In River Time: The Way of the James


High above the Falls, north of Belle Isle on what was once called Belvidere Hill, towers a statue of Memory, a grieving woman carved in white marble, protected by walls which are etched with the names of Virginia's recent war dead. Her back is turned on the semicircular river plain lying at the foot of the hill, long an arena where people have acted out the ways in which they see their river. Here, where Memory's War Memorial stands open to river breezes, is my vantage point on two centuries along the Fall Line. I too am caught in the fluid currents of the past, but what I watch is a people's vision and revision of their river.

The prints and histories which usually serve as my guides through time are of little help in recreating this scene in its wild state. Perhaps the hills circling the plain were once cliffs, worn down by rains and cut out by streams carrying the soil down beside the river. Or perhaps the currents and floods of the river deposited sediment on this flat land. However it originated, giant, water-loving trees must have ruled over the rich soil of this natural amphitheater. But since no one realized how drastically it would change, no one felt this river landscape needed recording.

For a moment I borrow the perspective of one G. Cooke, artist, whose aquatint landscape of the 1830s was frequently reproduced with a print engraved by W. J. Bennett. I join the ladies in the right foreground who gaze at the James River Canal curving gracefully at the foot of grassy hills. But I notice that accuracy and proportion have been sacrificed for the artist's vision of pastoral peace. I must strain to find the tiny mills by the river or the Armory beside the canal, and no smoke rises from the Tredegar Iron Works hidden behind the hill. Browsing cattle and trees in the left foreground emphasize rural tranquility; even the boat is pointed downstream. In the background, small buildings clutter the city's hills, shadowed by an enlarged Capitol. Even the river shows little trace of its loud rapids.

Had the artist been willing to peer more closely, he would have had to paint a far busier and noisier world. The plain below actually was cut by two canals--one near the hills, the James River Canal, which both carried boats and tempered hot iron, and one near the river, the Haxall Canal, which channeled water over the wheels of the Haxall flour mill. Here the river has been harnessed by forces less gentle than the artist's brush. Both canals mark the end of the lazy days preferred by Cooke, when the river was perceived as little more than a picturesque, fluid highway. Its powerful visible flow has been acknowledged and set to work.

The scene after the war, in the 1880s, shows no evidences of bucolic peace. It is the day of steam engines, especially of the railroads. Rails made at Tredegar have been laid on the old canal towpath, and the mills will soon burn down for the last time. The water is pushed down Haxall Canal by a low dam stretching across the river; soon it will turn turbines to make the electricity that powers the trolley systems winding around the city's hills. Thermodynamics is fast replacing simple mechanical hydropower, as people find new, more dependable ways to harness the river's flow.

What would not show up clearly in this picture are the large culverts opening onto Haxall Canal which carry sewage and runoff water that increases as the population does. This diversion of the water's flow was virtually invisible to the city's residents, although on hot days the stench in the mills and power house must have been overwhelming.

As I flash through another fifty years, I still see Tredegar, growing with each war. By the 1930s, the mill is a memory, and a steel-gated dam crosses the river, paralleling the railroad bridges, to corral even more water into Haxall Canal to satisfy the growing demand for electricity. The island between the canal and the river now bears another power plant, fed by coal transported by the train whose elevated tracks shadow the island. When the water level is very low, the river virtually moves through the canal instead of its natural bed. Meanwhile, deep below the surface, the canal bottom is building up with trash and silt, carrying water warmed by excess heat from riverside machines and generators, and the sewage flow is even more pungent. The rate of entropy is steadily increasing. No one paints the scene now, for few can even see it; their vision is blocked by buildings, railroads, and smoke.

