Strange stories of unexplainable things happening in a building on the city’s waterfront had been reaching me through the grapevine with increasing frequency. I decided to scout out the surrounding grounds and see if the place really lived up to its reputation, and, looking up at it, there was no doubt I was in the right place.
The pointed and menacing granite structure, formally known as Richmond, Virginia’s New Pump-House, looked like a giant mausoleum in the middle of a scenic park on the James River. From 1886 to 1924, this Gothic Revival building housed not only the water pumping and hydroelectric equipment essential to the city’s growth, but also a beautiful party pavilion where well-to-do residents could celebrate. The city’s demand for water and energy boomed during those four decades until the facility could no longer keep up with the need. Officials constructed several new pumping and filtration stations that rendered the party palace on the canal obsolete. The waterworks equipment was sold off to Japan and the building, originally slated for demolition, was rescued from destruction when it was instead sold to a local Presbyterian church for only $1. The building was eventually returned to the City of Richmond and interest in preserving and stabilizing the Pump House was resurrected in the 1990’s.
Seeing it on that foggy, overcast day, just an empty shell of its former self, there was no wonder why rumors of paranormal activity at the Pump House are so numerous – it’s just plain spooky.
Local volunteers and interns had lined up to donate countless hours toward the building’s restoration. One of those interns, Michael Gee, shared a story with the Park’s manager, Ralph White, of an interesting encounter he had while painting window frames last spring. Michael and a friend were working in the dance hall on the second floor when they heard conversation from the machine room below them. Deciding that one of them must have left the door open and visitors to the park had come inside, he descended the stairs to escort them out and secure the entrance before someone got hurt on the dark ground floor. When Michael reached the bottom stair, he claims his flashlight flickered off and the voices stopped. Feeling a little spooked, he walked back up a few stairs and his light mysteriously flicked back on and the voices seemed to pick up where they’d left off. Again, down to the bottom stair with the same result — out went the light and he heard only the sound of trickling water. Michael quickly went back to the dance hall, hastily packed his belongings, grabbed his friend and left.
Another recent ghostly encounter at the Pump House was reported by a volunteer, Chris Knoop, working on the Pavilion’s dance floor and the old slate roof. Alone in the building, he said he began to hear what sounded like “other workmen” in the Machine Room below him. This continued for some time and Chris claims that he finally came to the conclusion that they were doing more or less the same thing he was doing, so he continued his job at hand.
Finally, a report that abounds from visitors to the park surrounding the Pump House is the sound of a crowd of people and tinny music coming from inside the boarded-up building. Most claim they were “confused and concerned” because they knew the building had been closed to the public for some time.
My curiosity eventually got the best of me. I had to know if all of the reports of ghostly voices and other strange occurrences had come about because people were hoping for some legend that matched the outward appearance of the castle-like pumping station or if the events were actually happening. As far as the likelihood of paranormal activity goes, the Pump House scores high in several categories. First, the majority of the construction is local granite. Granite, like quartz, is believed to somehow channel or amplify spiritual energy. Second, the foundation of the building is surrounded on three sides by very powerful moving water, also believed to give a boost to paranormal activity. Finally, the building has a rich and colorful history that spans over 100 years. Lots of things can happen at a place in a century – people can fall in love, celebrate life’s milestones, spend countless hours on the job, or experience some sort of tragedy – all things that can fuel a haunt.
With the cooperation of James River Park officials, I set out with two teammates to collect some photographic and audio data inside the historic structure. I arranged to meet “the Chief”, a no-nonsense park employee whose jolly personality was barely contained by his 5’2 frame, early on a Saturday morning. He greeted us at the park gate with a broken oar in hand and allowed us free access to the building for two hours of research. “It’s easy to let your imagination get away from you in there. I’m always thinkin’ somebody’s just ducked out of sight ’round the stairs,” the Chief warned as he left to finish his litter pickup.
We crossed the bridge that spans the serene dammed canal on the north side of the structure and made our way along a narrow walkway atop the south canal wall. The open doors of the Pump House were a welcome sight compared to the 20-foot drop to the noisy rushing water immediately to our right. The low water level in the canal that day looked more like a treacherous moat to keep visitors out than the red carpet entrance for bateau passengers it had been a hundred years ago.
I stepped through the doorway and my eyes were immediately drawn up to the enormous, intricately angled roof. For a moment I felt as if I was in an ancient church or even the grand foyer of a castle. Every window had been carefully covered with wood to preserve what remained of the original framing and the sun shone through the cracks to outline their graceful pointed tops. Though ethereal and cavernous, the entry room seemed tiny and plain compared to the adjacent boiler and machine rooms.
