, improvements continued. The circular rock band stand and concession stand were built above the bath house using materials from the old pavilion at Rivermont Park.  A combination diving and sliding tower within the pool enclosure was added. The Alpine Pass was lengthened by 1,000 feet to reach a total length of 4,700 feet and 238 Mountain Laurel were collected and planted on bluffs along the pass.  Also planted in the park that year were 76 more Rhododendron, 7 Weigelia, 20 V.H VanHooten Spirea, 1 hydrangea, 15 yucca, 23 peonies, 26 roses, 40 Spanish Iris, 100 English Ivy, 800 tulips, and 160 Crocus.  In all, 2,693 plants were added to Riverside Park.  Attendance was recorded at 254,172.  Over 12,000 people attended a water carnival that was held on August 30th.  E.C. Glass held a band concert in the park on June 1, 1926.22

Attendance in the park in 1927 was 354,737.  Over 12,000 people attended the park on July 4th of that year.  The Alpine pass was increased another 1,200 feet to reach a total of 5,900 feet.  A 250-gallon chlorinating plant system was added to the pool.  Two stone columns and a circular flower bed were built at the Ash Street entrance.  The City constructed a roadway giving access to the Y.M.C.A. Island Playground.  The road began at Ash Street and replaced the previous access bridge to the island at the end of Fredonia Avenue, which was washed away in a flood.  The City would close the road at 11:30 p.m. each night. Another 453 plants were added to the park including roses (34), small evergreens (30), American Arborvitae (2), Kalmia/Mountain Laurel (78), gladiola bulbs (50), iris (133), canna roots (50), and wild shrubs (76).23 

In 1928, the following plants were placed in the park:  50 Rhododendron, 50 Pteridium Col. Fern, 50 Cicuta (water hemlock—highly toxic), and 50 Mertensia (Virginia Bluebells).  In 1929, 312 flowering cherry trees were donated and planted by the Kiwanis Club.  The Easter Sunrise service of the United Choirs of the city was held with 5,000 attending.  Attendance reached 270,223 for the year.  Many additional plants, 5,886 from the City greenhouse, were planted in the park.  Also planted were 6,452 lilies planted along the Alpine Pass and 452 Dutch bulbs planted in the Old-Fashioned Garden.  The Alpine Pass became a destination of interest by students in botany from schools and colleges nearby.   Reed submitted his own landscape plan for the triangular entrance to the park which included 130 azalea “Hinodegiri”, cotoneaster, juniper, iris, tulips, nandina, scotch pine, and some other plant varieties. The plants would be placed each end of the plot and the center would remain fairly open.24

On May 4, 1929, City Manager R.W.B. Hart received a letter from Mrs. C.G. Craddock, the P.T.A. President, requesting that improvements be made behind the Garland-Rodes school.  There was no playground for the children and the ground behind the school was always muddy.  The P.T.A. requested that the city pave a large portion behind the school for hand ball and roller skating and that several tennis courts be added, or if tennis courts were not possible, at least an area for basketball could be added. Mrs. Craddock must have been influential because in 1930, three tennis courts were erected and the area behind the school was paved. 

Attendance at the park was 229,456 in 1930.  The Kiwanis Club donated 93 flowering crab trees and white peach trees.  They were planted on the hillside between the driveway and the Y.M.C.A. island road. A lookout tower made of timber with upper and lower floors was built at a point above the cliff spring.  In 1931, a rock lookout was started using labor from the City Farm.  Rock for the project was salvaged from refused curb stones and hauled in from the northern portion of the park.  The rock lookout was completed in 1932 and was given the name “Alpine Terrace,” which was selected in a contest for the most appropriate name for the structure.  Pool attendance in 1931 and 1932 was high.  In 1931, 32,403 people used the pool, generating income of $3,406.30 from admission, suit and towel rental.  A giant slide and parallel bars were presented by the P.T.A. for a playground in the park.25 

