The Richmond History Podcast

Friday, May 18, 2012

Where Was the Old Virginia State Pen?

History marker at Tredegar Iron Works

Last 4th of July, at Libby Park watching the fire works with friends, I talked to a guy who told me that his grandfather worked in the New Market Building when it was the old Virginia State Penitentiary.  He was very upset when informed that the giant white building on the hill over looking Tredegar Iron Works was never the Pen.  I didn’t want to call his grandpa a liar… “Maybe its just a misunderstanding”, I tried to explain with out putting blame on anyone.  Every couple months I talk to someone who is positive & wrong about the former pen's location.  They always seem to express their belief with "excitement" or a mumbled and sarcastic "ok" under their breath.  In fact, I was in a store telling a friend that I was writing this post and a man interjected that the pen WAS the New Market Building.  I always wonder, is that the kind of building they would keep prisoners in?  Do they teach it in the schools?  I don't know why people seem so passionate about this topic (or if its just me), but there is at least one confusing clue.

Cupola from the old Virginia State Penitentiary, photo by Jeff Majer

The historic marker at Tredegar Iron Works (top) states, "Ethyl Corporation's new laboratory now stands on the site of the penitentiary".  This does not mean the giant, white, government looking building that everyone calls Ethyl.  From the street side all of the signs outside the building say, "New Market".  New Market was called Ethyl Corporation and did build their labs on the sight of the pen in 1994, but that is not the white building people confuse with the pen and the Capitol.  In 2004 the company was restructured and renamed New Market, which became the parent company of Ethyl and Afton.  Afton now operates the lab in an adjacent building.  The Pen was actually at 500 Spring St. 

Below is an aerial photo of the Virginia State Pen.  The main road just to the left is Belvedere, just to the left of that is Oregon Hill.

Aerial view of the Old State Pen, 1974

Below are two photos taken from the same spot to show distance between the two sites.

New Market Building, from Brown Island, photo by Jeff Majer

Afton Chemicals Lab pooping up out of the trees, from Brown's Island, photo by Jeff Majer

If the dispute is not dissolved, then here are two more shots taken from almost half way between the two sites.  If any one still doesn’t believe me still, they should go walk around the Afton Lab. I am sure the same grumpy lady will stick her head out to tell them its private property.  Ask her.  She knew.
Afton Chemical Labs, photo by Jeff Majer

New Market, photo by Jeff Majer


  1. You are correct. The Old Pen was at 500 Spring Street. Good Photo. I went there for the scared straight program in 1979.

    1. i hear they have found bodies under and in the walls is there any truth behind this story

    2. My address was 500 Spring Street 108-B when you came in for the scared straight program. I hope we were effective where you're concerned