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Richmond’s Canal Walk showcases urban hiking

Johnny Molloy • Nov 14, 2013 at 8:54 AM

Richmond, Virginia’s riverside past is showcased in a model for urban hiking in the heart of its downtown.The Canal Walk goes around, under and over the modern infrastructure while interpreting the interaction of yesteryear’s peoples. It is fun to follow the trail and absorb the numerous informational displays. In establishing the Canal Walk, the city of Richmond demonstrated real commitment to preserving its past. You can spend a full day exploring the important pieces of Virginia’s past, a living timeline stretching from the late 1600s to today. While strolling along the restored canals of downtown, you can learn about history through displays and enjoy the watery views as well as food, fun and entertainment, plus get a little exercise while doing it. The route is marked and signed with directions and notable information. It is a must-see for history buffs. Water borders the route nearly its entire way, adding scenic value to an historic overlay that covers times from when no white man roamed the shores of the James River to the heady railroad days when tracks spread like veins over the land.First, join a walkway connecting to Brown Island and explore that piece of land. The walk then saddles alongside the Haxall Canal. The canal started in 1789 as a simple millrace, designed to turn a grinder and process grain. The millrace was later extended and deepened as part of the canal system built to allow boats to head upstream or downstream along the James without having to navigate the rapids astride Richmond. The walk passes rail bridge piers that brought Jefferson Davis to his inauguration as president of the Confederate States of America. Civil War significance is never far in Richmond. See where the world’s first electric trolley transportation system began. Back in 1888, Richmond’s public transit system used horse drawn carriages, but then an electric line was developed using energy generated by the outflow of the Haxall Canal. When the Haxall Canal was opened in 1790, it was the first commercial canal in the United States. Remember, these canals were hand dug, part of a greater canal network linking Lynchburg and Richmond. In the 1850s, over 200 boats a day were using the locks and canals, greatly enhancing trade between the western Old Dominion and the capitol city. Visit the cross laid by early English explorer Christopher Newport, who interacted with the Powhatan Indians stationed along the rapids of the James River. Upon landing at what became Richmond, he found an Indian village here. The falls of the James River had been an intersection of aboriginal trade routes well before Newport came to Virginia.The Triple Crossing, the world’s first three-way railroad intersection, represents another layer of history. Take a break in your walk with a guided and narrated 40-minute boat cruise on the lower Tidewater Connection Locks. On your return trip, look beyond the downtown high rises and the James River, considering that the canals of Richmond were advocated by none other than George Washington himself. It would be nice to see Johnson City open up the downtown creeks, eliminating the flood problem and put walkways along the greenspace, then include interpretive historical information about our city, a sort of combination of the Richmond’s Canal Walk and San Antonio’s Riverwalk.

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