On a windy, 47-degree afternoon, I ventured to downtown Richmond to explore a structure that the more savvy hikers, kayakers, and trail runners of RVA may have taken note of, but others have likely never seen first-hand. While my destination could be accessed from the trails on the other side, I parked by the Riverside apartment complex, walked over the rotting wooden footbridge to cross the clay-colored river, and then jumped around puddles on the lower-level trail, closer to the river. From the outside, the decaying building I went to see in Belle Isle is just a metal-grated shell, but the inside is decorated with a plethora of colorful, profane, confusing, beautiful, and illegible graffiti.
Before the graffiti and rubble were there, it was a hydroelectric plant during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The main building’s door and windows were covered with metal bars, which rendered the inside plant inaccessible, but I was still able to peer in from the outside and get an idea of what the plant was like while it was in use. With the help of a sign on the James River Park System’s path further inland, which identified the abandoned hydroelectric plant’s features, I was able to pinpoint the rectangles in the ground where generators used to be, as well as the circles on the wall furthest from the river, where the turbine shafts connected to the generators.
There is a smaller room to the side of the plant that functioned as a transformer building, and I was able to venture into it to take pictures. Walking around the building was eerie, especially considering the island’s history as a military prison during the Civil War. I felt like I was somewhere I shouldn’t have been, but at the same time, I didn’t feel like I could leave without exploring every inch of the room. There were sentimental words like “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow” etched onto the coffee-colored walls, but, to be fair, there was also a dripping-red-paint message saying “die now” and a simple green “poop” on the ceiling.
Speaking of poop, I also noticed a stench that I have come to associate with that of horse stables, but, given that there are no horses in Belle Isle’s proximity, I had to make the conclusion that there may have been a bit of a sanitation situation in the transformer room. The metal parts of the structure were rusted in many parts, but the gleam of sunshine going through the window-gaps made parts of it seem oddly inviting. Still, I could tell by plastic bags on the floor and smashed bottles that people had been in there, and I was thankful that I didn’t happen upon anybody while I was poking around and observing. I probably would have screamed, and that would have just been awkward.
For me, urban exploration is very alluring. Whether I’m wandering around an empty factory in Manchester, examining broken railroad tracks beneath a highway underpass, or getting my feet muddy in Belle Isle, there is sense of curious tension these places bring me. In the developed and fast-paced society we live in, we need to remember to pay attention to what once was, but it’s also important to do so safely.
All photos by Sarah Smithson.