Water Flows Downhill

As the weather has warmed and stay-at-home restrictions have somewhat eased, more of you are heading to our favorite spot in Richmond: The James River.

But many of you likely think of the James only as that ribbon of water that cuts through our city. Sure, it lends its name to our beloved James River Park, but what else do you really know about it?

Richmond is where it is because of the Falls of the James. Below Richmond, it flows as mostly flatwater all the way into the Chesapeake Bay. When the first Europeans came to Virginia, they landed at what became Jamestown. As that settlement grew and more Europeans arrived, our capitol city moved upstream to what became Williamsburg. But folks approached Richmond as early as 1611. That was when Sir Thomas Dale established the settlement of Henricus, at what is now Dutch Gap.

But the Falls thwarted further movement. The larger boats that could navigate up from the Chesapeake would have to be portaged (carried over land) to reach the flatwater of the upper James. As America grew, towns and cities sprung up along the James from the Chesapeake to the Appalachian Mountains, and canals and waterworks aided that expansion.

And that’s one of the things that people perhaps forget: The James River and its watershed are huge.

The James starts in little Iron Gate, a small-town west of Lexington. It’s the largest river in Virginia, stretching for over 400 miles. The watershed – the creeks and streams and springs that fill the James River as it makes its way to the Chesapeake Bay – covers over 10,400 square miles. And while we’re lucky to have the James in our home town, over 2.5 million people (as of 2000) live within that watershed.

Fifty years ago, it was frowned upon the use the James for recreation. In 1975, Governor Mills Godwin shut it down for anyone wanting to fish. But as we became more environmentally aware, the health of the river improved. Over the last several years, Atlantic Sturgeon, which have been coming to the James to spawn for millions of years, have begun to return to their natural habitats just below Richmond. And we once again revel in the James for swimming, boating, and fishing.

In addition to its importance in Virginia’s history, the James has great importance to the health of our Commonwealth. As we begin to leave our homes to once again enjoy its fruits, remember to keep it clean.

* Featured Image courtesy Dave Parrish Photography

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