Must-See RVA! — Railroad Branch YMCA

Must-See RVA! — Railroad Branch YMCA

A look into the history of Richmond places that are still part of our landscape.

May 2019

1548 East Main Street
Built, circa 1886? or 1907?

He says flop house like it’s a bad thing.

[RYMCA] — branch building in 1886?

America’s urban streets of the 1800’s and early 1900’s were filled with questionable activities for young men of the day. Richmond’s Shockoe Valley, with its well-known red-light district was a prime example. To protect and save railroad workers and other impressionable youth, a partnership was formed by the major railroad lines and the National YMCA in Cleveland, OH in 1872. (RVA

[RYMCA] — YMCA information pamphlet — Why Should I? Five Good Reasons Why I should be a Member of the Railroad Young Men’s Christian Association

YMCA programs for rail employees became its largest effort for blue-collar workers until the decline of the nation’s railway workforce. Rail management and workers liked the Railroad YMCA because it offered employees a decent alternative to flop houses, brothels and saloons.

(RVA — undated photo of the YMCA baseball team

Richmond’s Railroad YMCA opened in October 1909. It would serve men working on the Chesapeake and Ohio; Seaboard Air Line; Southern; Atlantic Coast Line; and the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac. Located at Main Street Station, the building offered showers and tub baths, a swimming pool, a gym, soap and towels, a reading room, checkers, chess, dominoes and social events.

(RVA — early 1900s

Sleeping space was available. Also available were a bowling alley, poolroom, auditorium, kitchen and ladies’ parlor. The cost for building and equipping the structure came to about $100,000.

May 2019

A period brochure promoting membership promised benefiits that included exercise opportunities, career-related courses, entertainment and religious activities. Again, classes appealed to many.

Most courses related directly to railway operations: air brakes for trains, basic math, algebra and geometrical and mechanical drawing

May 2019

The Railroad YMCA also offered a networking system—known as the Confidential Counsel. Members completed a card, asking for the advice of a physician, lawyer, businessman, minister or YMCA secretary or physical director. The goal was to link men to honest counselors who could guide them through practical and spiritual problems.

May 2019

The Richmond Railway YMCA even played a key role in the social and family life of area rail employees. Family outings were a regular program feature. In summer 1909, for example, the Y sponsored a family trip to Buckroe Beach. [RYMCA]

May 2019

By 1944, the Richmond membership grew to as many as 2000 but as automobile travel became more and more popular, the entire Railroad YMCA movement had seen its heyday. The Richmond Branch ceased operation December 31, 1971. (RVA

May 2019

Despite the issues regarding the origination date, this building is flipping beautiful, to the point that the stone railing has been reconstructed, as seen above.

City of Richmond says this was built in 1907. RYMCA has a photo that says 1886, so it’s unclear what the actual construction date happens to be. Perhaps the YMCA existed on this site in some form prior to the construction of Main Street Station and the new building. It’s really not clear. This is not helped by the fact that Robert Winthrop’s Architecture in Downtown Richmond starts with Main Street Station and just overlooks the building next door, but alas, you have to draw lines somewhere.

May 2019

Of course, let us not forget that this building is also a victim of the Insidious Tree-Architecture Conspiracy, a dark cabal of incomparable madness, sneering at the human condition seeking betterment via contemplation of architectural wonder.

(Railroad Branch YMCA is part of the Atlas RVA! Project)

Print Sources

  • [RYMCA] The Richmond YMCA 1854 – 2004. Edward R. Crews. 2004.


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