On February 23, 1931, George Reed wrote a letter the City Manager Hart, with an estimate to place the City’s Dolphin Fountain, which used to sit at the bottom of Monument Terrace, at the triangular entrance to Riverside Park. There is a blueprint showing the plan, which features a semi-circular winged rock wall with a fan shaped center that would have a circular bowl for the dolphin fountain to sit in. The wall looks very similar to the wall at the bottom of Monument Terrace that highlights the statue known as the Listening Post (which replaced the dolphin).  For some reason, most likely financial, this plan was never implemented.26 The Dolphin statue was later placed at the Community Market by the Lynchburg Women’s Club as part of Lynchburg’s Bicentennial in 1986, where it is still located today. 

From 1933 to 1937, the Civil Works Administration--a precursor to the Works Progress Administration, did a significant amount of work along the Alpine Pass as part of a recovery plan for the depression. They built a bridle path along the pass with a guard rail to protect riders, built flying buttresses at the Alpine Terrace lookout, and graded and laid walks throughout the park.  They also mulched flower beds and cherry trees and cut grass plots.  Park attendance was dropping significantly during these years from 229,456 in 1930 to only 10,116 in 1936.  This was probably due to a combination of factors including the lingering effects of the depression, attendance at private country clubs like Oakwood, and the construction of swimming pools at private residences.27 

In 1936, the Miller-Claytor House was moved to the Ash Street entrance of the park as part of Lynchburg’s Sesquicentennial celebration.  The Miller-Claytor House was built in 1791 and was the fourth house built in Lynchburg.  It had been located at 8th and Church Streets and was threatened with demolition until the Lynchburg Historical Society moved it to Riverside Park.  The Lynchburg Historical Foundation, a successor organization to the Society, owns the house and continues to maintain it.  It was recently repainted colors determined by paint analysis to be the original colors of the house.  In 1937, the Lynchburg Garden Club made plans to create gardens for the house.  In 1940, they hired renowned landscape architect Charles Gillette to design a garden, which the Lynchburg Garden Club then planted. The Club later won the Garden Club of Virginia’s Massie Medal for the project.  The Lynchburg Garden Club still maintains the garden and replanted Gillette’s original plan again in 1990, as it had become overgrown. A new section of the garden was added by the club in 2002.  

Also part of Lynchburg’s Sesquicentennial celebration was the placement of the hull of the packet boat Marshall in the park on October 14, 1936.  The packet boat Marshall, once called “the Queen of the James” carried the body of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to Lexington for burial after he was accidentally killed by his own men.  His body arrived in Lynchburg on May 10, 1863 on the Orange and Alexandria railroad and was then transported to Lexington.  The hull was painted on July 5, 1940, in 1949 and again in 1954. It has just been restored by the Lynchburg Historical Foundation at its location in Riverside Park and a shelter will be constructed to protect it from the elements. Another project of the Sesquicentennial celebration was the planting of an oak tree to commemorate the signing of the Constitution of the United States of America, signed at Philadelphia on September 17, 1787.  The tree was planted for the Citizens of Lynchburg by the City Council on September 17, 1937. 

From 1938-1940, the city did not add anything new to the park, but performed routine maintenance.  They repaired pot holes in the roads, pruned trees, and mowed grass.    In 1940, however, 20 acres of wooded land above the Alpine Pass was dedicated as a “bird haven” by the Little Garden Club of Lynchburg, with the unveiling of a bronze plaque.  Berry-producing shrubs were planted in the area designated as a sanctuary to attract birds. The plaque remained in place until 1959, when it was removed by vandals.  It was found and replaced and in 1960, the Little Garden Club proposed that an even larger portion of the park be designated as a bird sanctuary by the City of Lynchburg.    City Council agreed and on April 18, 1960, a new map showing the wildlife and bird sanctuaries was created.  The older bird sanctuary along the Alpine Pass was maintained and a new portion inside the loop of roadway above the pool up to the river was included as a sanctuary. 

