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Richmond’s historic Pump House is slowly coming back to life

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The Byrd Park Pump House sits just past two working water pump stations near Dogwood Dell. There's also an easy hiking trail nearby too. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)
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Looking down from a catwalk, you can see the massive pumps that would pull water up, which would go up the hill to the Byrd Park reservoir. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)
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Standing on a walking path, looking at the back side of the Byrd Pump House. That's Kanawha Canal. When in operation, water would be pulled through those metal grates in the foreground into the pump room. In its early days, the water wasn't treated. In the distance, the blue pipes are for a working pump station that does filter the water. (Photo: Ian Stewart/VPM News)
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On a cold March Sunday morning, Penn Markham, president of Friends of Pump House, is standing before a group of 20 eager people wearing hard hats, about to start his tour. 

The Pump House, located in Richmond’s Byrd Park District, was constructed in the 1880s. Its sole purpose was to move about 12 million gallons of drinking water per day from the James River and Kanawha Canal up to the reservoir at Byrd Park. 

“For perspective, that's about 17 Olympic-sized swimming pools,” says Markham, who adds that for years, the water wasn’t filtered or treated at all. “People would get cholera and typhoid and all sorts of other fun diseases.”

Penn Markham
Penn Markham show blueprints of the Pump House. (Photo: Ian Stewart/VPM News)

The gothic structure was designed by city engineer Col. Wilfred Emory Cutshaw, who also designed many of Richmond’s streets and lost a leg fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

“If you'd been here back in 1883 through about 1924, you would have seen a series of pumps that are actually nine in total divided into sets of three,” Markham says. “Each of the three pumps had its own turbine attached to it. And you see these humongous pipes over on the wall? Those held water that was coming in from the canal that was driving those water turbines.” 

But since then, the building has fallen into a dilapidated state.

“You notice the windows? Up until about a year ago, they were all boarded up. There’s actually natural light in this room now which there hasn’t been in probably 100 years,” Markham says.

Since 2017, Friends of Pump House has been slowly replacing windows, clearing out coal ash and repairing holes in the floor. 

Their goal is to restore the structure into a gathering place with a museum, a learning center and a venue to hold weddings or performances - something rooted in the building’s history.

“In its day, the pump house was an event venue, and people would have these wild parties here. They would ride canal boats and trains and other various means to get here,” Markham says.

Just above the noise of the massive pumps churning water, the second floor is an open-air space where those dances and parties were once held. It’s here that tourgoer Mary Foust remembers visiting.

“Years ago they used to have picnics up here,” Foust says. “I’ve been here a lot, maybe 10 years ago, and just loved it. It’s just fascinating.”

Foust says she was part of an early group who would listen to ways on how to raise money to restore the building. 

“I think so many people don’t know it’s here,” she says. “I wish they could get people gathered so they can fix it up and make it what they want it to be. I know it can't be like it was but it would be wonderful if they would recognize this as a place that’s got a lot of history.”

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The second floor of the Pump House was built to hold parties and dances--Markam hope to hold events here again. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

A New Pump House Vision

Markham says they have no plans to restore the building to its former glory as a pumping station for drinking water – there are already two such stations nearby.

“We would like to see it be an event venue again. We have so many requests for people who want to have their wedding here among other things,” Markham says. “If we could do that, then that would be success. But we also want to preserve the history and the heritage of the building.”

That’s where a museum or learning center comes in. 

But there’s a huge cost before anyone can say their I do’s on the second floor, says Markham.

“At the time it was built, it cost about $400,000 in 1881 money. That’s about $10 and a half million today,” he says.

The group expects a full restoration will cost around the same. Markham says the $5 donation they charge for tours is only one way they’re raising money  to restore the historic building. Other funds come from various city, state and federal resources.

He says it’ll be another five years before the building is ready to open. Until then, Markham says he and the Friends of Pump House will continue giving tours, raising money and slowly restoring it. And he says he’ll continue enjoying the building’s vibe.

“It just feels so old. I like to imagine what it would have looked like back in the day,” he says. “And just imagine the people who worked here. I just love it in here personally. That's my favorite part.”

Markham says now that spring is here, tours of the Pump House will be given on a monthly basis.

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An old toilet on the second floor, one of the stops on the pump house tour. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)