It seemed the fate of Margaret Percival’s beloved island home already had been sealed when she died in 1859.
Instead of a peaceful refuge in the James River, industry came — first the canal company and then the railroad built facilities on this small flat island. Percival’s oasis became a transportation crossroads, coal dust blackening the once red Virginia clay.
One can’t help but think Margaret would be pleased to see what eventually became of the island where she and her husband John Percival set down roots, the place where John threatened harm to those who wanted to development it.
After all, Margaret Percival’s obituary, printed in The Daily Virginian, reads: “Her beautiful ‘island home’ now looks desolate indeed, because of the withdrawal of that form that has been so long its presiding genius. The flowers seem to droop their heads and the birds to sound a requiem among the branches of the trees …”
Percival’s Island once again serves as an oasis from a bustling Lynchburg, but this time as a park. It is one of the most popular spots on the Blackwater Creek Trail and on any beautiful day, one can find people running, biking or exploring the 1.5-mile island.
And in the generations between, Percival’s Island played a vital role in Lynchburg’s transportation history.
On early maps of the area, this island bore the name Chain Island or Horse Ford Island. Its western end marked the shallow spot in the river bottom that once provided a safe river crossing, according to the sign at the park’s entrance. A road near the western end of the island still bears the Horseford name.
It was the place John and Edward Lynch established their ferry service that led to the formation of the city, according to James Elson’s book, “Lynchburg, Virginia: The First Two Hundred Years, 1786-1986.”
John Percival purchased the island from the Lynch family and from then on, it bore his name. John Percival was an Irish immigrant and “a businessman of some reputation in the Lynchburg area,” wrote James N. Gillum in the article, “Mr. Percival’s Island, or Railroading in the Middle of the James River,” published in the November/December 2000 issue of the Arrow: The Norfolk & Western Historical Society Magazine.
Percival likely was a circuit rider or itinerate preacher of the Methodist Episcopal Church, according to documents written by R.P. Merchant filed at Jones Memorial Library. He was expelled from the church in 1828 and formed what became the Methodist Protestant Church.
The couple, who had five children, built a two-story home on the island and operated a farm there, Merchant wrote.
John Percival died in 1845 at age 60. His wife died in 1859. Her obituary printed in The Virginian indicated she was a woman who met the challenges of life with an “untiring energy, judicious economy, consummate skill and unyielding fortitude.”
Little has been written about John Percival, except the dispute he entered into with the James River & Kanawha Canal Company over the condemnation of a part of the island.
By 1838, the canal company had worked its way up the James from Richmond to Lynchburg, where it planned to use part of Percival’s island, Elson wrote.
“As construction neared Lynchburg, the contractors reached the point where the canal was to be dug through a 300-yard stretch on Percival’s Island,” Gillum wrote. “In an initial agreement, Percival had not objected to the price paid for his land.”
The canal company’s shareholders meeting minutes on file at the Lynchburg Museum detail the dispute with Percival.
“The amount of damages was afterward taken to Percival, but he refused to receive it; and when the company in the summer of 1838 (Percival having forfeited his contract for excavating the canal) endeavored by one of its contractors to take possession of the land, he prevented them from doing so by the use of force of arms, threatening certain and immediate death to any agent of the company who should enter his lands for the purpose of excavating the canal,” the president’s report states.
Percival refusal to allow assessors on his land created a two-year delay as the issue worked its way through the courts. It took a special act of the Virginia General Assembly in March 1840 to settle the dispute. The first boats arrived that December.
The company’s success, however, was short lived.
In 1859, the James River & Kanawha Canal Company was the most powerful in Virginia, hauling three times more freight tonnage than the Richmond & Danville Railroad. The canal company amassed a total yearly income of $309,000 ($9.5 million in today’s dollars), wrote T. Gibson Hobbs in the book, “The Canal of the James.”
But it also amassed debt in building the system. Then in 1870, the James River jumped its banks, causing about $370,000 in damages.
“As destructive as the flood of 1870 had been, however, the flood of 1877 was worse,” Hobbs wrote. “It was, in fact, too much. While navigation was restored, the financial situation of the canal company was now impossible. In 1880, the Richmond & Alleghany Railroad Company was formed to take over the canal and lay down its line from Clifton Forge to Richmond, with the rails to be laid mainly on the canal towpath. Work started from both ends and met at Lynchburg.”
Forty years after it first formed, the canal company shut down in 1881.
While the James River & Kanawha Canal Company worked its way up the James River, so too did the railroads.
By 1853, the Southside Railroad wanted Percival’s Island to build a rail yard. The following year, the railroad owned the island, though it is believed Margaret Percival continued to live there until her death in 1859.