In 1942, the picket fence around the rose garden in Miller Park was removed and transferred to Riverside Park to be used around the pool.  A wire fence from Miller Park was moved to Riverside Park to form a boundary between the park and the Southern Railway right of way.  The pool had 13,101 patrons over 91 days of operation. In 1944, the iron fence from Miller Park was moved to Riverside Park to form a permanent enclosure around the pool. Trees were topped in the line of the lookout tower to provide a clear view of the James River.  The pool was closed on August 27, 1944 for the rest of the season due to the polio epidemic. In 1945, there were problems with the pool because it had a tendency to overflow during big rain storms and it would fill with mud from runoff from the banks of the flanking hillsides. The Alpine Pass also had areas of wash-out from heavy rains and repairs were made to prevent accidents. In 1947, the snack shop was vandalized and robbed and a watchman was assigned to the park.  In 1949, new lights were installed in the park for safety purposes.

Around this time, a playground was proposed for the 2-acre semi-circular area between the Garland-Rodes School and Ash Street that would have meant the removal of a number of large trees in the park.  Mr. Reed was concerned about the many trees that had been planted in this area.  The 225 trees here were left over from what was once the city nursery.  Mr. Reed stated that “the trees are fine rare specimens and include burr, oak, cucumber, linn or bass wood, black oak, Japanese maple, tropical magnolia, aralia and cork bark elm, tulip poplar, mountain maple, ginko, cedar, red maple, scarlet and pin oak, catalpa, sycamore and sumac.”  He stated that they present a striking picture to visitors to the park “not unlike a well located botanical garden or arboretum.”  He proposed that a small, fenced-in playground be placed in the center of this grove and that the trees be saved.  His recommendation was followed and the new playground was connected to the Garland-Rodes School with a gravel walkway.28

Then, on February 28, 1949, George Reed received a letter from the Lynchburg Junior Chamber of Commerce Chairman W.H. Nowlin, Jr. noting deplorable conditions in Riverside Park as compared to Miller Park.  The Junior Chamber noted fallen trees, overgrown shrubs, overgrown grass, trash and debris all over the park, and broken drinking fountains.  Shortly after that, George Reed died and the park fell under the care of James D. Wright with the Department of Public Works.  He tried to keep up with routine maintenance, mowing and pruning trees. Then, in September of 1950, the Department of Parks and Recreation, headed by Floyd McKenna, hired Clement Woodall as their Supervisor of Maintenance and Repair. Woodall examined Riverside Park and immediately rolled up his sleeves and got to work.  He inspected all walkways, trees, fences, the timber lookout and the wonderful Alpine Pass.  He concluded that a complete overhaul would be necessary to bring the park back to its former glory.  The Alpine Pass was in the worst shape, filled with garbage, overgrown plants, broken-down fencing and an unsafe overlook.  The timber overlook had to be completely removed from the park for safety purposes.  He had the pool resurfaced, the packet boat hull painted, the caretaker’s residence repaired, the tennis courts resurfaced, and the Alpine Pass widened and fencing replaced.  In early April, 1954, a young girl fell 150 feet down a cliff from the Alpine Pass and, luckily, was unhurt, but a new wire fence was installed a few weeks later.  Pool attendance during the 1950s stayed fairly constant each year at around 14,000 people each season. 

But, the park was in a state of decline.  Crime was becoming more common and parks were not used as they had been in the past.  Also, racial tensions in the city began to surface.  An article in The News reported that on July 5, 1961, all three city pools (Riverside Park, Miller Park, and Jefferson Park) were closed for the remainder of the summer “when seven negroes sought admission to Miller Park pool.”   On July 8, 1961, Philip Lightfoot Scruggs, Editor of The News wrote: 

In reference to the above story of pools being closed because negroes sought admission:  Now, each of these pools has been drained.  Negro leaders forcing the issue knew that this would be the result of any attempt to integrate either of the pools used by whites.  Perhaps, today, they are proud of their accomplishments and consider their “sense of justice” somehow satisfied.  If so, we suspect that all the other swimmers, both Negro and white, question the value of the accomplishment and wonder a bit at such a strange “sense of justice.” 

