Old Dominion Iron and Steel Corporation

As the James River skirts Richmond, Va., its waters foam into small rapids around a narrow, partially wooded strip of land known as Belle Isle. For more than a century this mid-river tract of real estate, comprising about 70 acres, has been the site of an iron works served by the Southern Railway System or its parent predecessor line, the Richmond and Danville Railroad.

Since 1945 the iron works has operated under the name of Old Dominion Iron and Steel Corporation. Although the Refrigeration Engineering Company of New York (Recony) bought control of Old Dominion in 1955, the company's name has been retained.

Old Dominion Iron and Steel plant as it looks today. The Richmond, Va., skyline rises in the background across the James River from Belle Isle. Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch photo

Old Dominion, as it has for the past 10 years, specializes in welded steel products. It still produces the huge storage tanks manufactured under the trade name "Odis" and the heat exchangers installed in tanks designed for heating liquids.

But nowadays, Old Dominion' shares its home on Belle Isle with Recony - manufacturer of refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment. Recony concentrates on pre-fabricated refrigeration rooms, called Reco-Fab Frost-Vaults, for storage of frozen foods, ice cream, etc.; and portable air conditioners used for servicing military jet aircraft.

Sale of Old Dominion, however, included more than just a physical home for Recony products. Recony now shares as well in a heritage dating back to 1832-when Old Dominion's earliest predecessor, Belle Isle Manufacturing Company, was chartered by the Virginia General Assembly. The mid-river acreage, which for over 200 years was called Broad Rock Island, received its present name when the Belle Isle company in 1836 took over and enlarged a small iron works that had been established on the island in 1815.

An artist's sketch of the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp on Belle Isle during the War Between the States. Captured Union soldiers supplemented slave labor at Belle Isle's iron works.

The island itself first appeared in historical record in 1608 as part of a land purchase made by Captain John Smith from the Indian chief Powhatan. It was once a lottery prize, and over the years has numbered among its owners such notables as Bushrod Washington, nephew of George Washington, and Henry ( Lighthorse Harry) Lee, whose son Robert E. Lee requires no introduction to Southern historians or Yankee generals.

In 1732 the first William Byrd mentioned the island in his journals as "an agreeable hermitage for any good Christian who had a mind to retire from the world."

Had Byrd lived another 100 years he would have seen the birth of one of the earliest industrial sites in America and the oldest, from the standpoint of continuous operation. in the Richmond area.

The Richmond and Danville Railroad Company began serving the island with a branch line shortly after William S. Triplett bought out the old Belle Isle Manufacturing Company in 1851.

Laminated sections of Recony's pre-fabricated cold storage rooms consist mainly of aluminum bonded to plywood under tremendous pressure. The process includes rolling

And pressing

Triplett, obviously a man with imagination, "sold" the R&D management on a proposition calculated to provide him with the advantages of railroad transportation. His idea, reports the Legal History of the Lines of Southern Railway Company, was "to build a bridge from the south bank of the James River . . . for the R&D, in consideration of the construction of a branch line to his iron works, and the repayment of the cost of the bridge in ten years out of the tolls derived from the use thereof."

The proposition was accepted by the railroad and the bridge built. Triplett, unfortunately, ran into financial difficulty and the following year sold his iron works back to the original owners.

Old Dominon's corporate life dates from 1858, as the Old Dominion Iron and Nail Works. Though its name indicates the company's major product at that time, the management boasted near the turn of the century that so great had the demand grown for its high-quality horse and mule shoes that this department had become one of the largest in the firm.

The sections are cut and fitted on an assembly line and then shipped to customers by freight car for final assembly.

Weathering the business recessions of the time, the original Old Dominion company prospered for nearly 70 years. The only major interruption to business as usual was the War Between the States.

