After years of planning, the city of Hopewell last month opened a boardwalk with sweeping views along the confluence of the Appomattox and James rivers, just east of the Route 10 bridge.
It’s a vantage point that has been hidden from the public until now and one the city hopes will draw people to the river and to downtown businesses.
On a recent weekday, water lapped gently beneath the yellow pine planks as a woodpecker knocked its beak on logs lining Hopewell’s shoreline on the Appomattox.
The new $615,000 boardwalk is the culmination of four to five years of discussions about a riverside trail, said Aaron Reidmiller, the city’s parks and recreation director. The 1,700-foot wooden span begins at City Park behind the Appomattox Regional Library and meanders westbound along the shore to a spot near the Boathouse restaurant.
City boosters say the waters around the city have come a long way since the mid-1970s, when Kepone insecticide was discovered in the James River off the city’s shores. That pesticide was manufactured in Hopewell from 1966 to 1975, and dumped into the river by Allied Chemical Corp. and then by its subcontractor Life Science Products Co.
After the contamination was found back in 1975, state officials instituted a 13-year fishing ban from Richmond to Hampton Roads in the James River, and the water body gained a reputation as one of the dirtiest rivers in the country at that time.
Reidmiller noted the river is healthier now, adding that wildlife — including bald eagles, ospreys and peregrine falcons — abounds around the Riverwalk. He said catfish and bass fishing tournaments are held regularly at the city marina.
“Things are very good,” Reidmiller said of the river’s health. “It’s certainly a testament to all the efforts that have been done over the last 40 years to kind of renew or re-establish the health of the river.”
Nowadays, the river is seen as a key part of efforts to revitalize the downtown, where an Irish pub, a barbecue restaurant and a coffee shop are among the businesses that have opened in recent years. The Beacon Theatre, which is within walking distance of the trail, holds about 85 concerts a year.
Evan Kaufman, executive director of the Hopewell Downtown Alliance, said customers heading to the Riverwalk might go over to downtown businesses that are a short distance from City Park where the boardwalk begins.
“It’s really for the whole community, so people now have access to probably one of Hopewell’s greatest assets, which is the river,” Kaufman said of the Riverwalk.
The project was paid for through donations raised by the Friends of the Lower Appomattox River; state money that the friends group secured; and with city funds.
The city plans to extend the Riverwalk farther west along the shore, then back up on land to the parking area next to the Boathouse. From there, the Riverwalk would head west to the city marina, passing the Route 10 bridge, where a 51-foot sculpture in the shape of the letter “H” greets motorists driving into the city.
That second phase, which Reidmiller hoped could be completed by the summer of 2020, is estimated to cost $400,000, he said, adding that the city has obtained state money to cover that expense.
The new path is one piece of a 23-mile trail system that the Friends of the Lower Appomattox River started building in the 1990s. About 7 to 10 miles have been completed of a trail that is proposed to run from Lake Chesdin in Dinwiddie County into Hopewell. The trail system, which has been added in bits and pieces over the years, is proposed to run through Dinwiddie, Chesterfield and Prince George counties as well as the cities of Petersburg, Colonial Heights and Hopewell.
“We’re making sure there are those regional connections beyond each locality,” said Heather Barrar, the regional trail program director at the Friends of the Lower Appomattox River. “We’re looking at connecting the pieces together.”
Jamie Brunkow, a senior advocacy manager at James Riverkeeper, said projects like the Riverwalk are important to improving access to the river.
“Those kinds of things are how you build advocates for the river,” Brunkow said.
There’s a shoreline wading area at the entrance to the Riverwalk. Just as residents walk in, there’s a fishing pier off to the right. Beyond that point there’s no other fishing access on the 8-foot-wide boardwalk.
Reidmiller said Hopewell officials have informally discussed expanding the path east from its current spot so that it would connect City Park and City Point — a riverside national park on the northeastern end of town. But the concept of linking City Park and City Point has not been formally proposed or studied, he said, adding that concept faces the obstacle of getting 20 private landowners to agree to having the Riverwalk run past their land.
The new riverside pathway is one of Hopewell’s largest-ever recreational infrastructure projects, Reidmiller said.
Even at her riverside home, Tray Eastham said she can’t see as much of the water as she does on the boardwalk because there it’s unobstructed by trees.
“I love the view,” said Eastham, who was walking on the boardwalk with her 9-month-old son last Wednesday. “You don’t get this view of the river anywhere else.”