Commentary: The Rappahannock River becomes fluid | Columnists
OUR BEAUTIFUL Rappahannock is a free flowing river. In fact, it’s one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the country, stretching about 300 miles from the Blue Ridge Mountains in the west to the Chesapeake Bay.
It’s also one of the most scenic rivers in the eastern United States, boasting a 5,000-acre creekside forest buffer that stretches 23 miles upstream from Fredericksburg.
This was not always the case. At some point during the 1800s, there were 20 box dams, constructed of timber and rubble stone, constructed along the upper Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers. These weirs were associated with Rappahannock Navigation, an entity created by the Rappahannock Company organized in 1816 with the task of constructing a 50-mile system of weirs, as well as locks and granite-cut channels on the Rappahannock River and the Rapidan River. lower. A system of 20 caisson dams, 47 locks and 15 miles of canals was envisioned by the Rappahannock Company.
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The final break and removal of the last two dams on the Rappahannock River occurred in 2004 and 2005 with the removal of the Embrey Dam and the caisson dam which stood behind it. According to a U.S. Fish & Wildlife report in 2000, “breaking and removal of these dams would open up a full range of restored anadromous and resident fish passages between 716 and 1,019 miles of main and tributaries of the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers.” The pullback also allowed whitewater canoe and kayak paddlers to travel downstream unobstructed. Compelling reasons to remove the two dams.
The story of how we got here is not just a few roadblocks, however. It is a story of how cultural and societal values change over time.
In the early 1800s, the Rappahannock River was not only valued for its fisheries, but also as a potential means of transportation for transporting goods up and down river to Fredericksburg. The craft designed to navigate the Rappahannock River and the network of canals was the shallow draft vessel, the Rappahannock River Batteau.
These specialty boats, used on other Virginia canals and rivers, were 65 feet long and 9.9 feet wide. Navigation on the Rappahannock necessitated the construction of the system of dams, locks and canals in the upper reach on either side of the river to bring cargo in boats around the rapids which occur at regular intervals along this section.
This one venture of the Rappahannock Company in the early 1800s was to build the 50-mile navigation system to serve the Rappahannock River Valley. The system extended near the mouth of Carter’s Run near Warrenton, downstream from Fredericksburg Falls. The plan also included construction along the Rapidan River, a major tributary of the Rappahannock River.
The company’s first attempt in the 1830s was a failure. Navigation was completely rebuilt from 1845 to 1849. Construction reached Carter’s Run, with 25 stone locks, 55 wooden locks, 20 weirs and 15 miles of stone canals, as well as a large rectangular basin built in the center- town of Fredericksburg where the Dorothy Hart Community Center is located today.
Unfortunately, this monumental feat of water engineering and expert stonemasonry and masonry along the Rappahannock River was only in operation for a few years. The business was abandoned in 1857.
Over time, the caisson dams built miles upstream were slowly washed away. The remains of canals and locks, however, can still be seen by canoe and kayak, which are largely on public land owned by the city. Today we can thank the Rappahannock Society for the Rappahannock Canal which crosses the town and is bordered by a walking and cycling path.
In the early 1900s, the need arose to build a dam on the Fall Line just upstream from the town of Fredericksburg: the 22-foot-tall Embrey Dam and Hydroelectric Generating Station was completed in 1910, expressly for generate alternating current (alternating current) for Fredericksburg. The Rappahannock Canal has been redeveloped into a watercourse to carry water from the Embrey Dam, around the town and downstream from the new power station on the tidal section of the river.
The Embrey Dam essentially altered a section of the river, creating a 1 mile lake behind the dam. In the 1960s, the Embrey Power Station stopped producing electricity. In the late 1980s a newly formed river conservation group, Friends of the Rappahannock, began lobbying for the dam’s removal.
Although a major disruptor to the flow of the Rappahannock, the Embrey Dam pales in comparison to what might have been.
Upcoming Sunday: The Salem Church Dam.
Hal Wiggins is a retired U.S. Army Corps of Engineers environmental scientist and naturalist who lives in the Fredericksburg area.