2015-05-13 / News

Developer to donate 21-acre park along Woolridge Road

By Michael Buettner

A replica of a coal-mine headstock on Woolridge Road is part of the 21-acre parcel that developer Tom Garner plans to donate to the county. 
James Haskins/Chesterfield Observer A replica of a coal-mine headstock on Woolridge Road is part of the 21-acre parcel that developer Tom Garner plans to donate to the county. James Haskins/Chesterfield Observer A popular county park is set to grow with a donation from a developer, and plans are afoot to add amenities that could turn it into a major regional historical and recreational attraction.

A 21-acre parcel along Woolridge Road that includes a pond, an amphitheater and a replica of a coal-mine headstock is set to be added to the nearby Mid-Lothian Mines Park if county officials approve the plan.

“It’s always been the plan to give it to the county,” said Tom Garner, the owner-developer of the adjoining MillWorks at the Green office complex. He also provided the county with the land where Mid-Lothian Mines Park is located.

In addition to increasing the park’s size and adding amenities, which include walking trails in addition to the amphitheater and headstock, Garner said the bigger, better park “gives us the threshold ambience to solicit capital funds from the railroad industry and the coal industry to build a visitor center” that will tell the whole story of Chesterfield’s early role in those industries.

The enlarged park’s two sections, which lie on opposite sides of Woolridge Road, will be linked by a pedestrian tunnel – another opportunity to add interest, Garner said, because “we can fix it up to look like a coal mine.”

Formally, the land will be leased to the county – at the affordable rate of $100 a year. Oversight will be provided by the Mid- Lothian Mines & Rail Roads Foundation, of which Garner serves as president and county Parks and Recreation department Director Mike Golden as vice president.

Upgrades are already coming to the park, Garner noted. The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Engineering recently gave the foundation a grant that will be used to improve fencing around the Grove mine shaft and to “re-create a railroad bridge that went across the creek” that will allow for creation of a loop trail within the existing portion of the park, Garner said.

In another current project, a committee has been formed to put together text to display on signs to be placed around the park telling the story of the local mining and railroad industries. Garner noted that the railroad serving the Chesterfield coal basin was the first in Virginia, and the mines there were the first in North America to be commercially exploited.

Among the things the committee is researching is how the headstock worked. Historians know what it looked like and what its function was – with the help of a steam engine, to raise and lower primitive elevator “cages” carrying coal and miners in and out of the 770-foot-deep Mid-Lothian shaft. But no one has yet figured out exactly how it did that.

The history not only of the Mid-Lothian Mines but of the coal industry in the Richmond area as a whole will be told in a “company store” museum planned for the new portion of the park, if funding for the facility can be obtained.

Garner said the proposed deal with the county also provides for the employment of a full-time director for the park. Technically, the director will be on the county payroll, but the position will be funded by the foundation.

Peppy Jones, longtime president of the Village of Midlothian Coalition, is the foundation’s executive director. In that role, he said, “As soon as we get the agreement [with the county] signed, it will allow me to start talking to folks” about funding the visitor center.

Jones said more improvements are planned later at the park, including a coal mining museum and a replica of the original Midlothian train station that will also serve as a railroad museum.

Overall, he said, the donation “is a wonderful thing for Chesterfield County and the Village of Midlothian. The county will wind up with a $3.2 million improvement for virtually nothing.”

The Planning Commission is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the plan at its next meeting on May 19.

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