In River Time: The Way of the James


The ideal way to float the upper James, according to my "river rat" friends, is in a tractor-tire innertube, either alone and soundlessly or with a group of boisterous friends, pulling extra tubes with coolers tied inside. That is, it is ideal for those who do not object to their skin being broiled on one side and shriveled and bruised on the other. Evidently there are many who are willing to trade their comfort for the privilege of knowing the river so intimately. On almost any summer day when the water is low and clear, the young at heart can be found bobbing through sections of riffles between Buchanan and the Fall Line. In the rapids that foot each of the favored stretches are their more daring compatriots, testing themselves in whitewater canoes and kayaks against the river's more challenging obstacles at Balcony Falls and in the heart of Richmond.

However, I prefer the meditative company of the lazy canoe floaters, paddling to break the monotony of flat water or to dodge rocks and islands, but most of the time simply dragging an oar as a rudder and letting the river current have its way. I also feel akin to the fishing floaters I pass who are absorbed in casting for the wary smallmouth bass. For contemplative canoeists like us, floating means there is no where to go, and no when either, for the space of a day or a weekend.

Canoeing on the upper JamesAdmittedly, floating is not as effortless as it sounds. Cars and canoes must be shuttled over back roads. Parking at isolated landings may be hazardous; one Saturday night the battery disappeared from my car. Also, the resolve to float and not to paddle often fades in response to the thrill of negotiating the next set of noisy riffles downstream. Sore muscles and aching joints seem inevitable for all except the athletic or the incurably meditative. No matter, a float now and then is worth any trouble.

Many find that the upper reaches of the James, where the shallower water courses over the limestone laid by prehistoric seas in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, offer the best canoeing or tubing, especially in the brilliantly tinged autumn. Much of the charm is that so few people trek over winding mountain roads to this relatively secluded valley far from the highways. Even fishermen prefer to go for the trout in upstream tributaries or for the smallmouth bass downstream, leaving the river free for the select folks who simply enjoy it.

The more than fifty miles of piedmont river between Scottsville and Richmond include the stretches that keep drawing me, however. Here are gentle curves, multicolored rocks sometimes rising above the water, and islands of all descriptions. This is a world in motion, never the same. Its constant variations in water level and clarity combine end- lessly with the changing reflections of light, wind, rain, and season. Even the islands keep adjusting in shape from year to year, expanding on one end as the other yields to the currents, and some dividing or disappearing after high water times. This shifting land will not be owned, regardless of deeds lying in county courthouses, except temporarily by campers with boats or deer giving birth in the spring, and the ever-present kingfisher who so raucously claims his territory.

Rock sculpted by the riverMy favorite camping spot is a sandy sculpture garden south of the Hardware River junction, which can be reached now only by canoe. Here, in eons past, mineral-enriched rock of varying hardness was melted and literally poured through the granite. Then the water began persistently carving out all the weaker points. The result is art, unique sculpture of many shapes and textures streaked in red, yellow, and blue, which is visible when the water drops its veil. Thoreau's words come to my mind, for it is "as if, by force of example and sympathy after so many lessons, the rocks, the hardest material, had been endeavoring to whirl or flow into the forms of the most fluid." Each stone seems almost as liquid as the river which has shaped it, like flux caught in a moment of solidity.

I do not linger long here, for it is the river which takes shape over hidden rocks that keeps luring me downstream. The fluid patterning and sounds of the water's surface make complex music. The underlying rhythms are smooth and swift, with harmonic changes rung by fluctuating water levels. The melody comes from below, where the uneven contours of the river bed make the whirls, eddies, waves, holes, and smooth or rippled textures. Counterpoint is rung on the surface with the instruments of wind, rain, and the dipping and skating insects, punctuated by the percussive leaps of the frogs and the fish. Once, as I paddled in a rainstorm, jumping with each distant thunder clap, I heard under the pounding raindrops a low steady hum which penetrated and calmed my shivering body. I can still hear this hum of the river's "valv'd voice" in my dreams, and I wonder if it might be the same soul that Walt Whitman invited into his body in "Song of Myself" Perhaps, for me, it is.

