HOLMBERG: Deep-down RVA – a new life for 145-year-old underground beer vaults?

Posted at 12:45 AM, Jan 11, 2014
and last updated 2014-01-11 12:04:54-05

RICHMOND,Va. (WTVR)-If you love history and deep-down Richmond stories, you’ll want to belly up to the tale of the old James River Steam Brewery founded in 1866 by the Yeungling dynasty of Pottsville, Pa.

Its arched-stone front and labyrinth-like vaulted cellars live on, testifying to the fact that Richmond is perched on a bed of Petersburg granite approximately 1 3/4 miles thick and 330 million years old.

That granite was mined to build the foundation of the palatial five-story brewery and beer garden, just like it was used to build old City Hall and countless other buildings and structures, including much of the city’s existing curb stones.

That sturdy footprint is why, after a devastating fire and more than 140 years of time, a plan is afoot to turn the old brewery into something new – perhaps another brewery.

It was built on Rockett’s Landing on the shoulder of James River by David G. Yeungling, son of patriarch of the long-lived Yeungling dynasty, according to the history included in the application for the National Park Service’s Historic Places Registration form. (Read it here:

It was fronted by the beautifully landscaped Schuetzen Park, which was frequented by picnickers long after the building  burned down to its cellars on Jan. 4, 1891, according to the historic application.

This was a golden era for breweries. Just up the way, high atop Chimborazo Hill, the Goodman Brewery had similar underground beer vaults that are still buried under the park there.

It was an economic depression that took the steam out of the James River Brewery, and in 1879, it was sold to Richmond Cedar Works, which used it for storage until the devastating fire.

There have been plans to redevelop the brewery cellars in the past, but the WVS Companies behind the vast Rockett’s Landing community have some serious momentum. They have 250 units on the sprawling site above the cellars (including some $1 million homes) and the project is steadily growing towards it goal of 1,500 residential units.

When construction site work revealed the tough old masonry cellars, “the first thing we thought was, ‘Oh my, what do we have here?’” said Robert Hensley with WVS Properties.

“The first step is to get approved for historic tax credits,” he said. “We obviously want to save this wonderful structure.”

They let me wander through the cellars Friday morning. As a lifelong mason, it appears to me that most of the many-layered vaulted ceilings and arches made of brick seem sound and built on rock that hasn’t moved in more than a century. The worst damage is where rainfall has washed a portion of the front down.

At least to me, it looks like there’s hope for this watery labyrinth that has several chambers running about a city block underground.

It joins other underground Richmond legends I have had the pleasure of researching, and in some cases, crawling into.

You know the story of the Church Hill train tunnel collapse, right?

Oct. 2, 1925, 3:30 p.m. -- Outside the C&O tunnel under Church Hill it was raining. Inside it was dry where Tom Mason braked his locomotive to a stop. It was to be his last day switching flatcars for the construction workers shoring up the old tunnel.

There was a thump, and one of the workers looked up to see bricks raining down from the arched roof. There was a cracking sound from above.

He'd seen enough. The roof was caving in, and as he bolted for the western mouth of the tunnel the roar of falling earth, bricks and timber mixed with the screams of men trying to escape. Everybody made it out of the tunnel except Mason, who was buried alive at the controls, and, likely, two laborers. Another man was scalded to death. A rescue effort recovered Mason's body, but its likely the two laborers, and the train, are still buried under Church Hill.

The 4,000-foot long tunnel, finished in 1873, went underground from 18th and Marshall streets to 30th and Grace and was a black cloud from the beginning. During a Jan. 13, 1873, collapse under 24th Street a half-dozen houses were swallowed and a man was killed.

Another favorite story - the great beer vaults underneath nearby Chimborazo Hill.

It’s not clear when the underground vaults were built. A 1862 map of Chimborazo Hospital shows a Goodman brewery, but the vaults aren't on the map. Details are sketchy, but the vault was apparently used by three brewers, including Pennsylvania brewer Joseph Bacher.

The vaults apparently weren't cool enough to keep the beer, and were next used for tool storage by the parks when the property was acquired around the turn of the century. In 1908 the vaults were closed.

For a generation or two, the vaults were officially reopened for inspection, usually relating to the earth slides on Chimborazo Hill.

The six massive, intricate brick vaults measure from 12 to 15-feet high, 11 to 14-feet wide and range from 29 to 50-feet long. They lie about 20 feet below the octagonal park house on Chimborazo Hill. Treasure seekers: there was no beer left behind.

Not all of Richmond's underground efforts led to failure.

The Capitol Square's 3,000 foot tunnel network, which connects the Medical College of Virginia complex to the State Capitol, Governor's Mansion, State Library and other buildings, has held up fine since it was built back in 1937-1939.

That is if you don't count the tunnel closings due to threats of imaginary German spies or escaped mental patients.

And as you walk down sidewalks generations of Richmonders have trampled, you may detect a hollow ring. Don't be alarmed. In addition to the many pits used by utilities, some of the older buildings have basements that extend all the way under the sidewalk to the edge of the curb. Subterranean coal pits were standard on most of the buildings during the coal-burning era, and some of them still lie beneath the sidewalks.

There are rumors of basements and sub-basements covered by parking lots in the city, and tunnels linking the James River and old businesses in the Deepwater Terminal area.

But the best Richmond tunnel story is about an underground cavern that can only be reached by jumping into the high lake in Bryan Park and swimming underwater. One "insider" who did it years ago said it "required a commitment and a leap of faith" to make the plunge.

I wrote some of these stories 25 years ago for a 1989 report in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

It was sweet to continue poking around underground Richmond Friday, all these years later. Even if I fell in a hole and got soaking wet.