The dark and beautiful past of RVA’s lost swimming quarry

Posted at 12:38 AM, Apr 13, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-13 13:11:43-04

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- Imagine a sweet swimming hole on the edge of the city with water so clear, you could see down dozens of feet.

A place to daringly leap off ledges, swing off a rope and yes, skinny dip.

A place where tragedy could - and did - strike.

"Absolutely beautiful," recalls Ann Fitzgerald, who swam at this spot as a child.

No, we're not talking about the exclusive Philadelphia Quarry Club below Windsor Farms, a private old quarry/swimming hole for members and guests only, with lifeguards and a long waiting list.

We're talking about the long-gone Bryan Park Quarries, a somewhat hidden treasure for anyone with a little pluck.

The three quarries sat on the western edge of Bryan Park, across the county line into Henrico, near Byrdhill Road, beside Upham Brook, which feeds Bryan Park proper.

Long before pools were common in the Richmond area, swimming holes were quite the thing in the Richmond area.

Shields Lake in Bryan Park was the place. Photos in the early 1900s show high divers flying off wooden boards. In the 40s and 50s, swimmers so crowded the lake you could barely see the water in photographs.

"It was gorgeous," recalled Richmond native Robby Ellyson, 77, who swam there as a child. "You go in, change your clothes, put them in a basket, put your pants on and jump in the lake. Everybody had a good time."

Shields Lake was closed to swimming in 1955 during integration, to keep blacks and whites from swimming together.

"They didn't want any of that," Ellyson said. "I feel terrible about that . . . I didn't mind swimming with blacks. I did it at the river all the time."

Ann Fitzgerald also swam in Shields Lake as a young girl.

"It wasn't as nice as the (Bryan Park) quarry," she said.

By the time she swam there, the first two quarries had been filled in with trees and other debris.

"But the third one was absolutely beautiful," Fitzgerald added. It had a wooden swim platform. One side it had a shallower, gentle incline, but the deep end was way down. (News reports said as deep as 70 feet.)

Ann Fitzgerald

At that end was a high rock wall the more daring swimmers would climb.

"If you climbed up there you could run real hard and jump into the quarry" and miss the big rocks jutting out below, she said.

Young Ann once made the daring 40-foot jump into the quarry, her arms stinging from the impact with the water.

She even briefly skinny-dipped with her sister until they heard a carload of boys were coming.

They grabbed their suits from the wooden platform.

"Well, my sister had no problem putting her bathing suit on, but I about drowned putting my bathing suit back on."

By the time she swam there, Henrico County had been trying to shut the swimming hole down.

In June of 1940, a young couple skinny-dipping there drowned.

It was quite the scene as they dragged the bodies of Lola Marie Strite and Leroy McGruder, both 22. Their clothes had been found at the water's edge.

Hundreds of onlookers gathered at the grim scene. Pumps were brought in to lower the water level until the bodies were found.

After that, the county steadily leaned on the property owners to fill it in.

"Nobody wanted us to go in that quarry," Fitzgerald recalled. "So they put oil on top of it, and the boys burnt the oil off so we could go swimming some more."

Eventually that quarry was filled in, but it's unclear how and when that happened.

If you know, email me so we can update this episode of RVA Revealed.

And please send story ideas about people, places, events and things that give this area its oh-so distinctive flavor.

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