With practice, I have learned to read the river, to imagine with some accuracy what lies beneath the designs spreading over its surface. This is a skill necessary for running whitewater rapids or finding the fish hovering in the rocks' eddies, but I use it more to anticipate the next musical phrase of the river. There are also times when I have learned to suppress this knowledge, to give in for a while to the hypnotic spell of the watery world, my soul detaching from time and responsibilities. It is then that I understand myself what Thoreau meant about drifting: "I almost cease to live and begin to be. A boatman stretched on the deck of his craft and dallying with the noon would be as apt an emblem of eternity for me as the serpent with his tail in his mouth. I am never so prone to lose my identity. I am dissolved in the haze." During these timeless moments I succumb to the spell of entropy, caught in the fluid time which melts trees and rocks. But I must not forget that the music of rocks and currents is the same siren song which lured mariners to their doom.

Actually I am not in much danger, for I am never alone in my canoe. My favorite partner, my daughter, is a silent paddler who lets me roam mentally but keeps me pointed safely. Few sounds of the twentieth century distract us, only the faint drone of a plane, a tractor, or a train, all easily drowned by riffle splashes. The trees lining the river block any view of house or barn above the floodplain, and the cows browsing beneath are not intrusive. So I let myself free to float through river time.

The land once claimed by the Huguenots, and the Monacans before them, today lies as mostly pasture behind the trees, but these folk seem to have passed on as effortlessly as the river flows. They left no monuments, not even houses, standing along this river, only their bones and other cast off things. Romance and death seem to cohabit easily in this world, especially near a spot called Maiden's Adventure, or Maidens. Here, it is told, a maiden drowned trying to ford the river to aid her lover, set on by scalping Indians as he picked flowers for her. Only the name remains, although the same wild flower probably still blooms each spring. The Monacans did not even leave a romantic story to history before they moved up the river, only the hearthstones and axes exposed by each flood.

As we float past anglers trying to lure smallmouth bass away from their comfortable niches, I try to visualize those restless anadromous species which once reproduced in this clear water. For centuries people above the Falls depended on the annual spring and fall runs of shad, herring, striped bass, and even sturgeon into fresh water, catching the fish as far upstream as Lynchburg. The Indians took full advantage of these seasonal migrations, adjusting the rhythm of their lives to those of the fish.

Later piedmont settlers were often sustained by the runs as they pushed upstream to new lands. At one time, enough fish were harvested above the Fall Line to provide a six-months' supply of protein for those who had the salt. Little did they realize that they were choosing between fish and navigation when a fish dam was rebuilt just above the Fall Line some time after 1780 and before 1823 to divert water into a canal so boats might reach Richmond more easily. Bosher Dam abruptly chopped the fish migration in half, and the shad and herring were restricted to the rocky Falls for their spawning grounds, except for the few who later braved the canal locks. For almost a century, until restocking was begun, there were few fish of any kind to be caught above Bosher Dam. Yet I can find no record of anyone complaining about the drastic impact of the dam; perhaps no one made the connection.

These musings stop abruptly. Bosher Dam, now ten feet high, blocks our progress just as surely as it did that of the shad and the herring. Our float on the river must halt but my float through time continues, in the more sedate world of libraries. The books, though, offer few clues about what the James looked like above the Fall Line before people started reshaping the river and its basin. Those who came to settle refrained from nonessential descriptions and quickly set to their practical activities. But there were some witnesses who did record their impressions who can help me recreate today what the Falls area, at least, must have looked and sounded like at the end of the eighteenth century.

Just before the Revolution, as the new city of Richmond was organizing itself, another John Smyth, John F. D. Smyth to be exact, noted that "the river's cascade hardly felt the restraints of man." He described a "vast current of water" which "rushes down, with an astonishing roar that is heard for many miles distance" between "hills of a great height" which abound "with prodigious rocks and large stones as well as trees." Houses built on these hills had a "wild, grand, and most elegant perspective."