Old Dominion Iron and Steers sturdy old engine now handles the switching chores on Belle Isle. Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch photo

In that conflict the company turned out copper kettles and other camp equipment that graced many a Confederate campfire from the piney slopes of Virginia to the Mississippi swamps. In the early years of the war, its mills rolled armor plate for the ironclad Virginia, the South's "secret weapon," as well as for other wal"ships built in the local navy yard.

Workmen welding rolled sections together to form huge tank. Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch photo

(The ironclad Virginia is better, if mistakenly, known as the Merrimac. Actually, the Merrimac was a sunken Union frigate from which the engines for the floating fortress were salvaged. As every school boy knows, however, this Confederate ironclad completely demoralized the Yankee fleet of wooden ships at Hampton Roads in March, 1862, to begin a new era of naval warfare. But its 24 hours of glory came to an end in a battle with the Union ironclad Monitor when the "water tank" neutralized the "barn roof.")

After the Virginia was scrapped, much of its plate was returned to Belle Isle for re-use. And some of it later was cut into small pieces to be handed out as souvenirs.

Steel side section for one of Old Dominion's storage tanks being shaped on roller.

In addition to its war efforts as an industrial center, Belle Isle also served as a camp for Federal enlisted prisoners who, together with slaves, supplemented the iron works' labor force.

On occasion the prison compound was jammed with as many as 6,000 men, more than twice the number it could conveniently hold. But in the fall of 1863, at General Lee's "suggestion," the prisoners were transferred-by railroad-to a prison camp in Georgia. During the Belle Isle camp's existence, some 20,000 prisoners passed through it.

Following the war, Old Dominion re-converted the cluster of buildings on Belle Isle to peacetime use. Several of those buildings survived the years and are still in use today. Old Dominion's rustic office building, for example, has served successively as an inn, as headquarters for Confederate officers in charge of the prison camp, a boarding house and general store, and as general offices for the iron works.

Aluminum storage tanks for nitrogen solution used in the fertilizer industry. Each tank is about 12 1/2 feet in diameter and 29 feet long. Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch photo

A small community of homes, a church and cemetery once existed on the island. But all that is gone now, or overgrown in bushes and trees, Today Old Dominion's only island neighbor is a modern plant of the Virginia Electric Power Company,

At one time, starting in the 1870's, the R&D Railroad had a branch line from Manchester to Richmond crossing Belle Isle on a trestle. In later years the bridge on the north side of the island was destroyed by fire. A vehicular bridge was then built on the original piers and still stands,

The south-side bridge, built when the railroad first laid tracks for its branch line onto the island, was rebuilt sometime prior to the War Between the States, It was used by Southern for switching cars into and out of Old Dominion sidings until August, 1942, when it was decided the bridge no longer was safe for operation of the railway's heavy switch engines. As a result, the iron works arranged to buy an old and much lighter steam engine. Since then Old Dominion's antiquated but sturdy little engine has handled the switching job,

Using a "bumping machine, workmen bending tank head to proper shape for welding onto tank end. Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch photo

Old Dominion now owns the tracks on Belle Isle and the railroad bridge, which Southern sold to the company for the sum of $1.00. The long-unused trestle spanning the island was torn down a few years ago. Today the iron works on Belle Isle finds its markets far beyond those of its early years, when the railroad industry too was in its infancy. "Odis" tanks, on occasion as large as two flatcars, are shipped to customers allover the country. Recony's pre-fabricated cold storage rooms-shipped in sections by freight car for final assembly at destination-also are marketed throughout the country.

The combined activities of Recony and its subsidiary, Old Dominion Iron and Steel, keep about 300 workers pounding, grinding, cutting, pressing and assembling the companies' products, with enough clatter to wake the Indians, settlers, slaves and Union soldiers who died on historic Belle Isle.

From 1836 to 1957-nails and horseshoes to huge storage tanks for use by modern business and industry -Old Dominion and its predecessors have kept steady pace with the growth and progress of Virginia's mainland industries. And for more than 120 years Belle Isle has existed in clamorous contradiction to William Byrd's description of it as an "agreeable hermitage" for anyone wanting to retire from the world.