"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
for the Chesapeake Bay