A few years later, a Hessian surgeon named Dr. Johann David Schoepf designated the James as "one of the greatest and most beautiful of American streams." He too remarked on the "foaming uproar," claiming it could be heard at night "not only throughout the town but, before the wind, for several miles around." The scope of the sound of the rapids' roar through the city has contracted today, engulfed by modern noise levels and dampened by construction perhaps. Or is it that no one listens? Be that as it may, the granite sculpture lining the bottom and sides of the river for miles here is not so different two centuries later, though it is more exposed in places because of dams and water use.

Granite potholes at the Fall LineThe rocks of the Falls are huge chunks of granite, some incorporating the harder and darker xenoliths or "foreign stone," undulating across the river bed, dipping and breaking along fault lines where the water has worn most persistently. Most remarkable are the many deep potholes formed by harder rocks from upstream trapped in a crack and spun by the river. Thoreau described well the making of potholes:

A stone which the current has washed down, meeting with obstacles, revolves as on a pivot where it lies, gradually sinking in the course of centuries deeper and deeper into the rock, and in new freshets receiving the aid of fresh stones which are drawn into this trap and doomed to revolve there for an indefinite period, doing Sisyphys-like penance for stony sins, until they either wear out, or else are released by some revolution of nature.
The grinding stones are long gone, but their marks remain.

For a long time, observers speculated that only Indian hands could have scooped out the hundreds of potholes, probably to grind corn, for they assumed that human intelligence was required to make such symmetrical depressions. Very likely there are still those who would like to dispute the geological explanation, for something a bit fearful about the kind of force capable of this carving. Or perhaps it is hard to conceive that the regularly shaped holes were not made mechanically for some legitimate human use.

The person most identified with both the art and geology of the Falls at the time is the architect Benjamin Latrobe. He came to Richmond from Britain in the closing years of the eighteenth century to design a penitentiary high above the river. His first impression was that Richmond resembled its namesake on the Thames, except for "the want of finish and neatness in the American landscape." Here was "the grandeur of Nature" as opposed to the "perfection of cultivation." The rugged beauty of the rocks particularly intrigued him and he sketched and wrote extensively in his journal, exploring explanations for their shape and geologic origins. But his scientific inquiries did not restrict his aesthetic appreciation. The juxtaposition of rushing water and rock took center stage in watercolor paintings he did of the region.

Yet Latrobe was just as fascinated by the possibility of river improvements that would help eliminate the wild grandeur he admired. He praised an extensive wooden and stone weir constructed at the lower end of the Falls to direct water into a canal as well as stop the shad and herring on their spring run. He found it "boldly conceived and admirably executed ... likely to last for many years, if not for centuries." His only complaint about the canals being dug around the Falls was that his own architectural talents were being ignored. Though he took certain pride in not being a Virginian, his ability to mix aesthetic delight in the wild river with practical considerations about taming the James was typical of the contradictory nineteenth-century attitudes about the river expressed by native Virginians.

Latrobe was particularly taken with an 80-acre island in the Falls, the one that William Byrd called Broad Rock, which was then owned by Bushrod Washington and called Washington's Island. Latrobe's enchantment with this island has bequeathed us a detailed portrait of its untamed beauty. Evidently Byrd's attempts to find iron ore there had been well erased by then. According to Latrobe's journal, the island seemed to hang precariously in the midst of roaring cascades:

