In River Time: The Way of the James

Taming the Falls

The river's "roar" was a constant reminder of its flow, strong and continuous. Right at the doorsteps of Richmond was a raw, elemental force which could be harnessed to make the lives of its people richer and more comfortable. Thus it was the inventive imagination, not the artistic, which was challenged to find ways to link people with the river's flow for profit. Born like a mechanical Aphrodite out of the river's juxtaposition of flowing energy from upstream with navigability downstream below the Fall Line, the early stages of the industrial revolution had come to Virginia. The scenic beauty was a bonus, useful perhaps for poets and painters, but far more irresistible was the river's apparent invitation to prosperity and progress. The river was as temperamental as ever, but with black blasting powder, canals could be cut on both sides of the area to control and sustain the necessary flow. For years the Byrds had successfully operated a canal-fed flour mill on the south side at Manchester, setting the precedent. by the 1790s farmers were growing wheat upstream and transporting it down to the mills in bateaux. The extended James River Canal was an impending reality. Meanwhile the world market was waiting for whatever flour could be shipped on down the James and out the Bay. The stage was set for the rise of the great flour mills on the Fall Line, building on the success of the long-established Byrd mill at Manchester.

The largest mills, the Gallego and Haxall Mills, were thriving, family-run businesses through the nineteenth century. They burned down and were flooded fairly regularly, only to be rebuilt on a larger scale. By mid-century, they were joined by other Falls mills in shipping out their flour to South America and to the San Francisco gold rushers.  Gallego had a fleet of three dozen schooners, carrying flour as far as Australia. Until war came, Richmond was considered the flour milling capital of the country, the hemisphere, and perhaps even the world.

Belle Isle from the north bank behind Tredegar Iron WorksThe lower miles of the Falls were increasingly lined with mills that briefly captured the force of the flow to coat paper, spin cotton and twine, forge iron, and grind flour. Cotton mills also proliferated at Petersburg, at the Fall Line of the Appomattox. But Virginians were proudest of their iron mills. The needs for cannon in the Revolution had initiated this industry at Westham Foundry near the north end of the Falls. The combination of a ready supply of coat from the Midlothian seams nearby, iron ore barged from the mountains, and a steady flow of water guaranteed by canals assured a healthy iron industry. Not incidentally, there were also numerous black slaves who could be more profitably hired out to do work that most white men disdained, for the tidewater tobacco fields were no longer so fertile. Old Dominion Iron and Nail Works on Belle Isle became famed for its horseshoes and nails, but it was a small operation by comparison with the massive Tredegar Iron Works on the northern bank. Tredegar, one of the first strong industrial corporations in the South, grew quickly to meet the increasing world demand for iron, especially for building rails for the railroads. Over the years it also turned out munitions for three wars, the Civil War and both World Wars.

The industries cluttering the river banks meant that the Falls had lost their original claim to spectacular natural scenery. For several miles, factories, mills, docks, and then railroads increasingly hemmed in the river, insinuating soot into its mists which was often "so thick you could cut it with a knife," according to the Richmond newspaper. Apparently no one even bothered to record how the water coming out of the mills and factories looked or smelled. Perhaps the only people close enough to the water to tell found the sweet smell of profit overwhelming.

The roar at the Fall LIne had become muted by the "throng of travel, the roaring and whistling of steam, and the rumbling of water-wheels and machinery," as Samuel Mordecai complained in 1860. Canals drained much of the river's flow to keep the gigantic wheels running and the iron cooled as well as to float boats. Even the granite of the surrounding cliffs, especially on the south bank, was being cut back, providing stone for building. The James River Canal, and later the railroad tracks, took full advantage of the land that the river had so patiently graded above the Fall Line. The first settlers' dreams of wealth supported by the river seemed to have finally materialized with apparently negligible costs. The Fall Line wilderness had been tamed to suit people, just as the rest of the American wilderness would be: its original beauty survived only in pale and soundless watercolor landscapes.

A similar story could be told for any major river on the East Coast. Indeed, there are scholars who contend that American shave never really recovered from the shock of being thrust into the chaos of a wilderness, and that the need to change, to tame and impose a different, more practical, order on nature, lies at the heart of our national character. This urge to "redeem" nature by changing and using it is not just for the sake of short-range economic benefits; psychologically it may run deeper, and probably is not conscious. Rivers in particular can seem like natural enemies, for they may "betray" the trust of people who are dependent on their steady flow by flooding or drying up. They may be neither neat, nor polite, nor generous to their human neighbors.

