This 54-acre wooded island located in the James River was called Broad Rock Island by colonialists in reference to its 120-foot high bluffs. By 1814 the island served as the site of a nail factory and mill powered by nearby rapids and was later renamed for the Belle Isle Manufacturing Company established in 1836. Broad Rock Island, which served as a Civil War-era fortified prison camp, continued to be used for industrial activities including a hydroelectric plant until 1972.
In the mid-1970s landscape architects Danadjieva and Koenig Associates included Belle Isle in their conceptual design for the James River Park System and recommended the preservation of the island’s historic fabric. Belle Isle was reserved as a wildlife preserve and public park accessible from the south via a pedestrian bridge built upon abandoned late-nineteenth century railway piers. The Civil War-era prison camp’s earthen boundaries were reconstructed and a rock quarry was transformed into a pond to be used by anglers and swimmers. In 1988 Belle Isle’s meadow was traversed by the concrete piers of the Robert E. Lee Memorial Bridge constructed across the James River. A pedestrian bridge from Richmond’s Tredegar Street to Belle Isle was suspended beneath the Lee Bridge to connect the island to the larger James River Park System. A two-mile loop trail passes through wooded groves and provides access to a nature center, exposed rock outcroppings, and several military and industrial ruins. Across the river, the park provides views of Hollywood Cemetery and the Richmond skyline. Belle Isle was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.