On the south side of this Island the Channel is filled with immense Masses of Granite, among which the torrent roars with great impetuousity, dividing itself into a thousand separate streams, that wind their way through them tumbling in some places 4 or 5 feet perpendicularly, in other taking a course directly opposite to that of the river till met by some other that rushes again forward. An infinite number of small picturesque groups of rocks, trees and water, present themselves. On the North side several rocky islets, and innumerable broad and bare rocks produce the same effects but in a less degree. The largest Cascade, I have any where observed is at this place. The fall is about 6 feet, it is about 30 feet wide, and the depth at the edge of the fall about 5 feet. ... The basis of Washington's Island is an immense Pile of Granite, abrupt and bare at the West end, but gradually sloping and covered in most places with Mould on every other side. Towards the East is a fruitful hanging plain of about 15 Acres; skirted round the edge with trees. The West end appears to have formerly with stood many a tremendous Attack from the Western Waters; huge fragments of rock that seem to have been violently torn from the Cliff cover its foot.
Latrobe concluded that this island had met the river's "whole fury"; that "Every appearance on the Island ... speaks the effect of the torrent."

Soon, though, Latrobe purchased the island to begin his own kind of domestication. He intended, as he wrote a friend, "to live there ... shutting myself up in my island to devote my hours to litterature, agriculture, friendship, and the education of my children." Either the river no longer appeared so wildly furious to him now, or else his boredom and loneliness had transformed the island into a likely agrarian retreat. Then an invitation arrived from Philadelphia to design the city waterworks, and he left the island for the Virginians to develop.

And develop it they did, starting with Latrobe's notion of farming the flat land. Soon that bit of land became more profitable as a race track. Then a small nail factory was built, with a wooden dam beside it to trap water for power. By 1832 this factory had become the large Old Dominion Iron and Steel Works, sharing the east end of the island with a snuff factory. On the west end, that "immense Pile of Granite" was soon reduced, quarried to pave the streets of Richmond. The hill behind it was covered with company houses and the requisite church and cemetery.

The history of this island reflects the early history of the entire lower Falls area. No longer an insular wilderness paradise, it acquired a new name that still stands: Belle Isle. Ironically, the name is said to be a corruption of Bell's Isle, named after a Scottish tenant. The engineer in Latrobe might very likely have approved of the island's fate, but surely the artist/scientist who had investigated geological history and been inspired by the Falls to paint and write a small book on landscape drawing would have been dismayed. Once tamed to serve human purposes, this island proved to be no paradisiacal retreat.

The reshaping of Belle Isle was gentle in comparison with what was happening to the high ground north of the river at the Fall Line early in the nineteenth century. Byrd, Latrobe, and others describe a multitude of sharp hills--actually many more than the seven that the city liked to advertise--which had been cut and eroded by springs and streams, especially the large Shockoe Creek in the middle of the town which emptied into the eastern end of the Falls. Samuel Mordecai, aged when he wrote Richmond in By-gone Days, recalled for his readers in 1860 the contours of that world, with its many hills, gullies, ravines, and swamps. As he wrote, "the city was all hills, valley and deep ravines, and had a most forbidding aspect."

Since much of the sloping land could not be easily developed, there were a number of gardens and park squares scattered about, complete with springs and ponds, frogs, and children. Many springs were left undisturbed since they served as a source of domestic water. Some of the gardens, particularly those bordering the river and later the canal, were minor commercial ventures on the European model where people strolled for a small fee. As Mordecai reminisced, there were many "rural and romantic spots," no longer wild but cultivated to retain their natural charm. However, the pressures of a growing population, especially as the river and canal trade flourished, meant that the luxury of even the cultivated gardens had to go, and the land must be leveled for development. By 1860, Mordecai noted that "the original and the present surface of the city may be compared to the contrast of the waves in a storm, and their subsidence during the calm."

Actually it is most fitting that our lazy float downstream should be blocked by Bosher Dam. It rises as the boundary between two very different worlds, as much today as 3,000 years ago. Upstream is a world where time and men have moved slowly, almost stopping for the past century, and left few marks on the river or its surrounding land. The other world of the Fall Line has been drastically transformed, dating to the days when the dam was raised high enough to remold the river, and only a heroic effort of infusing historical accounts with imagination can begin to restore it. There is little peaceful floating through this world, either through time or the Falls, only the rambunctious interplay of the energies of people and the river they had claimed.

river map
chapter 10
chapter 12