Life and (Near) Death on Belle Isle

Editor’s Note: This article was originally titled “Belle Isle Adventures.”

It was meant to be a lovely day at the river, with serenity and the sound of flowing water being enveloped by the surrounding air. The surrounding air did not capture the sound of tranquil flowing water but the noise of a young girl’s screams for help. The people around me, who were at Belle Isle in downtown Richmond to enjoy Labor Day weekend, quickly stood up to look in the direction of the high-pitched screams. A young girl was floating downstream, struggling to swim, yelling “Help! Help!” As I became aware of what was happening, two men jumped into the water, grabbed the little girl, and brought her to shore.

The two men were fresh-faced, strong, and a bit shorter than average. Both were sporting buzz cuts and wearing swim trunks. When I asked the men what they were thinking when they saved the young girl, they simply said they weren’t. They said that thinking about the issue at hand would have prevented them from moving as quickly as they did to save her. They are recruits at the Richmond Fire Department’s academy, and asked that their names not be used, per Fire Department policy.

When asked about what she saw, Collegiate student Kate Kinder (‘17), an eye witness to the dramatic rescue, said, “At first I wasn’t sure if she was just floating along or if she was actually struggling to stay afloat. Just as she passed where we were sitting, she began to shout for help. This was my ‘Oh God’ moment.”

Belle Isle

Photo by Olivia Hess

“I heard this little girl start yelling ‘Help!’ and at first I thought she was just kidding, but then I looked over and saw her spinning in the rapids with her head bobbing up and down,” said witness Kevin Cross (‘17).

Where did this dramatic event occur? The one and only Belle Isle, located in the middle of the James River in downtown Richmond. Once a Native American village, a Civil War prison camp, an iron foundry, and currently a city park, Belle Isle is considered to be quite the outdoor recreation haven. As a prison camp, in 1863, Belle Isle held more than 10,000 Union soldiers. The prison had no walls, but was instead surrounded by a short hump of land. The captured Union soldiers were told by the Confederate soldiers that if they crossed that hump, they would be shot dead on the spot. This threat lead to the barricade being known as a “dead line”.

Before my most recent visit, I was curious as to why so many people enjoyed going to a place where the main form of entertainment appears to be watching water hit flat rocks. However, long-time Virginia resident and Newport News Shipyard employee Patricia Dixon helped change my thought process. She said she came back to Belle Isle a second time not just for the scenery and the rocks but for the history as well. “It’s free, it’s neat, it’s just something different,” said Dixon while describing why she admires such a place.

Ex-Marine and Richmond native Keegan Bennett and his dog Roxy go to Belle Isle once a week to enjoy the water and fresh air. Although most people I interviewed did not believe that Belle Isle is kept as clean as it should be, Bennett thought differently. He believes that countless people are careless and leave their trash, creating a mucky environment, which ruins the idea of a clean atmosphere for everyone else.

The rocks

Photo by Olivia Hess

To accompany Bennett’s frustration of trash being left all over the place, another interviewee named Drew, who preferred his last name not be shared, thinks that there are not enough trash cans where one can properly dispose of their garbage. Drew constantly expressed his love for Belle Isle, talking about how he visits at least once a week. “Belle Isle is an important part of Richmond, it’s almost like the heartbeat, it’s a place to explore and a place to relax,” said Drew. He, much like many others I met during this excursion, has always gone to Belle Isle to hike, swim, and savor the outdoors.

I had never quite enjoyed places like Belle Isle, jam-packed and loud. I didn’t think such a crowded and busy place could be so peaceful. The air was cool, the noise of the splashing water covered the voices in the surrounding atmosphere. At Belle Isle there is not much to do except for hike, swim, and sit, deeming it, in my mind, uneventful. Nevertheless, that thought has progressively started to change as I think about the exciting rescue of the young girl. A calm day at the river quickly turned into a heroic affair that eased everyone’s hearts once the girl was safely back on land, allowing the restful day to continue. Although I had a lovely time at Belle Isle, I am not and never will be a “river girl,” but now I have a clear understanding as to the reason for which numerous people enjoy it. 

About the author

Olivia is a Senior at Collegiate who loves flavor blasted goldfish but strongly dislikes the new speed bumps.