Nine birdwatchers were scanning a meadow at Bryan Park on a recent day when two red-tailed hawks flew right over their heads.
From that spot in the early 1990s, visitors saw something quite different: a city dump of weed-strewn vehicle parts and rotting tree stumps.
The 266-acre park in North Richmond, once a site of historic grandeur, was known then for neglect and the prospect of trouble.
"On the weekends, the park attracted teens and young adults, hot-rodders and cruisers, loud music and drinking, gun flashing and regular fights," longtime park supporter John Zeugner said. "Bryan Park became a place that was feared and avoided.”
But as evidenced by those recent birders, Bryan Park is now a leafy haven frequented by wildlife lovers, sports enthusiasts and families with kids.
While the city's James River Park System – more than twice as large and known well beyond Richmond – draws about 2 million visitors a year, city officials estimate that nearly 1 million people visit Bryan Park each year.
The park, located at 4308 Hermitage Road, has truly gone from seedy to special.
First, a natural starting point – and some history.
The waters that cascade over granite rocks at Bryan Park do more than create a scene of beauty. They're evidence of the park's location along the fall line – the geological transition between Virginia's rolling Piedmont to the west and the flatter coastal plain to the east.
Upham Brook, a tributary of the Chickahominy River, flows east through the northern end of the park. In the late 1700s, when the land was part of an estate owned by a man named William Young, the family dammed the stream to create a pond and gristmill.
On Sundays, enslaved people who lived nearby gathered along the rocks below the mill, now in the park's northeastern section, to worship, cook fish and socialize.
In that area in summer 1800, the blacksmith Gabriel, also called Gabriel Prosser, planned a major uprising with other enslaved individuals: They would attack Richmond at night with homemade weapons and with guns seized in the city, capture Gov. James Monroe, and wage a bloody battle to end slavery in Virginia.
But torrential rains delayed the rebellion, and word of the plan leaked out. Gabriel and more than two dozen other conspirators were hanged.
"Although thwarted, it remains one of the half-dozen most important insurrection plots in the history of North American slavery," according to Encyclopedia Virginia.
During the Civil War, a Confederate defense line ran through Bryan Park's northern end, according to "An Illustrated History of Joseph Bryan Park" (2003), from which much of the history below is drawn.
In 1909, the land was bought by Belle Stewart Bryan, the recent widow of Joseph Bryan – a Confederate veteran, Gilded Age industrialist and founder of the newspaper that became the modern Richmond Times-Dispatch. She and her sons donated the land to the city to become a free park in memory of Bryan.
In the 1920s, before motels sprang up, Bryan Park was a haven for car campers. During the Depression, workers in a federal relief program built rustic shelters and other amenities, many of which remain today.
The park's glory days came in the 1950s and '60s, when its 17-acre azalea garden drew hundreds of thousands of visitors in springtime.
"On a weekend, you had to get in line to drive through," said Bob Williams, 77, of Henrico County, who still visits the park. "It was extremely popular. People up and down the East Coast knew [the garden] was here."
But city budgets tightened in the 1970s and '80s, and the park fell into disrepair.
Before Chuck Epes became president of Friends of Bryan Park – and before the advocacy group even existed – he was a concerned visitor.
In 1992, Epes, a former journalist for The Times-Dispatch and News Leader who later worked for the state, moved to North Richmond's Bellevue neighborhood. He often walked to Bryan Park, but he didn't like a lot of what he saw.
People partied and drank. In an open area of the park, city workers dumped "huge mountains" of stumps and tree trunks, he said. Cast-off city vehicles "were just thrown in the weeds" along with "barrels of God-knows-what."
"The city was just using the middle of the park as a dump," said Epes, 71, now retired.
One Sunday afternoon in spring 1994, Epes visited the park with his 10-year-old son.
"We were walking through the park and heard a 'pop! pop! pop!' And I saw a bunch of people scatter about 100 yards in front of me. Some kid had just gotten shot and killed right there in the park in front of us."
Epes took his son home and returned to the park. He recalled that the responding police officers and rescue workers were being taunted by some parkgoers.
"Bryan Park was just a crummy place to be," he said. "That shooting, for me, just sent me over the top."
About that time, the city administration came up with a plan to turn Bryan Park into a golf course. Visitors would pay to play, and in theory, the course would transform the park from troublemaker to moneymaker.
Despite its crummy condition, Bryan Park had supporters – numerous but unorganized. The golf proposal, devised with little buy-in from the public, galvanized these advocates.
They created the nonprofit Friends of Bryan Park to oppose the golf course and, over the long run, improve the park.
Epes was the group's first president. Key members included fellow Richmonders Elizabeth Barrett and Suzanne Keller. Viola Baskerville, then a city councilwoman, provided important political support.
The Friends felt a golf course would violate Belle Bryan's vision of a free park. They also felt the park had underappreciated value as a natural area.
To bolster that second point, Sue Ridd of Henrico, then president of the Richmond Audubon Society, began surveying the park for birds. Epes and others assisted her.
