Have you ever found yourself walking, running, biking or paddling along Riverside Drive near Pony Pasture and wanted to know more about that big island across the river? That’s Williams Island. A 95-acre blend of nature, history and serenity.
The relatively flat and heavily vegetated Williams Island is in the middle of the James River, across from the 2-acre park, Riverside Meadow Greenspace. There are two distinctly different channels to the north and south of the island and both are blocked by dams, built to help divert water into the city’s purification plant.
On the south side, most people are familiar with the highly visible Z-dam. According to the Falls of the James, by David Ryan, it was rebuilt in 1932, replacing a dam of loose rocks. It was altered with a 30-foot notch in 1993 to allow migratory fish species such as shad, river herring and striped bass to swim upstream.
The north channel is much more peaceful and calm, with the serenity broken up only by the occasional train. The dam was constructed in 1905 and begins at the northeast shore of the island and runs across the river to a portion of the north bank known as “Dead Man’s Hill,” as documented by Ryan.
There used to be a gravel pit and stone quarry on the island, which extended to the south bank of the river along Riverside Drive, according to White. The stone was carried across the James to the Kanawha Canal and ported down river.
The island has always been a popular fishing spot, according to Ralph White, former park manager for the James River Park System. There are worn foot paths through the wild underbrush all around the island, most likely “maintained” and shared by a combination of fisherman and wildlife.
White said that Williams Island has been home to black bears and, at one time, an albino deer. Other animals include raccoons, muskrat, skunk and wild turkey.
According to White, Williams Island belongs to the City of Richmond Public Utilities Department, but is under the care of the JRPS. Public utilities has given the JRPS permission to maintain the island and the general public is allowed to visit the island and the surroundings. When the water levels of the James are low, people can often reach the island more easily by rock hopping.