Another fifty years pass, and it is a June day in the present. The plain is bare on most days, except for marks of the past. To the right are the smashed piers of bridges and the gated dam, both reminders of the river's occasional fury, and the island, still edged by the high railroad tracks, is inhabited only by the empty power plants, victims of low oil prices and air pollution standards. Part of the Tredegar ruins are being restored, and today they host an art show of large canvases slashed with bold lines and colors. It is the city's June Jubilee, and scattered over the island are stages, food booths, craftsmen, brightly colored beach umbrellas, and people everywhere. The irresistible draw, though, is the river edge, especially at the finish line of a whitewater race, where the band music is almost drowned by the sound of the rapids. Most of these people are viewing this section of the river for the first time, even though it is right in the heart of the city. If Mother Memory could only lift her head and turn, surely she would have to venture a sad smile, for all is not dead on the river today.

What I see here is a pattern that emerged in the century after the Civil War, one that would seem to preclude any prospect of later celebration. In actuality the war did not initiate the changes in how people saw and used their river. It only removed the last resistance of the agrarian South to the industrial revolution that was based on steam engines, not hydropower. The need for economic reconstruction and progress was imperative, too important to depend on energy sources which were at the mercies of flood, drought, and ice. The railroad was gradually replacing the canals, the water wheels, and even most of the ships. But the river was not yet free to go its own way.

The James had already done the hardest work for the next artery of transportation in its basin, by carving for centuries a steady grade through the hills and mountains. The canal towpath had further smoothed and straightened the path, even though the canal helped delay the actual construction of the railroad along the river. Beginning in 1838, five short railroads terminated in Richmond, but it took the Richmond and Allegheny Railroad, completed in 1880, to restore the east-west traffic interrupted by the war. The line was soon absorbed by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad as part of a system beginning at Hampton Roads in the Bay which would reach all points west. This grand scheme, like Washington's great American waterway, was never completed, but Virginia did finally acquire a transportation link with the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and coal could now be brought from 'West Virginia to power riverside industries. The James River line had been built just in time, for the upper James River coal mines, like the tidewater tobacco fields before, were almost depleted.

As the turn of the century approached, Richmonders had new plans for tapping the energy of their river. Electric street trolley cars were coming into fashion, and by 1888 Richmond had eight separate lines competing to carry people and three power companies. By 1890 the Richmond Railway and Electric Company bought out the others, and generated power for its station at the end of the Haxall Canal, using hydropower with steam engines for backup. Wheels upon wheels! Several other hydropower/steam plants also operated at the Fall Line, creating electricity, the new energy, primarily for industry.

Ironmaking continued on a large scale, with more than thirty companies at the Fall Line in 1900, turning out everything from nails and railroad rails to steam locomotives and complete lighthouses. The river must have literally boiled at their discharge pipes. Other discharges were mixed in the river also, coming from the fast-growing chemical, fertilizer, paper, and tobacco processing factories.

However, Richmond was gradually losing its industrial and economic monopoly on the James, despite its railroad and river advantages. Upstream, the city of Lynchburg was also a railroad crossroad, and it was closer to the West and the raw materials of industry. Downstream, the little fishing town of Newport News was transformed into a prosperous port and shipbuilding center. Its deep water harbor allowed the larger ocean-going steamships to anchor with ease, without scraping bottom as they would in the shallower river channel upstream. The natural advantages of the Fall Line were finally diminishing.

The residents of the James had discovered a different sort of advantage in a literally deeper dimension of the river: its invisible flow. After many years of inadequate pumps, reservoirs, and filters, there was finally a steady supply of reasonably clean water coming into the cities. Richmond in particular prided itself on its civic sanitation. Residents were encouraged to purchase flush toilets, and then required to connect them with the combined sewer system. Good drainage was considered necessary to promote health, although where the drainage went was rarely considered. More than ever, the river was an asset, but for passive and not active reasons. Whatever drained in, whether through culverts, pipes, or the many streams, either sank, was absorbed, diluted, and purified naturally, or it conveniently moved downstream, out of range of sight and sound. There was no question of treating any of the waste, not even after the technology to do so became available. It would be almost fifty years before any discharges, human or industrial, would be treated or filtered in any way on the James. But polite people simply did not speak of such matters, much less study them.