"I remember finding a great horned owl's nest and seeing the occasional bald eagle fly over," Epes said.
In 1995, the city scratched the golf idea. Workers cleaned up the dump. It was a turning point for the historic park.
The Friends went on to sponsor tree plantings, litter cleanups and concerts – "anybody we knew who played an instrument," Epes said. They raised money to build a playground. Ridd turned her ornithological survey into a free monthly bird walk for the public.
The point was to "build a healthier constituency to use the park," Epes said.
Today, you see people in Bryan Park walking, biking, jogging, birding, walking dogs, picnicking, playing soccer and playing disc golf.
Three large birdhouses, established by retired Richmond teacher Adolph White, draw charismatic creatures called purple martins each spring. A South Richmond farmers market moved to Bryan in 2020.
In 2002, Bryan Park was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
"Bryan Park is a green oasis in a very busy metro area and a very family-friendly place," Epes said. "What's important to me is it's still a public park for everyone."
Still, all is not perfect. Upham Brook and a second stream, Jordan's Branch, are often littered with trash that washes in from outside the park. Walkers complain about off-leash dogs. Graffiti and vandalism are chronic problems.
But these are normal park headaches. The difference between the Bryan Park of the '90s and today "is night and day," Epes said.
The park has rarely, if ever, had a manager – a hands-on person in the park to spot problems and answer questions. But it now has the next best thing in Dan Bremner, operations superintendent for the city parks district that includes Bryan.
He came to Bryan Park in 2018 after working out of Byrd Park.
"Now that I'm in Bryan Park, I'm certainly paying more attention" to it, Bremner said in a recent interview. "And I have two men that work in the park here with me, and they almost always stay in the park."
Bremner knows the park well: He worked in it as a gardener in 1999 and 2000, and its progress is undeniable. "Bryan Park is a better place today," he said.
But money remains tight for parks. For example, Bremner said, the citywide maintenance staff for parks has dropped from about 50 in the 1990s to about 30 by late last year.
The Friends of Bryan Park group takes donations and, in turn, spends $5,000 to $10,000 a year on park projects, said Zeugner, the group's current president.
Zeugner, wife Bucci and the Friends spent more than $500,000 in 2015 to buy 5½ acres in Henrico along the park's northwest corner. The Friends hope to make that area part of the park someday. (Richmond owns and operates Bryan Park, but a sliver in the northwest section lies in Henrico.)
The Friends have been a "tremendous help," Bremner said. "They encourage me. They have ideas. They have funding. So they can make some of these ideas really happen."
As of the end of 2020, these were some things to look for at Bryan Park:
• The reopening of the nature center. It's a long story, but the city allowed the center – built by walling in a picnic shelter – to open in 2016. The center offered nature drawing and other environmental programs for adults and children.
Then in 2018, other city officials shut down the center because it was opened without proper permits. Getting approval to reopen has taken longer than expected, but Bremner said he hopes the center will be back in action this summer.
• The opening of a new bathroom, costing more than $200,000, sometime this year. Since vandals damaged a 1960s-era bathroom and other park property with a hot-wired Bobcat in 2019, parkgoers have used portable toilets.
• The $25,000 renovation of a small pond in the azalea garden, perhaps by summer. For years, the pond has been scummy and unappealing.
• In the more distant future, park supporters hope to see the dredging of two large ponds that are filling with silt; the building of berms around much of the park to help block traffic noise, including from interstates 95 and 64; and the restoration of part of the azalea garden, among other improvements.
On that recent day, as the birders crept through the park, their voices rose above the early morning bird calls.
"I hear a catbird in there."
"A goldfinch flew up into those trees."
The birders wore masks and maintained their distances. "That's what's nice about parks," said Will Goode of Glen Allen. "You can stay apart."
Turning 26 this year, the Bryan Park bird walk is the longest-running regular outing for birders in the Richmond area. Ridd led the walk until 2015, when knee problems forced her to stop. Other volunteers take turns now.
Bryan Park harbors more than 170 bird species, a hefty number for an urban park. One big reason is its diversity.
Bryan Park has open areas with trees, which are favored by woodpeckers and bluebirds. It has streams and ponds, frequented by herons and ducks. It has a forest that suits little warblers and big owls. And it has a meadow, home to colorful goldfinches and indigo buntings.
Also, much of Bryan Park is surrounded by highways and a rail yard. Those barriers ward off deer, which eat low-lying plants that many birds hide and nest in. Bryan’s forest is thick and brushy.
“That distinguishes this park from the other parks,” Ridd said.
The bird walk is held the first Sunday of each month, beginning a half-hour after sunrise in the Shelter One parking lot, near the park's tot lot.
When this walk was over, Alice Boller of Beaverdam, 85, said the morning had been about more than birds.
"These trees are fabulous," Boller said, eyeing nearby oaks and maples. "And it's great to be out with people when you are normally at home and not doing anything socially."
Beats going to a dump.