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A river of knowledge: 14 cool things to know about the James River

A river of knowledge: 14 cool things to know about the James River

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You drive over the James River, linger by it, marvel at it. You might think you know it.

But from its history to its nature, there is a lot more to the James than pretty views. So let's go beneath the surface – and above it – to learn more about this natural gem.

The long way

The James is Virginia's largest river, running roughly 350 miles from northern Botetourt County to the Chesapeake Bay. The James is also one of the longest rivers in the U.S. that lies within one state.

Its tributaries – streams that flow into the James – total more than 15,000 miles, according to the James River Association, a conservation group. Its watershed – the land basin in which water drains into the James – covers about a fourth of the state.

Right here, Richmond

Shortly after landing at Jamestown in 1607, Captain Christopher Newport led a group of English explorers up the river. But they stopped in what is now downtown Richmond – and with good reason: Their vessels were blocked.

The placid, tidal water they had been navigating had turned into roaring rapids, or falls. So Newport planted a cross and claimed the land.

In terms of East Coast geology, the fall line Newport encountered marks the transition between the hilly, upland Piedmont region and the lowland coastal plain. And it isn't unique to the James: The fall line stretches along much of the East, so other cities were established under similar circumstances – river travelers were blocked by falls, so they dropped their cargo at those spots.

"From Georgia to Massachusetts, (Richmond) and other cities are lined up like a string of stars" along the fall line, Seattle geologist-turned-science-writer Beth Geiger wrote in a blog for teachers.

Other such cities include Baltimore and Philadelphia. Indeed, Interstate 95 is a rough guidepost to the fall line.

A big downer

In the space of 7 miles – from just below Bosher's Dam to the west to around the Mayo Bridge downtown, where the water turns tidal – the James drops 105 feet. This stretch is called the Falls of the James.

Regarding that 1607 trip: Captain John Smith, who was a member of the expedition party, noted that the explorers were stopped by "great craggy stones in the midst of the river, where the water falleth so rudely, and with such a violence, as not any boat can possibly pass."

Of course, we've turned that obstacle into an opportunity. Today, white-water paddlers and rafters from all over enjoy the renowned rapids.

Before the English

Long before the English settlers arrived, nomadic hunter-gatherers had frequented the falls for thousands of years. At the time of Newport, the area's main inhabitants were the Powhatan Indians below the fall line and the Monacans above the falls in much of central Virginia, according to the James River Association.

James, you say?

There is evidence that before "James" took hold, the waterway was called the Powhatan Flu (a Latin term for flow) and the King's River. English settlers ultimately named it after their monarch, King James I – who's also the namesake of Jamestown and James City County. 

The King James Version of the Bible was named for the same man, who commissioned that influential English translation in the early 1600s.

"The monarch had many interests, literature and religion perhaps chief among them," said John McClure, research director for the Virginia Historical Society.

Pick a color

The rapids create that famous white water, but where the James runs peacefully, it can look blue ... or greenish ... or brown. Here's why.

The water looks blue when it is reasonably clean and is reflecting the clear, bright sky. The greenish look is created by tiny waterborne algae. And the water runs brown when it is full of sediment, or dirt – after big storms, for example.

The algae are indicators of pollution, and sediment from plain old erosion is another water-quality problem.

For lovers of blue water, Kenny Fletcher of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation environmental group offered this thought. "So if we want to see the James River clear and blue, we should reduce polluted runoff by planting trees along waterways, promoting farm conservation practices and managing stormwater from cities and suburbs, among other steps."

The bay? Here?

You could say that locally, the Chesapeake Bay actually begins in downtown Richmond.

From the Mayo Bridge, you can look upriver and see the impressive rocks and rapids. But if you look downriver, you see slow, tidal water.

The bay is an estuary, an area where fresh water flowing from land meets salt water from the sea. Scientists consider the bay to consist of its main part near the coast as well as its tidal tributaries, so that would include the James up to Richmond.

The James' water remains fresh until just below Hopewell. Still, bay creatures such as blue crabs, mullet, flounder and young menhaden, spot and croaker frequent the James all the way up to downtown Richmond.

Monsters, Part I

Huge but docile fish called sturgeons – these toothless bottom feeders can top 10 feet – swam with the dinosaurs. In the early 2000s, some experts said the fish were virtually extinct in the James, victims of pollution and other problems.

But in recent years, scientists found evidence that sturgeons, which live in the ocean most of the time, continue to return to the James to breed.

A Virginia Commonwealth University researcher caught a 10-footer in 2014 in the Williamsburg area. Some people have seen 6- and 7-footers in Richmond by the Mayo Bridge. Boaters sometimes see sturgeons leaping from the James around Hopewell in late summer and early fall.

The James River Association's Jamie Brunkow, who works as riverkeeper – a monitor and educator – on the James below Richmond, said the fish can come as a surprise to his audiences during lectures.