As early as 1912, there were those who foresaw disturbing consequences in abusing the river's flushing capacity, and they proposed a law forbidding pollution of the James. Industrial interests lobbied effectively, arguing that such measures could not be cost effective. One Virginia legislator even declared publicly that "The rivers of Virginia are the God-given sewers of the State." And indeed they would be

People never seemed to have had trouble understanding that they could use rivers to move themselves, especially with pushes from wind, currents, tides, and engines, or that they could move water through pipes and canals to serve their needs for drinking, cleansing, or irrigation But there are many implications of the fact that the river itself is constantly moving which they have not always come to terms with, no matter how obvious these might seem. They see only the river moving in its bed of rock and soil, conveniently transporting the offal of civilization downstream safely out of range. They forget that the same river also flows through their own bodies, homes, factories, lands, and streets, dissolving and connecting, and that every use has entropic byproducts that can degrade the river they depend upon for food and drinking water.

Yet their faith in the river's natural capacity to cleanse wastes and renew itself is not unjustified. What the river does not sweep eventually to ocean depths it dissolves and dilutes, exposes to the degradation processes of sun, oxygen, and bacteria, and may eventually bury under deep layers of silt. But these natural processes of purification and renewal must operate in the unpredictable and slow motion of river time, and not in modern accelerated human time. Rivers cannot always absorb all the waste load they are asked to accept, especially where many people have settled together, not even with help from technology. And on the James, technology has been more the problem than the solution.

The pattern of industrial development and increasing discharges into the river was only enhanced by the two world wars. Weapons of warfare--gunpowder, torpedoes, cannons, ammunition, even the iron which clad the CSS Virginia--had long been associated with this river. Arsenals and armories lined its banks along the Fall Line, standing beside iron works and shipyards. That trend eventually moved downstream, to the deeper navigation channel below the junction of the Appomattox with the James. Here, in 1912, the DuPont Company paid $20 an acre for the Hopewell estate, beside the river and away from settlement, to build a small dynamite factory. With the advent of war in Europe two years later, those plans were quickly changed, and a large munitions plant was constructed to produce the gun-cotton needed for high-powered artillery ammunition. The town of Hopewell was thus born, since up to 20,000 employees were needed immediately and DuPont was even willing to build them homes.

When the war ended, DuPont decided to close its Hopewell operation and concentrate on fiber products at an upriver site, but it joined civic leaders in finding replacement industry. First to come was a manufacturer of cellulose, eventually to become the giant Hercules Chemical Company. Its success, coupled with the opportunities for easy shipping and abundant water for cooling and discharge, soon attracted other large chemical firms, especially that which would become the Allied Chemical Company. Meanwhile, near Richmond a company called Experiment Incorporated was built in 1945 to develop the faster, more powerful aircraft weapons and rocket fuels needed after World War II.

Once, it had been the river's energy which captured the imagination and ingenuity of its people. But in the twentieth century, it was machines and chemicals-- especially those associated with war--which held the secrets of energy and, presumably, progress. No enemy ships invaded the river during the twentieth-century wars, but in a sense it had indeed been conquered by "friendly" forces. The sustainer of life had become not only the ignominious carrier of human wastes, but its one-way flow passively absorbed much of the entropic discharges of the new industrial forms of energy.

By 1950, sections of the river were not supporting any kind of life at all. As Richmond and Lynchburg kept growing, the life within the river downstream began disappearing, choked by the voracious oxygen hunger of organic sewage pouring through the pipes. Each summer marked the demise of more fish species until the only life in those sections of the river was reported to be a few bright red anaerobic tubeworms buried in the silt. As one study reported, "the benthic life was conspicuous by its absence." At points close to the industrial discharges the river was not only dead but even toxic. Temperatures of over 115 degrees and a pH of 3 were recorded in the 1950s in a mile of river below a single industry which dumped hundreds of pounds of sulphuric acid daily south of Richmond. Another industry in Lynchburg was discarding 220 tons of sulphuric acid each year. Yet few people knew this was happening.

