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Legend of the Pachyderms

Was Belle Isle once the home of two Indian Elephants?


  • Yathin S. Krishnappa

Ever hear that legend about the elephants of Belle Isle — you know, the ones that died in a tragic flood back in 1870?

It was a new one to Kelly Kerney, a research assistant at the Valentine Richmond History Center, until she was asked to look into it.

"This is not the first time I've dealt with this question," she writes in an email to Style Weekly. "And, I'm sorry to report, we can find no evidence here in the archives to support the story."

Users on Reddit, an online message board of sorts, also were flummoxed recently by memories of the tale. While they attempted to research it, they, too, ran into dead ends. The only hard evidence they could produce was a picture of a now-vanished interpretive sign a user said he'd taken on the island near the quarry.

The sign reads: "Elephant House. Originally occupied by granite-mining equipment, in 1867 this area was adapted as an enclosure for two Indian elephants, Badri and Bahula, a gift of the British Raj to the city of Richmond. In 1870, rising floodwaters forced an evacuation of the island. Tragically, while fleeing, the celebrated pair and their two keepers drowned when the bridge they were crossing collapsed under the force of the river's current."

So is it true? Or a figment of Photoshop?

We took the question to Ralph White, the retired director of the James River Park System, who happens to be responsible for authoring and installing the bulk of the interpretive signs that dot the island.

It turns out the sign was real. But the message it carried was the product of someone's imagination, White says. We'll let him take the story from here:

"It was a piece of humor and social commentary — a wonderful joke that somebody did making an interpretive sign and gluing it on top of the existing sign. It must have been three years ago. They used brown and white lettering and everything looked pretty much like all the other signs, only it told the story about how elephants were kept chained on the rocks."

White removed it after a few weeks, but that's all the time it took for the story to take hold. "It's how folklore is made out of whole cloth," White says.

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