The thesis is interesting but hard to prove. What is it that compels people to try shaping and controlling the river, regardless of far-reaching consequences and the certainty of floods? The economic reasons usually given seem inadequate, especially when time and events often prove the promised financial bonanza to be limited or illusory. I am reminded that when, as a child, I had a mountain stream to play in, one of the first things I did was to start hauling rocks to build a dam. My frustration when the dam did not retain the water's force for long was more than overcome by the delight of changing the shape and texture of the water for a few minutes and feeling some control over the habitat of the nervous crayfish. I suspect that this determination to shape flowing water according to human will is not exclusively American.

Americans in the nineteenth century were also learning more subtle and ultimately more significant ways to channel their rivers that did not require disturbing the landscape. They literally invited the flow into their own bodies and homes, becoming dependent on its power to cleanse and flush. In effect, they chose to link with the river as new conduits of its flow.

For years the people on the freshwater James had drawn ground water for drinking and cleaning from the many springs or crude wells. Wooden pipes were fashioned to carry this water into their homes, but there were constant problems with pressure and quantity, especially for houses on hills. Yet these people lived near a continuously cleansing source of fresh water, purified by sun and oxygen and easy to tap. Logically, then, as a town along the river began growing, to use the water for its water supply made more sense than sinking the more expensive wells.

Richmond males in particular were already accustomed to the river's capacity for cleaning, for many bathed and swam in the river in warm weather from the time they were boys. Not surprisingly, the favored swimming holes were upstream, above Belle Isle and the discharges from factories and mills. Each hole had its own special delights and hazards marked by its name. These names have a rough poetry of their own: Snake Hole, Big and Little Feeder, Skin Deep, Sandy and Gravel Bottom, The Devil's Ball Room and the Devil's Kitchen, Heaven and Hell, Puss Ricks chair, Big and Little Soda Water, Cleopatra, Rich Rock and Big Hole, and Six Gates. Appropriately one of those boys swam the six miles to Warwick in 1820, imitating Lord Byron's feat, and later became a Byronic poet--Edgar Allan Poe. Most, though, bathed out of necessity, not as a heroic gesture, sparing the small amount of tap water for the ladies.

Lynchburg, a town growing upstream below Balcony Falls, was the first to decide to pump the James into its homes. To accomplish this feat, the town hired a Prussian engineers, Albert Stein, to design waterworks. In 1830, when the pumps, reservoir, and gravity pipe system were completed in the face of widespread skepticism, the entire town turned out to celebrate the clear water gushing through the giant pipes.

Richmonders then hired Stein to work the same miracle for them, for they too wanted "an abundant supply of sweet and pure water for all purposes." However, a century of stripping the virgin forests in the river basin meant that each rainfall carried tons of soil into the river, making it extraordinarily muddy by the time it reached the Fall Line. Stein had no trouble designing a pumphouse and small reservoir, but he had less success straining out the mud. He invented two filtration systems, the first of gravel and sand, and the second using gravity. These were the first filtration systems to be built in the country, but neither worked. The principles were correct, but the size of each system was inadequate to handle the load of sediment then carried by the river.

Soon, though, Richmond, like Scottsville and other upstream towns, had more water, albeit muddy, in the homes. As a history of drinking water in Richmond says, "Then began a parade of righteously indignant citizens who spent the next forty years complaining that their supply was not abundant nor the water sweet and pure." Servants were often required to swish bags of alum to settle out the mud in the family supply, but for seventy-five years little else would be done. Clean public drinking water was considered a luxury, carrying lower priority than building and improving the canal, for example.

All that water going through pipes had to end up somewhere, and that place rather consistently turned out to be the storm water pipe system already in place, sweeping the used water back out into the river. Once, human wastes had been banned from most storm systems--such discharges were a penal offense in London before 1815--especially since "night soil" was far more profitable as fertilizer. But that was not true on the James. As the water closet became more affordable and popular, what came out of those pipes soon put an end to the custom of river bathing. Civic "sanitation" had its paradoxes not generally discussed in polite company. Fortunately, Stein did have the foresight to locate the water intake pipes west of the city and upstream of the discharge conduits. But no one could then envision limits on the river's natural ability to dilute, absorb, and break down the wastes pouring form the pipes, no matter what they were.

So the river's flow became intimately connected and supportive of the lives and activities of those settled beside it. No tobacco leaves were scattered reverently on its surface, for the constant miracles of force and renewal were taken from granted, even appreciated in a distinctly American fashion. And the city most dependent on this river, Richmond, prospered and grew, even as cities on navigable rivers did all over the country. It seemed obvious that Americans had managed to create progressive and profitable cities primarily by appropriating the gift of the forceful flow of their rivers.