One sunny Saturday, a family decided to put a borrowed boat in the river below Drewry's Bluff. The young wife, who was dying of cancer, wanted to go water skiing once more before she lost her strength. As she skied, her five-year-old son floated in his life-jacket, playing at the edge of the river, until he began begging to stay in the boat because his skin and eyes itched and burned. The next morning, his skin began sloughing on until he had the equivalent of a deep burn over every part of his body which had been in the water. The life jacket disintegrated when it was picked up, and even the bottom of the boat was eaten through in spots. Subsequent infections left the boy badly scarred. The story never reached the newspapers, and no one knows how many other people inadvertently paid dearly for a day of recreation on the James.

There were some official records of the pollution at the time, however. After World War II, Virginia had been one of the first states to create a governmental agency whose sole responsibility was the management of water quality. At the time, though, its first concern was with furnishing cheap water for the rapidly building industry, especially the chemical plants which had been lured to Hopewell. A report from the Division of Water Resources and Power (a telling name!) on the "Chemical Character of Surface Waters of Virginia, 1945-1946" is typical of others done during these years in Virginia and elsewhere. Despite the fact that in many parts of Virginia the rivers were devoid of life because of raw sewage, it is the color of the water which is emphasized in the report. Attention is devoted to those chemicals which could form scale in boilers or otherwise impede industrial uses of water. The picture the report gives is of a stream which is a solution of chemicals and metals that has absolutely no relationship to the life of the river or its people; the primary goal was clearly the maintenance of healthy machinery.

A Baltimore engineering firm, however, had no political or economic motives for minimizing the appalling pollution problem in the James, especially since its 1949 report was a design for instituting a sewage treatment system for Richmond which would have eliminated the combined sewers. Sternly asserting that the golden rule should be applied to river use, the report documented the foul condition of the river caused by the average of 44. 7 million gallons of combined raw sewage and industrial wastes flowing from Richmond each day. It declared that "large portions of the James River have become so polluted that the waste is offensive to sight and to smell, so polluted that in some locations not even the coarsest form of fish life can survive during the lower summer flows." A similar situation of deoxygenation is noted downstream of other James River "hot spots"-- Covington (on the Jackson River), Lynchburg, DuPont Chemical, and Hopewell. Not even floods could move out the massive deposits of sludge. The newspaperman who lamented in 1949 the conversion of "one of America's proudest rivers into an historic open sewer" was not indulging in hyperbole.

Admittedly hindsight has its advantages, yet one wonders about the priorities of the Virginia Academy of Science when it prepared its study of the James River Basin, published in 1950. This hefty volume, almost half of which is devoted to railroad development, says little about waste disposal, drinking water quality, pollution, or any other areas where the river intimately intersects the lives of people in its basin. It does, however, note the decline of recreation and fish species below cities. There are chapters devoted to the sciences of geology, biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, medicine, but only the geological and biological chapters contain direct references to the river. Instead the history and structure of academic departments in the area's universities and colleges are detailed.

Meanwhile, that same year the State Water Control Board released a study of the Lynchburg section of the James that detailed the pollution caused by sewage and industrial discharges. A pattern of disjunction and fragmentation of river management was evidently in place: scientists in and outside academia were not communicating, and neither group was being heard clearly in the world of local and state politicians who needed to act to clean the river.

It seems strange that the increasingly visible pollution for miles below the two cities on the James was so rarely mentioned in print. Aside from a few watermen no longer able to make a living near Hopewell, most Virginians--like their contemporaries in other parts of the country--simply did not seem to care. Since waterfront industries and railroads, as well as private mansions, generally blocked any public access to the river, it was easy to ignore the problems and transfer any latent loyalty to the historic river, retreating in the summer to other rivers which were cleaner and more accessible. Avoiding the 60-80 miles of polluted river was no big problem. Most people turned their backs, accepting what they called "that filthy river." The elements for potential catastrophe were solidly in place.

chapter 14
chapter 15