“In any event, at the time of her passing, she no longer owned this interesting piece of real estate as it had been acquired through condemnation by Southside Railroad at a cost of $22,500,” Gillum wrote.
The first Southside train arrived in Lynchburg in November 1854, and its 115-mile trip from Petersburg took eight hours, Gillum wrote.
Railroad mergers formed the then-Lynchburg-based Norfolk & Western Railway, now known as Norfolk Southern, in 1881. The Island Yard, at its peak, contained 24 tracks that could hold 830 cars, according to Gillum.
“Studying a 1917 track map of Island Yard reveals that in spite of its limited area, the terminal had an interesting collection of buildings and facilities,” Gillum wrote. “This included the usual assortment of storage sheds, a 60’ turntable, a two stall engine house with attached machine shop, a crane loaded coal wharf and obligatory pump house and water filtering equipment. Living quarters were provided for the section foreman and a bunk house for engine crews lying over…”
Consolidation of the railroads led to the construction of Union Station in 1890 and its accompanying freight house behind the station between 9th and 11th streets.
Freight trains faced steep grades as they emerged from the yard, often requiring the help of a pusher engine. In 1908, the Lynchburg Belt Line and Connecting Railroad provided a route around Lynchburg, which became the primary route for eastbound traffic, Gillum wrote.
“In spite of the operational obstacles attendant to Island Yard, it was to serve as the Lynchburg terminal for the N&W into the 1950s,” Gillum wrote.
N&W Historical Society member James B. Scott described in Gillum’s article the challenges of working on the island. The only place to park a car was along the tracks and employees had use a walkway built on the bridge to get to work, their walk lit only by light from signals, Gillum wrote.
“In the 1920s, Officer George M. Ware of the Lynchburg Police Department caught a thief breaking into a boxcar on the island yard,” wrote G. Howard Gregory in a 1999 document filed at the Jones Memorial Library. “A gun battle ensued. Officer Ware was critically wounded in the stomach and his assailant killed. Tragically, Officer Ware was shot to death in another gun battle on Oct. 10, 1933, at 12th and Taylor streets.”
The arrival of diesel locomotives to the Durham line in 1955 spelled the beginning of the end for the Island Yard. By October, the Kinney Yard, behind City Stadium, became the railroad’s Lynchburg base of operations.
A 1959 merger opened a connector that resulted in all Durham-bound trains originating in Roanoke, Gillum wrote. Nearly all the freight ran on the new line, but passenger trains continued to use Union Station and the island until a new passenger station opened Dec. 30, 1964. The Island Yard operations ceased the following day with the closure of Union Station.
The following year, N&W began abandoning sections of track.
“Almost exactly 110 years after the first train arrived at the terminus of the Southside Railroad on Island Yard, this unusual railroad location no longer represented an integral part of the daily rail operations in Lynchburg,” Gillum wrote.
N&W’s merger with the Southern Railway resulted in the company abandoning the island in about 1990.
That didn’t mark the end of the life on Percival’s Island.
Norfolk Southern sold the island and two small tracts at the foot of Washington Street in 1991 to Lynchburg for $50,000. Andrew Reeder, parks services manager for the Lynchburg Parks and Recreation Department, said he understands the money came from an anonymous benefactor.
But what would the island become?
“There were different ideas when the city acquired it,” Reeder said. “Some thought of turning it into athletic field and soccer fields out there — that was seriously contemplated at one time. And there was discussion about having bridge be a doublewide bridge and one you could drive cars on. I’m glad neither one happened.”
Percival’s Island officially opened as a city park and nature/bicycle trail on June 6, 1998. Reeder said the island was in use as a park since 1994, but until grant work was completed, people were “running on plywood we put across the trestle. It was shaky at best. It was just a gravel trail where they had taken up the rails.”
By 1998, the pavement had been laid down the center of the island and the bridge rebuilt. In 2000, the bridge on the Amherst side of the island was completed with a grant that also funded the Blackwater Creek Trail’s Ed Page entrance off Langhorne Road.
Creating a permanent path along the riverfront to connect Percival’s Island to the rest of the trail system is the next piece. Once combined sewer overflow work is completed, Reeder said crews will connect the two parts of the trail and possibly build a small canal park.
It’s a toss-up to whether Percival’s Island or the Ed Page entrance are the most popular stretches of Blackwater Creek Trail, but Reeder predicts the completion of the riverfront area will make Percival’s Island the trail system’s centerpiece.
“It’s just a unique place and a nexus for all these transportation corridors,” Reeder said. “You have the railroads, the canoe and bateaus, the road, the stage line — they all went through Lynchburg. The ferry, of course, how the town got its name. Percival’s Island played a role in each of those modes of transportation and I think it’s still neat that it’s part of the social pattern of the city. It’s a very important place in the city and we are happy to be caretakers of it.”