In an effort to renew interest in Riverside Park, the city came up with a plan for a new attraction.  In the City of Lynchburg Annual Report for 1961-1962 a report states:

Through the efforts of local citizens and the Chamber of Commerce, a steam locomotive donated by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Company, a passenger car donated by the Southern Railway Company, and a caboose donated by the Norfolk and Western Railway Company were placed in Riverside Park, comprising the first exhibits in an envisioned outdoor transportation museum.

An article from The News, dated July 20, 1962, reported that “the romance of the steam locomotive age is enshrined forever in Lynchburg.”  In the same article,  C.V. Cowen, regional manager of the C&O in Richmond, is quoted as saying:

The steam locomotive is a symbol of the boyhood to every American man and the symbol of manhood to every American boy.  So it is far better that this locomotive is put on a pedestal instead of a junk pile.  From today on, all of the ‘junior engineers’ of 2732 can see and also feel with their hearts as well as their fingers what a real ‘iron horse’ looked like, and get an idea of the role it played in building this country.

J. M. Roberts of Norfolk & Western reminded Lynchburgers that it was Lynchburg money in 1850 that financed the westward movement across our country with the starting of the Lynchburg-based Virginia and Tennessee Railroad.  So, we have come full circle, with William Daniel, Jr., one of the original owners of the Riverside Park land and an instrumental founder of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad being commended in 1962 for his efforts that led to the establishment of a railway exhibit in Riverside Park! The train exhibit was a huge hit and together with the packet boat hull, formed the beginnings of the transportation museum. The city tried to acquire a retired fighter jet from the U.S. Air Force, but was unsuccessful.  Also part of this transportation exhibit is a Fink Deck Truss Bridge.  Designed by Albert Fink, the bridge was originally part of the mainline used by the Norfolk and Western Railroad for its trains from 1870 to 1893.  In 1893, it was moved to Old Forest and Halsey Roads and used for vehicular traffic to cross over the Norfolk and Western mainline.  It was moved again in 1985 to its present location in Riverside Park and is used as a pedestrian bridge.  It is a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark and the only one of its kind in existence in the nation today.  By 1977, the train exhibit had deteriorated so badly that it had to be closed to the public.  The Kiwanis Club and the City of Lynchburg are currently raising money to restore the exhibit to its former glory, although the passenger car will have to be removed due to its unsafe condition. A conceptual design for restoration includes a shed to cover the train.

By 1975, racial tensions present in the 1960s seem to have passed as the tennis courts in the park were dedicated to the memory of Dr. Walter Johnson, an African-American physician who coached minority tennis players in his free time.  There’s a marker at the Tennis Courts that reads:

In commemoration of Dr. Walter Johnson’s lifelong pursuit of training minority athletes in the sport of tennis.  Dr. Johnson was responsible for training and coaching such tennis greats as Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson, Juan Farrow and John Long here in the City of Lynchburg.  Dr. R. Walter Johnson Memorial Tennis Courts--Lynchburg Bicentennial Commission--May 10, 1975. 

Another plaque in front of the tennis court marker says:  Shrubbery donated by Lynchburg Links in Memory of Dr. Walter Johnson 1976.

From the 1970s until the mid-1990s, the usage of the park changed.  The pool was filled in 1968, the bath house was demolished, and the concession stand was closed.  The train exhibit was closed in 1977.  People continued to ignore warning signs placed on the train tracks that cross the river just above the park grounds and an occasional person would be injured or even killed.  The packet boat hull began to rust away to dust, and the road through the park was closed to prevent drug transactions and crime.  The park grounds were maintained by the City of Lynchburg to keep them as safe as possible and Garland-Rodes school was closed.  Slowly, however, things began to change for the better in the mid-1990s.  The old Garland-Rodes school was acquired by the Virginia School of the Arts, old playground equipment was replaced by the Kiwanis Club, the tree stewards replaced cherry trees, and the Lynchburg Museum System used the Miller-Claytor House for historical interpretation demonstrations for school children.  The Friends of Riverside Park held an annual event, a picnic shelter was used on occasion for family and school gatherings, and athletic fields saw regular use for soccer games.  An annual running event, the Stephenson Memorial Youth Run, is held each year for children.

