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All Skate, Richmond!

History of Gliding and Rolling in the Capital City

The allure of skating – gliding free from gravity – is undeniable. Ice skating is so old that historians are unsure when it was even invented. Some believe it existed as early as 1,000 BC, in Scandinavia, where it would have been a practical way to get around.

In Richmond – with its ponds, creeks, rivers, and canals – ice skating may not be a mode of travel, but it has a long history as recreation. From the lakes in Byrd Park to Staples Mill Pond to the shallows of the James River and its abandoned canals, Richmonders have skated whenever the weather has allowed. For our southerly location, this favorite pastime was limited to our short and unreliable winters. Of course, skaters were also strictly confined to small bodies of water that had frozen. But in 1863, when the first modern roller skate was invented, Richmonders  began to roll and twirl anywhere they could, any time of the year.  

By the 1880s, roller skating was popular year-round. By 1900, Broad Street alone had three indoor roller skating rinks. One popular rink offered lessons and 480 pairs of skates for rental. Inevitably, these businesses charged admission. That’s when many took to the streets to skate for free and without limits. The swarms prompted the city to ban skating on the pavement around City Hall. But the craze persisted. 

In 1908, the Richmond News Leader reported: “Trees and hedges, clutched at by timorous or tearing skaters have suffered heavily, and sleepy, sick, or nervous people have been driven almost to distraction by the rattling, shouting skaters.”

Early drivers complained that skaters often startled their horses or grabbed the backs of their vehicles to catch a ride. In response, anti-skating ordinances followed. In 1912, the city code declared: Not more than fifteen persons shall skate with roller skates on the sidewalks of any city block at one and the same time. Not more than two persons shall skate abreast, and trailing or forming a connection with one or more skaters shall be unlawful.  Fines for violating the code ran from one to ten dollars.

Meanwhile, ice skating technology in early twentieth century Richmond lagged behind larger Northern cities. New York saw its first artificial rink in 1879. Here, more than fifty years later, vaudeville actors still faked skating on wax. It was not until 1938 that Richmonders saw their first indoor ice show. The International Ice Revue came to The Mosque (now Altria Theater), and citizens were so fascinated by the technology of an indoor ice rink in the South – in the spring – that they were eventually invited to try it out.  The 2,800-square-foot ice rink was opened to the public for the ice show’s brief stay here.

In a town full of roller skating rinks – Cavalier, Skateland, Golden Skateworld – it was not until 1971 that Richmond got its first permanent indoor, artificial ice skating rink.  The regulation-sized floor was built for the area’s first professional hockey team, the Richmond Robins. It opened to the public for the first time on November 21, 1971.  About 700 skaters crowded the ice.  Over the years, this NHL venue occasionally opened for free public skating, in addition to hosting various hockey teams and ice shows, like Disney on Ice. 

Photography: Bruce Parker, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine; Cook Collection, The Valentine

Located in the heart of historic downtown, the Valentine has been collecting, preserving, and interpreting Richmond’s 400-year history for over a century.
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