By Phil Riggan
James River News Hub
Downtown Montgomery, Ala., has an interesting and relatively new Riverwalk situated on the banks of the Alabama River in a location that in many ways resembles the curve the tidal James River makes as it heads south at the Intermediate Terminal and Rocketts Landing in downtown Richmond.
Located in “The Horseshoe” of the Alabama River as it makes a big turn through the town – the complex is connected by a series of landscaped walkways, boardwalks and historic amenities. It has an amphitheater, a baseball stadium, riverboat dock, Union Station (train station distinguished as a historic landmark, includes city visitor’s center), parks and a new community garden. The area is surrounded by many trendy restaurants, several hotels and a convention that was completed in 2007.
During Doug Wilder’s term as mayor of Richmond, he tried to create interest in a marina at the Intermediate Terminal, hoping to either compete with or supersede the dock planned (and since established) for Rockett’s Landing. The failed Echo Harbour project (planned for the property adjacent to Great Shiplock Park) also had a plan for a marina.
I saw no sign of downtown marinas in Montgomery, but the Riverwalk was at least in use and is considered a good attraction for tourists staying downtown. The project began in 2005 at the cost of at least $20 million.
Ruth Stevenson, a longtime Montgomery resident who works in the visitor’s center, said that she thinks the Riverwalk is good for downtown and is great for things like concerts, ballgames, weekend events; but it needs to have vendors for daily use by downtown workers.
“It used to be a big shopping district centered around Commerce Street, but hasn’t been that way for years,” she said of the immediate area around Riverwalk. “It needs a hotdog stand or some ice cream, something to get the lunch crowd down there.”
Richmonders often have the same complaints about the Canal Walk, which cost $52 million to build. Many expected it to be that type of attraction for downtown, especially combined with the construction of the Floodwall (cost at least $143 million) to protect Shockoe Bottom and Manchester from flooding. I’m surmising that at least some of the vision for the greenway between the Canal Walk, Chapel Island, the Virginia Capital Trail, Great Shiplock Park, through the Intermediate Terminal and down to Rocketts Landing and beyond would benefit from some of the elements that Montgomery’s Riverwalk offers.
The comparisons between Richmond and Montgomery are many:
- Both are state capitals (Virginia and Alabama, respectively)
- Both were capitals of the Confederacy (Richmond, 1861-65 & Montgomery 4 months of 1861)
- Both claim key moments in civil rights and black history
- Both were born from early European colonization (and subsequent eradication Native Americans)
- Both have heavy downtown freight train traffic (and both have great places to watch trains as well)
- Both have claims to “firsts” with trolleys: Montgomery had the first city-wide system of streetcars established in 1886. Richmond had the first successful large electric street railway system in 1888.
There are many more comparisons, but the cities’ relationship to their rivers are the single biggest reason for their establishment at their respective locations. What better way than to take advantage of a great natural resource.
Richmond could someday take better advantage of its tidal waters. Besides Rocketts Landing, there is little development along that stretch of the city and Henrico County. With continued growth in downtown access to the river and with the success James River Park as an outdoor haven should naturally bring renewed attention to development and usage for the greenway between 17th and Dock streets and Rocketts Landing, and perhaps even beyond someday to shores of the proposed Tree Hill Farm development in eastern Henrico.
* * *
February 26, 1961, the Alabama River hit 58.1 feet in Montgomery and stayed above the 35 foot flood stage for 17 days. There was flooding in the streets. The normal water levels on the Alabama in Montgomery are in the 22-25 foot range, according to the National Weather Service.
Accordingly, railroads are above the 60 foot mark, hoping to avoid flooding. The Riverwalk is built above the 35 foot mark and has a floating dock to serve the Riverboats and motor boats used for water skiing (yes, downtown water skiing!).
The base of Richmond’s skyline is dominated by the James River and the two-mile steel and concrete double-track railway known as the CSX Viaduct. It too is built above the highest expected flood mark. The Floodwall is constructed to withstand flooding of up to 32 feet and its recorded historic crest was 28.62 feet during the aftermath of Hurricane Agnes in June 1972.