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Ship Block

One man wants to revive the fight against a rusty old nemesis.


"This is all a public trust, this canal," Wiley says, looking at the daffodils near his feet, the trees on the opposite bank, the fisherman with five flapping shad in a bucket. "It just doesn't seem ethical for someone to sit here and block it."

That someone is Norfolk Southern, which owns the 73-year-old drawbridge at 28th Street. Trains pass over it twice a day, laden with lumber. Its opening mechanism broken, the bridge has been closed over the canal for more than 30 years.

That bridge blocks boats' passage from the scenic section of the canal downtown to the Great Shiplock, the grand gate to the James. Few Richmonders even know what or where the lock is, grumbles Wiley, 79, who worked for Reynolds Metals for 34 years and was a driving force behind the restoration of the Canal and the building of the floodwall. "I think that they have let the history of this thing go to pot," he says.

But it's not too late. The time has come, he says, for the city to press for the opening of the broken bridge. It would help the Canal Walk live up to its tourist potential by capitalizing on the "singular history" of the Great Shiplock, he says. It would bring boaters and picnickers to the park there on summer afternoons. Wiley says he knows much has been invested already in the Canal, "but if someone doesn't do something down there, you're going to have another 6th Street Marketplace."

But can the bridge be raised?

Fourteen years ago, the city of Richmond tried. The city attorney's office loosed a flood of letters urging the railroad to fix the bridge. It was backed by the Department of Public Works and the Coast Guard, which has jurisdiction over the canal because it is classified as a navigable waterway. A brief letter to the city dated May 29, 1990, stated in no uncertain terms that "the Coast Guard will order Norfolk Southern to repair the drawbridge between the Great Shiplock and the historic Richmond Dock." Yet nothing happened.

Mike Sarahan, who was assistant city attorney at the time, recalls stiff resistance from Norfolk Southern. The company's big concern was not the repair, Sarahan says, "but the obligation that would come along with that" — the cost of personnel and maintenance to keep the bridge operational. Sarahan says one railroad representative even blurted out at a meeting that the company "had essentially cannibalized the bridge to save money." However, Bruce Wingo, resident vice president at Norfolk Southern, says the bridge broke when the great floods in 1969 and 1972 ruined the machinery.

In the end, Sarahan says, the city engaged in a kind of "gentlemen's agreement" with Norfolk Southern around 1994. The railroad agreed it would make an effort to fix the bridge if it heard an objection to its disrepair "from anyone with standing to complain," he says. The idea was that the bridge would be examined again when the Canal Walk was extended east, says Jim McCarthy, executive director of the Richmond Riverfront Corp., and that the city would share the cost of repair — estimated to be between $750,000 and $1 million — with Norfolk Southern. "Right now, there is no time frame" for that repair, Wingo says.

Sarahan says he can see why the city didn't put its foot down. The "powers that be" wanted to maintain a good relationship with the railroad, he says, because its cooperation was essential for future development downtown. "This was something I didn't love that happened," he says, "but I could understand."

The Coast Guard abandoned the fight, too. Linda Bonenberger, a management specialist with the Coast Guard, says from 1981 to 1992, letters flew back and forth but the issue was never resolved. "We fought them," Bonenberger says, "and I think the reason it never went any further is because the development for the Canal never went any further."

It's true the Canal Walk doesn't reach to the bridge. But Sarahan agrees with Wiley that the bridge has affected traffic there. "The biggest single historic item in the whole Canal is the Great Shiplock," he says. "And tourists can't get to it."

Well, McCarthy says, soon they will be able to. The Richmond Historic Riverfront Foundation has paid about $30,000 for the manufacture of a floating dock to be installed this month on the western side of the bridge. Tourists could disembark from historic boat tours there, he says, and walk along a newly made path through the park to the Great Shiplock.

Better than nothing, Wiley says, but still he's dismayed. He calls it an "act of arrogance" on the part of the railroad that the company has not acted to make the waterway passable. He believes the broken bridge has negated the care and pride that entered the preservation of the Great Shiplock.

The Industrial Development Authority and Historic Richmond Foundation spent $100,000 to repair the gates and walls of the Great Ship Lock in 1989. They removed 50 truckloads of trash, Wiley recalls, and found skeletons of old boats buried in the drained lock's bottom. To celebrate the end of the project, the tall ship Alexandria sailed into the lock in November, drawing city dignitaries and eager children alike.

The lock hasn't been opened since, Wiley says. "It's like nobody really is interested." But what if the city got the railroad to repair the bridge? What if the Great Shiplock's gates were open on a regular basis, say, every third day for four hours? He believes the canal would again come alive.

"See this boat here?" he says, pointing to a large fishing boat moored just below the lock. "I'm sure he'd come up and dock here if he could." Then, the ducks would have some company. S

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