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Highroad Guide to the Virginia Mountains

By Deane and Garvey Winegar

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Sherpa Guides > Virginia Mountains > Long Trails & River Valleys > River Valleys: The James River

River Valleys: The James River

[Fig. 40] The headwaters of major rivers—the origin of so much water, so much life—have cast a spell over restless mankind for centuries. The Nile, for example, took the lives of several adventurers before the river's origin was eventually discovered in the mid-1800s. The headwaters of the James, Virginia's mightiest river, are more accessible, although it is still a moving experience to stand at the exact point in the Alleghaeny Mountains a mile below the community of Iron Gate where two smaller rivers—the Jackson and the Cowpasture—merge to become the state's longest and most hallowed ribbon of water. The James is not only one of the longest rivers in America lying completely within the borders of a single state, but its drainage base takes in nearly one-fourth of Virginia's total land mass.

The James River is the third largest tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. Beginning in the Allegheny Mountains in the northwestern part of Virginia, the river rushes, twists, and eventually glides a total of 343 miles through four of the state's five physiographic provinces—the Valley and Ridge, Blue Ridge, Piedmont Plateau, and Atlantic Coastal Plain.

The James's claim to fame is well documented.

In 1607, the boats of Englishmen crunched ashore a few miles upriver from the mouth of the James. There the James joins the Chesapeake Bay at Hampton Roads, and eventually, the Atlantic Ocean. The village was called Jamestown. It would become the first permanent English settlement in America. Traveling up the treacherous James was one way the mountains and valleys of Virginia got first a trickle, then a torrent of European farmers, trappers, missionaries, and adventurers.

To European settlers and eventually those who would call themselves Americans, the mighty James, like the Oregon Trail, beckoned as a logical route for westward expansion. Winding toward the setting sun through the fertile Piedmont above the fall line at Richmond then northwest into unexplored mountains, the river captivated the imaginations of both president and river rat.

President George Washington was intrigued by the use of canals for expansion and commerce. This was, after all, pre—Industrial Revolution America. Water seemed a logical way to transport goods and people. If a powerful river had already carved a major path through mountains 3,000 feet high—as the James had done in the Blue Ridge Mountains—then why not take advantage of it? Washington's dream was to connect East and West by a dependable system of river travel from Richmond through the mountains, on to the Kanawha and Ohio rivers, then eventually to the Mississippi and beyond. The system would become known as the James River & Kanawha Canal. Washington was the system's first president.

The canal was a project of immense scope. In the early 1800s, 3,300 people—mostly Irish immigrants—worked on construction of the canal with pick ax, mules, and black powder (dynamite hadn't been invented). Eventually there would be 23 low-level wing dams to divert river water into the canal system, a total of 98 locks to lift and lower boats at rapids and falls, 12 stone aqueducts, and 199 stone culverts to handle creeks and rivers flowing into the James. The canal that snaked alongside the James River and into the mountains was Virginia's largest public works project at the time and one of the most ambitious undertakings in the country.

By 1851, the great ditch with its elevated dirt towpath for horses and mules to pull barges and boats was complete to Buchanan in the mountains, 197 miles upriver from Richmond. Sections of the canal were used for some 80 years, but the James River & Kanawha Canal was completed only as far as Buchanan. Goods and people were then loaded on horses and wagons to travel the rest of the way through the Alleghaenies to Kentucky along the 208-mile-long James River & Kanawha Turnpike.

The simultaneous arrival of the steam engine and the coming of the Civil War doomed the ambitious canal system from Richmond through the mountains. By then, however, even the whitewater gorge called Balcony Falls through the Blue Ridge range near Glasgow—a barrier to river travel since the earliest explorers—had been mastered.

It is at Balcony Falls that the James has carved its route through the Blue Ridge range. Constricted by mountain walls that contain a series of Class III and IV whitewater rapids, the river speeds up at Balcony Falls, dropping nearly 200 feet through this section. The James roars over boulders and ledges of sandstone, limestone, and shale for a total of 7 miles as it carves a swath through the Blue Ridge. Federally designated James River Face Wilderness is on the south side.

Canoeists and kayakers love the area, but shooting Balcony Falls is a challenge best reserved for whitewater canoeists and kayakers of at least intermediate ability. A livery near Lexington, where the Maury River joins the James, rents river equipment and operates a shuttle service for those who want to float this portion of the river. For more information, contact James River Basin Canoe Livery, Ltd., Route 4, Box 109-A, Lexington, VA 24450. Phone (540) 261-7334.

A set of restored locks from the James River & Kanawha Canal are open for public inspection at Otter Creek where the Blue Ridge Parkway spans the river. The old canal locks, preserved by the U.S. Park Service, still have original pine planking. The stonework created by Irish and Italian stonemasons using rock quarried from the nearby mountains remains as beautiful today as when the locks were built in 1848.

Fishing the James

The James River is Virginia's best smallmouth bass river. Smallmouth prefer clean water that's richly oxygenated by riffles and rapids. If the fast water is broken up by deep, cool pools, so much the better. The upper regions of the James have it all.

Muskie have been stocked in the upper James, though these northern fish tend to come as a bonus when fishing for redbreast sunfish, bass, or catfish. The state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has also stocked flathead catfish in the upper section of the James, but that fishery has not yet fully developed.

Public access points along the river are maintained by the state game department with license money. A free list of access points along the length of the James is available from the department office at Richmond (see below).

Fishing the James usually means float-fishing in a canoe or johnboat. The best method is to launch at a public ramp, drift with the current and cast while drifting, then take out at a public ramp downriver. Highway bridge crossings in Virginia are also access points to public waters. Another very effective and inexpensive lure is the 4-inch grub in various colors. Fly-fishermen also love the way smallmouth bass and sunfish take after Wooly Buggers and other flies that represent bottom-dwelling food.

For more information: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 4010 W. Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23230. Phone (804) 367-1000.

Floating the James

For sweeping views of the Allegheny and Blue Ridge mountains, of wilderness areas and river islands along the way, of stonework done by master craftsmen on riverside canals long abandoned, day-long float trips on the upper James offer the best way of seeing it all. Here are several trips recommended by the Virginia game department:

Eagle Rock to Horseshoe Bend. Paddling time, 4—6 hours. Numerous Class I—II riffles. Exceptional mountain scenery and vistas.

Horseshoe Bend to Springwood. Paddling time, 2—4 hours. Outstanding mountain scenery, numerous Class I—II riffles. Take-out on right side of river beneath VA 630 bridge.

Springwood to Buchanan. Paddling time, 3—5 hours. Best muskie fishing in the James. Take-out on right side of river at public boat ramp in the town of Buchanan.

Buchanan to Glasgow. Paddling time, 8—10 hours. Many Class I—II riffles and mountain vistas. Primitive U.S. Forest Service canoe-in campsites on the right side of the river some 13 miles below Buchanan. James River Recreation Area (privately owned campground) on the right side of the river 3 miles upstream from Glasgow. General stores in Smallwood and Buchanan.

Glasgow to Snowden. Paddling time, 2—3 hours. Though it is treacherous in places, this is possibly the most beautiful reach of the entire upper river. Here the James River cuts through the Blue Ridge mountain range. In addition to numerous Class I—II riffles, a major Class III—IV rapid of some 4 miles called Balcony Falls creates crashing stairsteps and runs through boulderfields as the river picks up speed and strength. Balcony Falls should be scouted carefully before running. James River Face Wilderness Area is on the right side of the river. There's a general store at Snowden. Take-out is on the left side up Rocky Row Run underneath the VA 501/VA 130 bridge.

For more information: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 4010 W. Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23230. Phone (804) 367-1000.

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