Most recently, the Lynchburg Garden Club has placed a new sign at the entrance to the park and landscaped the triangular planting bed with daffodils, boxwood, trees and a statue.  The Miller-Claytor House has been painted and the garden is well-maintained, the packet boat hull has been repainted and a shed has been built to protect it from the elements, and the train is being restored

Another very modern use of the park involves a hobby called geocaching. Geocaching, also known as the Global Positioning Stash Hunt, is an adventure game for GPS users.  A GPS unit is an electronic device that can determine your approximate location on the planet using satellite technology.  Your location is usually given in Longitude and Latitude.  What you do is enter a “waypoint” or coordinates where someone has hidden a cache (listed on and then try to find the cache, which is usually concealed from view.  Once you find the cache you enter your name in a logbook and can see the names of others who have successfully located the cache.  Sometimes the cache includes items that can be taken, but it is a rule that if you take something from the cache, you should also leave something.  After finding the cache you can submit a review on line.  There are several caches located in Riverside Park and a review on line about one said, ”Great cache!  Not hard to find and a very nice walk with great views of the river!  Highly recommended to those with able legs for a bit of scrambling.”   

The Future of the Park
There is no question that Riverside Park is poised for a comeback. The current Director of Lynchburg’s Parks and Recreation Department, Kay L. Frazier, is committed to the task and is working with City officials and Lynchburg citizens to get the project off the ground. The Virginia Department of Transportation, the Lynchburg Garden Club, The Kiwanis Club, the Lynchburg Historical Foundation, the Friends of Riverside Park and the Lynchburg Tree Stewards are all taking part in bringing about a long-awaited transformation.  The City has received a matching grant from the Virginia Department of Transportation, which will bring the total available funds for the project to over $500,000.  The landscape firm of John Milner & Associates, of Charlottesville, Virginia has been selected to create a master plan and to oversee the implementation of the project.  John Milner & Associates, as a first step, will be conducting several community forums this fall to solicit input from Lynchburg citizens to determine what they would like the park to look like and offer in the way of services.  This is a wonderful opportunity for Lynchburg to tailor its park to modern-day uses and citizens are encouraged to attend these forums and offer suggestions.

The park can become a source of pride for the community once again. To quote an editorial about Riverside Park from the Daily Advance dated April 28, 1950:

As time passes this park will increasingly be a major attraction in Lynchburg, in spite of part of it having been given over to a playground.  There might even come a time when the island below it will become part of the park, with return to use of the river.  When that time comes Lynchburg will have the kind of park it should have, fully utilizing the natural advantages present.  But for the present it is enough to go and see the beauty there, be encouraged by the improvements and realize that already it is a fine park and is likely to be made better.

It would be wonderful to see the trees along the riverbank cleared or topped to provide a view of the mountains and the James River, so that we can see what once attracted our community leaders and encouraged them to take the time and spend the money to create this lovely park for us to enjoy.  It might be nice to finally construct the beautiful pavilion that was proposed by the first landscape architect, MacKan.  Anything could happen, so please do your best to attend the community meetings to give your input on what you would like this wonderful park to be in the future. 

This history was compiled by Heidi James. A special “thank you” goes to Catherine Madden for her help in researching old city records, to Tom Ledford for reviewing the article and pointing to clues, and to Al Chambers for reviewing the article and making suggestions for its improvement.