Skeletons of massive pipes, large enough for a man to stand inside, protruded through the floor of the boiler room and the north wall of the machine room. Surrounding the pipes, water wept through the joints in the granite to remind me that the canal was just on the other side of the stones — the lower 12 feet or so of the machine room was below the water line. The water was shooting through tiny holes in some places and it created a very relaxing atmosphere. Though the first floor was dark and dirty, the overall feeling we picked up was very welcoming and serene.
We explored all the nooks and crannies we could find and eventually ventured upstairs. We found beautiful arch-topped interior doors, fine plasterwork, and a huge dance floor flanked with the remains of gorgeous stained glass windows. Any party held at the Pump House during its prime must have been a memorable event.
The second floor had an entirely different feel than the first. Perhaps it was the smaller rooms at either end of the party area with their twenty foot ceilings that gave me a strange dizzy sensation, or maybe there was something unseen to blame. A feeling of being watched crept over us after we’d talked a bit about the architecture and shot a few photos, but my mind was quick to tell me that it was only birds or bats hiding in the rafters. Still, that feeling stuck with me even after we returned to the ground floor.
After our exploration, we decided to start an interactive audio session in the middle of the machine room. Our goal was to stir up a friendly chat with anyone who might be interested in talking. Three recording devices were readied and we began discussing the site and the feelings we had there. After a few minutes of introduction and explaining our intentions, we began to address any possible entities present. Our questions ran the gamut from “Do you work here?” to “Are you a child?” We heard nothing unusual in the room with us, but the sensation that we were not alone became very pronounced. Unseen eyes seemed to study us from a peculiar spiral stair in the darkest corner of the room. We interpreted that feeling as a potential benefit to our data collecting and plugged on.
During our 23-minute audio session, we snapped photos to try and capture any visual anomalies in the area. Think what you will about orbs, and personally, I’m still on the fence, but they seemed to appear in increasing numbers with each shot we took. The more probing our questions became, the more orbs were visible in the corresponding photos. We were sitting still, trying to cause as little disturbance as possible to any lingering dust, and yet the tiny blue, white, and amber lights continued to swell in numbers until they seemed to just disappear entirely.
We wrapped up our audio session and decided to try the opposite side of the coin for a while — an attempt at debunking the voices heard from the machine room. We split up and had one team member walk outdoors along the northern perimeter of the building while speaking at a normal conversational volume. Two of us stayed inside and listened carefully for any sound that might penetrate the boarded up windows or the ancient pipes. We strained and could barely make out a voice over the noise created by the water running through the walls and splashing in the empty machine pits. It was certainly possible, but not likely, the ghostly voices that were reported could have come from outside. Even if a person was shouting, it would have been difficult to hear.
We added a few dozen more photos to our collection from the day and were finishing up just as the Park employees were ready to lock the doors. We left with the hopes that answers to our questions would be found in the audio recordings we had made.
Our data analysis in the following days revealed more photo anomalies than we could count. Many of them we were able to discount as dust or reflections, but many of them remained unexplained. One shot in particular showed what appeared to be a bright orb in the area of our audio recording session that seemed to produce a reflection on the surface of the water six feet below it. We certainly had no explanation for that.
The multiple audio tracks we recorded offered up two curious findings. In the first, captured by a handheld digital audio recorder, I make a comment about how the Pump House must have been a great place to work because the setting was so serene. An unknown voice is then clearly heard whispering, “Yes.” The second audio anomaly was captured using a digital camera and sounds like several harmonious notes of music. This finding caught all of us off-guard and was an interesting surprise!
While the two peculiar recordings combined with the unexplained photos did not offer any solid proof of a haunt in the Pump House, they certainly did not help an argument against one, either. Where did this leave our short investigation? Smack dab in the middle of “Inconclusive.” Like many sites with rumored paranormal activity, the evidence we collected seemed almost insignificant compared to the grand encounters we’d been told about. Could it be that we just weren’t there at the right time? Maybe lots of work going on in the building was needed to trigger a “big” paranormal response. Only a longer, more detailed study could answer those questions.
We didn’t have a deep conversation with a spirit at the Pump House that day or have an apparition stop and wave hello, but my gut was still telling me that we were not alone there. I know that many of the James River Park employees and the volunteers and interns working hard to return the structure to its former grandeur share that feeling.
Richmond’s New Pump House continues to fascinate visitors to its surrounding park. This fascination comes in part from the structure’s eerie Gothic beauty, but mainly from the stories and legends surrounding it. No, my own curiosity was not fully satisfied after my first visit inside those old granite walls – and maybe that’s the best thing. I believe that allowing the legends to thrive is important in helping this historic building return to its roots as an exciting and popular destination for the people of the city. I know the mystery will certainly bring me back again and again.
If you would like to support efforts to restore Richmond’s New Pump House, please contact the Friends of the James River Park at www.jamesriverpark.org or by phone at (804) 646-8911.