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The Rappahannock River

"Where the tide ebbs and flows" - Algonquin translation



If the Native Americans who once lived and hunted and fished along the Rappahannock River were to return to their namesake today, they would find it little changed. The Rappahannock is one of few relatively unspoiled rivers in the eastern United States. In fact, a contiguous 86-mile stretch, from the headwaters at Chester Gap to the Ferry Farm/Mayfield Bridge, has been designated Scenic River. Hardwoods and occasional stands of evergreens line the banks where beaver, wood ducks, deer, raccoons, and herons can be seen. Canoeists navigate the clear rapids and anglers pull smallmouth bass, sunfish, rockfish, croaker, and trout from the waters.

In the l9th Century, copper and gold were mined in the river's upper reaches; in fact, Virginia was the largest gold-producing state in the nation until the California Gold Rush of 1849. And in the early part of this century, the mountain hollows of the Upper Rappahannock basin were farmed by settlers who produced apples, peaches, corn--and moonshine. Today, much of this area is preserved as part of Shenandoah National Park.

Downstream from Deep Run, the river soon joins forces with a major tributary, the Rapidan River, which was originally known as the Rapid Ann, in honor of the Queen of England. Below the fall line at Fredericksburg, the growing Rappahannock broadens into a tidal estuary where fish, oysters, and crabs are abundant. Watermen make a living from the river's bounty, whose catch in 1991 brought in a dockside value of 6.3 million dollars. Nearly one-third of Virginia's nesting population of bald eagles can be found in this now relatively quiet stretch of the river, where steamboats once plied the waters and, before them, colonial merchant ships sailed, stopping regularly at once-thriving tobacco towns and plantations such as Port Royal, Leedstown, and Carter's Wharf.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is currently studying the potential of establishing a wildlife refuge between the bridges at Port Royal and Tappahannock to help protect this section of the river corridor which is home to black ducks, mallards, Canada geese, a variety of anadromous fish, the threatened joint vetch plant, and rapidly disappearing tidal freshwater wetlands-- so crucial to the Chesapeake Bay system. Moving down to the mouth where the Rappahannock empties into the Chesapeake Bay, the river is nearly four miles wide and scarcely resembles the narrow brook that found its source 184 miles away in the Blue Ridge mountains. It is here that in 1607 Captain John Smith, while spearing for fish, nearly succumbed to poisoning by a ray which stung him. The name lingers on: Stingray Point.

Of the 2,848 square miles in the Rappahannock basin, 61 percent is forested and 35 percent is covered by cropland and pasture, while only an estimated 4 percent is urban. Because the Rappahannock basin has retained its rural nature, the river has been, for the most part, spared the disturbing decline of water quality observed in other rivers that empty into the Bay.

- text courtesy of Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay

 

The Rappahannock River
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