Tales of Virginia – Palace on the Canal

Like much of the toils of history, there are dark secrets that remain hidden behind great feats of man.

In 1785, George Washington and the James River Company led work on the James River and Kanawha Canal system in Richmond – it was the most ambitious public works project in Virginia during the 19th century. Much of the arduous labor forging the canal was carried out by African-American slaves. Interestingly, the slaves were used after the James River Company’s battle with the original Irish immigrant laborers who went on strike to protest the appalling working conditions. According to historical records, three generations of African-American slaves worked lengthy days of inconceivable suffering to achieve George Washington’s dream of a canal system.

The James River and Kanawha Canal lay the foundation for a mausoleum of granite, antiquity, and legend. That mausoleum is Byrd Park Pump House, an immense and foreboding granite palace built directly on the canal. The historic Pump House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was erected approximately 1881 to 1883. The building featured an elegant dance floor on a sweeping open-air assembly, a large annex, a steeply pitched roof, projecting gables, Gothic arches, and lancet windows. Contributing an advanced hydroelectric pumping station and steam pump building (a one-story Italianate style pump house built of brick coated with stucco), the complex was ultimately manufactured as the waterworks facility for the city of Richmond.

During the late 19th century, Richmond elite made leisure passage on the canal to attend high profile events until the Pump House closed in 1924. The advanced hydro-electric equipment was sold as scrap material for the war and the city scheduled the Pump House for demolition in the 1950’s but instead sold the property to First Presbyterian Church for $1.00.

Both the canal and Pump House have grown largely abandoned and desolate. There have been numerous reports of ghost sightings and eerie happenings within and around the Gothic structure. Within the last few years, volunteers have independently participated in restoring the Pump House.

One such account documents a strange encounter while reconditioning the building interior: Two volunteers on the second floor heard conversation from the machine room below them. Deciding that one of them must have left the door open and visitors to the park had come inside, he descended the stairs to escort them out and secure the entrance before someone got hurt on the dark ground floor. Upon reaching the bottom stair, the volunteer claims his flashlight flickered off and the voices stopped. Feeling a little spooked, he walked back up a few stairs and his light mysteriously flicked back on and the voices seemed to pick up where they’d left off. Again, down to the bottom stair with the same result – out went the light and only silence was heard. The volunteer quickly went back to the dance hall, hastily packed his belongings, and left.

“There’s the ghost of Daniel Tetweiler, who hung himself, but there’s also a woman named Elizabeth … she is the most fantastic orb you will see. Also there’s Spectra, the apparition of a woman in white. She cuts loose with her energy force. Twenty-three different groups are traveling in her aura. The Pump House has water, steel and a slate roof. Plus there is iron all through it and it’s continuously moving, so it’s like a conductor. It will create a portal,” says Richmond’s Robert Bess, self-proclaimed paranormal investigator.

Throughout time, the Byrd Park Pump House has served as a symbol of inspiration for its elaborate Gothic architecture and distinctive unity of public utility with the custom of festivity and celebration.

It is within reason to believe that a spooky structure holds a wealth of interest and intrigue; that an otherworldly dwelling resting on a canal forged by dreadful adversity attract a reputation of shadowy spirits and legend. However, is it within the realm of possibility that living souls of the past occupy a granite crypt once an industrialized novelty?

Some things are never what they seem.



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