Yet that gift was not always free; in any season the James could exact a high price form those dependent on it. Sometimes it almost stopped flowing. Mill wheels halted during the hot harvest months early in the nineteenth century when the drought-dried river only tricked through their races. Thousands of farmers came to the Falls with their grain, camping in line at the two mills which could still capture enough of the flow to turn their wheels. Winter also brought its problems, especially in 1856 when the severe cold froze the river over, closing its length to navigation for eight weeks. There are photographs that show the ice piled high against the one nonrailroad bridge at the Falls, Mayo's bridge; sections were ripped from their moorings.

Sometimes there was too much water too suddenly. With people, businesses, and boats crowding along the James, any significant rise in water level created problems. One "freshet" described by Mordecai is especially dramatic, for it appeared even more suddenly than the 1771 flood had. It was a sunny May morning and the shad were silvering the Falls in their spawning frenzy. Virtually every sizeable rock had its resident fisherman, casting his net into the sluices. In Mordecai's words,

Suddenly, without the slightest previous indication or warning, the river rose so rapidly that all had to run for their lives. Swimming was in a very few places practicable. A great number of the men were partially immersed before they were aware of it, and their access to the shore cut off. As the water rose, the poor fellows might be seen clinging to the rocks, and presently a huge log would be borne along by the current, strike against one of them, break his hold, an d perhaps a limb, and sweep him down the rapid against the rocks in his descent. Another more expert would be saved by seizing on a floating tree or log and descend with it to smooth water. The cries and supplications of the distressed victims were drowned by the roaring of the waters.
Spectators crowded the banks on both sides, trying to rescue the hapless fishermen, but twenty men were drowned.

There were other floods of less catastrophic proportions, which regularly washed out buildings, mills, bridges, and wharfs, especially in the valley of Shockoe Creek. For Mordecai, nostalgic for the flowering plain of his youth, there was poetic justice to be found here: "the creek, not reconciled to the encroachment, sometimes rises in its wrath and drives the invaders from their watery regions." But they were not driven far or for long. Low-lying property, because of its proximity to navigation and water power, was both valuable and popular, flood or no flood. Those put out of business by the water were simply replaced by others glad of a bargain.

A more constant barrier to trade than water level was the river itself. Manchester, once a trading center, had lost many of its businesses and merchants to the north side with its busy canals. Although in theory it had the right to half of the water power, in fact it was unable to take much advantage of its privilege. The wealth and power of the commonwealth were concentrated on the other side; poor laborers and freed slaves made up much of the population of what was known as "Dogtown." What was needed was a reliable bridge, not just the unpredictable ferry at Rockett's Landing below the Falls. What was actually built was a rickety toll bridge, a rough affair first devised in 1788 by Colonel Mayo. Constructing a reliable bridge proved beyond Mayo's engineering talents, so the ferry, especially with its cheaper toll, was not threatened for some time.

Mayo's first bridge, only a foot or two above the water and made half of logs spiked to the rocks and half of connected boats, lasted less than three months, or until the next freshet. But profits had been good, so Mayo rebuilt a bit higher and continued to collect his tolls. Benjamin Latrobe, outraged by the six cents toll, described it in 1796 as a "most wretched bridge." At that time, it was still rather jerry-built, of enclosures of timber filled with loose pieces of Granite," winding across the rocks for almost a mile. For more than two generations the bridge was either being rebuilt or repaired, the victim of poor construction techniques as well as flood, fire, and ice. In fact, it was totally rebuilt at least seven times after encountering nature's fury.

Like any good landmark, Mayo's Bridge had its legend, and no one tell sit as well as Mordecai does:

On one occasion, when the flood of the bridge had been taken up for repair, and the large sleepers remained, the keeper of the toll-gate on the Island was aroused one dark night, and to his astonishment, found not only a man but also a horse waiting to pass. "For God's sake, how did you get here?" he asked. "By the bridge, to be sure! how else should I!" replied Isham Randolph. "No other man could have done it," said the toll-taker; "the floor is taken up." "Well," said Mr. Randolph, "floor or no floor, I rode here, and now I'll pay my toll." "Pass on, Mr. Randolph; I won't take toll from a man who rides where there is no bridge."
Between tolls and repairs, the longstanding division between the residents of both sides of the river was hardly eased by Mayo's bridge which was the only nonrailroad bridge across the rocks for most of the nineteenth century.

There were limits to how effectively people could control or cross their river then, although they kept trying. But they encountered more solid limits when they tried to protect the way of life they had developed upon this river, as well as in the South. Dreams of prosperity would be interrupted and changed because another kind of force had come up the river.

river map
chapter 11
chapter 13