The Island Playground

One of the earliest historical records of what many call “Treasure Island” refers to it as “Jacks Island” and appears in the will of Charles Lynch, dated October 9, 1752. The island, which has 31 acres, is said to lie in the Fluvanna River. Charles Lynch’s will states, “I give my son Christopher Lynch the Land that Joseph Frost lives on and three Islands, Anthony’s Jacks and Sams Island…”29  Jacks Island was sometimes called “Middle” Island as it sat between two other, Anthony’s and Sam’s or Hog and Woodruff Islands, or Daniel’s and Hardwick’s,  whichever names they were given over the course of history.   When it was owned by Lewellyn Jones and then his son, Charles W. Jones, the island was known as “Jones’ Island.” William Daniel, Jr. sold it to John and Elizabeth Rucker on March 30, 1848.30 This deed states that the island lies between Daniel’s Island and Hardwick’s Island with the land of William Pettyjohn on the Amherst County side of the river and the land of William Daniel on the Campbell County side.  An apple orchard is shown on the island in a drawing on the deed. The Rucker’s sold it to Calvin D. Jones on January 14, 1853 for $5,500.  Calvin Jones sold it to Taylor Berry who sold it to John F. Slaughter on October 21, 1893.  Mr. Slaughter sold it to R.T. Phillips on February 10, 1896.31 Mr. Phillips sold it to the Y.M.C.A., with the help of the Craddock Terry Company, on July 9, 1910.32

The community raised over $20,000 to create the Y.M.C.A. recreational center on the island, which opened on June 8, 1912. The Governor of Virginia, William Hodges Mann, spoke at the opening ceremony and the festivities were filmed by the Edison Moving Pictures Company.  There were 60 boats in water, 40 players on 10 tennis courts, 100 men and boys swimming and diving, 100 boys and men on track, 2 baseball games going on, and a personal message from President William Taft delivered by Rep. Carter Glass.  The island featured a boat house with a boat landing and 29 boats and canoes for rent, a clubhouse, a concrete swimming pool that was 30’ x 75’, a 1/4 mile track, 11 tennis courts, baseball diamonds, picnic grounds, camp grounds and a steel bridge to Lynchburg via Fredonia Avenue.  It was $2.50 to join for the year.33

Philip Lightfoot Scruggs in his book Lynchburg, Virginia,34 summarizes the eventual demise of this wonderful recreational paradise as follows:

The future of this recreation area in the river was not to last long after World War I because of the automobile, country club, and suburbia culture, and the added factor of river pollution.  Inevitably it will become recognized that it was tragic not to have the city acquire these river islands, clean up the river, as a prime asset, for beauty, recreation and an area of breathing space.  But cities officially and their inhabitants collectively are noted for shortsightedness and inadequate intelligence about their own welfare.

The Y.M.C.A. sold the island to Michaux and Ester Pettyjohn on March 2, 1931 for $7,000.35 The Pettyjohns sold the island to W.E. Burks on July 7, 193636 and then to Mr. Lynn Cary on June 16, 1947.37 Only two months later, Gretchen and Baxter Scales purchased the island and lived in the club house, raising cows on the island. They sold the island to Mr. James V. Keister of Forest for $30,000 in 1959.38  He sold the island to Mr. E.M. Woody of Amherst.39

 On October 10, 1963, Woody sold the island to the Elim, Inc., of which Jerry Falwell served as President, for $49,900 and the remaining $25,100 of the purchase price was donated by Mr. Woody.40 Mr. Falwell held a huge celebration on July 4, 1964, at which he named the island “Treasure Island.” He planned to have a year-round interdenominational youth camp for Lynchburg children ages 10-19.  He was going to use the existing buildings on the island and he erected a chapel and a gymnasium. There was a terrible flood in 1985, which washed away many of the buildings on the island and washed away the vehicular bridge. Then on March 12, 1988 there was a fire, set by vandals, that burned nearly every structure left standing. The island has been abandoned ever since.  Ownership was transferred from Elim, Inc., to Old Time Gospel Hour and finally to Liberty Broadcasting. There is a communications tower on the island now and that’s it.

Tom Ledford stated that over the years, there has been interest in finding a way to return the island to community use. Richmond makes great use of their islands and our island would be great for regattas, crew racing, tailgate parties, soccer games, fishing, camping, etc.  Perhaps Liberty Broadcasting would consider donating it to the City of Lynchburg or the State Park Service so that once again, it could be a part of Lynchburg’s recreational offerings.


1. Campbell County Deed Book 7, page 227.
2. Campbell County Deed Book  13, page 150
3. “Map of River-View Park” located in  City of Lynchburg Map Room
4. Campbell County Deed Book 44, page 490
5. Parcel #02001001, Lynchburg Deed Book 35,  Page 97.
6. City of Lynchburg Annual Report dated February 1, 1884-February 1, 1885
7. City of Lynchburg Annual Report ending January 1, 1893
8. References to the Smallpox Hospital adjacent to the park continue through 1916.  A reference in City Council records of April 6, 1900 about moving the smallpox hospital to the location of the city Alms House.  Then on October 5, 1900 in City Council records it states: “Resolved that the question of removing the smallpox hospital from its present site in Rivermont be referred to the Sanitary Committee for investigation.”   The hospital must have been removed sometime before 1921, when the Garland-Rodes school was being built.  There was a caretaker’s cottage in Riverside Park, located near the site of the hospital, which was obviously an older building based on the many references to repairs being needed, which may have been one of the old hospital buildings.  The caretaker’s cottage was demolished in 1964.     
9. City of Lynchburg Annual Report, 1897
10. City of Lynchburg Annual Report, 1903
11. Campbell County Deed Book 74, page 139.  One lot was 4.33 acres, was purchased from the Rivermont Company, and adjoined the Smallpox Hospital land.  The other lot was 2.65 acres, was purchased from Isaiah Lewis, and sat next to a “Power House Lot.”
12. City of Lynchburg Annual Report, 1904.  First reference to the park being called “Riverside” rather than “River View.”
13. City of Lynchburg Annual Report, 1908. 
14. City of Lynchburg Annual Reports for 1909, 1910, 1911, 1912
15. See accompanying story on Treasure Island
16. City of Lynchburg Annual Report , 1914
17. City of Lynchburg Annual Report, 1916
18. City of Lynchburg Annual Report, 1917
19. Map of Riverside Park showing location of spring on Alpine Trail located in City Map Room.
20. City of Lynchburg Annual Report, 1924
21. City of Lynchburg Annual Report, 1925
22. City of Lynchburg Annual Report, 1926
23. City of Lynchburg Annual Report, 1927
24. Letter and attached plan from George Reed to City Manager R.W.B. Hart dated January 13, 1928.  Letter located in City Manager’s files, City Hall.
25.City of Lynchburg Annual Reports, 1930, 1931
26. The letter and attached blueprint are located in the City Manager’s files, City Hall.
27. City of Lynchburg Annual Reports from 1933-1937.
28. Letter from George Reed to City Manager R.W.B. Hart dated April 28, 1949.  In City Hall, City Manager’s office files.
29. The Lynchburg Sesqui-centennial Association, Inc. 
The Saga of a City  Lynchburg, Virginia 1786-1936; 1936, page 23-24. 
30. Amherst County Deed Book BB, page 428.
31. Amherst County Deed Book WW, page 102-103.
32. Amherst County Deed Book 64, page 114.
The History of the YMCA in Central Virginia, by Gene W. Tomlin, Warwick House Publishing, Lynchburg, Virginia, 2006
Lynchburg, Virginia, by Philip Lightfoot Scruggs, J.P. Bell Co., 1972
35. Amherst County Deed Book 101, page 167.
36. Amherst County Deed Book 108, page 302.
37. Amherst County Deed Book 118, page 456. 
38. Amherst County Deed Book 199, page 111.
39. Amherst County Deed Book 204, page 62.
40. Amherst County Deed Book 230, page 61.

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