"I find that a lot of times, people have no idea the sturgeon is a real thing, they get as big as they get, and they are in the James,” Brunkow said. “That inspires fascination, which is great.”

If scientists can discover where the fish spawn – recent evidence points to a spot near VCU’s Rice Rivers Center in Charles City County – it’s possible that area could be protected.

Monsters, Part II

Top-of-the-food-chain predators called blue catfish have exploded in numbers and size in the James. The fish can top 100 pounds, and they eat anything they can get in their gaping mouths – from other fish to muskrats, herons and even KFC chicken boxes.

Back in the 1970s, when people did such things, Virginia biologists put young blue catfish in the tidal, freshwater James and Rappahannock rivers to give anglers something new to catch.

Native to the Mississippi River region, the creatures found their new homes – especially the James – to be welcoming places. There was plenty to eat ... and virtually no predators.

By the mid-2000s, blue catfish constituted up to 75 percent, by weight, of all fish in parts of the James, according to VCU scientists.

Anglers love the big fish, but some scientists fear that the bug-eyed bullies are driving down numbers of struggling species, such as American shad and river herring.

Virginia has been experimenting with allowing a limited commercial catch of blue catfish by "electrofishing," which involves putting a charge into the water to stun the animals. The technique, often used by researchers, has rarely if ever been used commercially.

The question now is whether to expand that program.

“We’ll not get rid of (blue catfish), but the goal would be to use commercial harvest as a tool to keep numbers below some ecological impact threshold," said Greg Garman, a VCU fish ecologist.

Wily predators

In 2015, cameras sensitive to heat and motion photographed coyotes at night in James River Park near the Huguenot Bridge in South Richmond. 

Some people were surprised. They shouldn't have been.

The stealthy creatures showed up in western Virginia in the 1950s and kept spreading. Now they are widespread across the state, experts say.

Resembling giant foxes or miniature German shepherds, coyotes typically weigh 30 to 45 pounds. Their coats run from black to reddish-blond.

Coyotes eat about whatever they can find, including small deer, rabbits, bugs, pet food and trash. Experts say coyotes can kill small pets but rarely bite people.

Other animals along the James in Richmond include deer, raccoons, bald eagles, hawks, beavers, otters and mink.

'Holed' on

What do roads and the river have in common? They both have potholes.

Called rock potholes or rock pools, these divots dot the boulders along the James' landscape. Usually round or oval, a pothole is created by the grinding of pebbles and sand caught in a crevice of a boulder and pushed around by rushing water over thousands of years. 

A pothole can be the size of a coffee mug or bigger than a bathtub. Often filled with water, potholes create little wild places called microenvironments. They provide homes to small fish, tadpoles, dragonfly eggs, snails, crayfish and aquatic plants.

Sadly, the potholes are also where humans dump cigarette butts and trash.

(For a closer look, check out the video at

Still in recovery

The James in Richmond was virtually an open sewer in the 1970s, polluted with human waste and industrial chemicals. Tough federal and state laws in that decade put the river on a comeback course, and work to make the river cleaner continues today.

Some old-timers still think of the James as that dirty, stinky old river ... and in truth, it remains far from pristine. But on most days, the James is clean enough to swim and wade in, and thousands do so in summer. (Rain can wash dog waste and other pollutants into the river, so wait a few days after a storm before swimming.)

Ghost stories

A collection of aging, inactive ships is moored in the James off Fort Eustis near Newport News. Its nickname: the ghost fleet – for the spectral image the vessels cast in a fog.

Formally called the James River Reserve Fleet, the ghosts are part of a larger, national reserve of ships that includes obsolete vessels as well as ones that could be quickly activated for national defense and emergencies.

The James ghosts date back to World War I, and not long ago, the ships were widely viewed as accidents waiting to happen. Environmentalists worried that in an accident or a big storm, the old vessels could release oil, asbestos, toxic PCBs and other pollutants.

But the ghosts have gotten ghostlier in recent years as federal officials sent off vessels for recycling and otherwise shrunk the fleet. There were 800 ghost ships in 1950, 54 in January 2007 and just 10 early in 2017, including a submarine tender and a research vessel.

Fuel oil leaked in a few cases, but there were no leaks of PCBs or asbestos because those pollutants are usually contained well within the ships, according to the U.S. Maritime Administration, which oversees the fleet.

So a once-hot environmental issue quietly cooled off.


Where's the James River Bridge? Take your pick.

There are two spans officially named the James River Bridge: One carries Interstate 95 over the river in Richmond, and one connects U.S. 17 and U.S. 258 between Newport News and Isle of Wight County.

The I-95 bridge – six lanes and 4,185 feet long – accommodates more than 106,000 vehicles a day. The second span is narrower but longer: Its four lanes stretch more than 4 miles over the lower James and carry nearly 28,000 vehicles a day.

Not counting railroad crossings, there are 63 bridges over the James, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Rex Springston writes and speaks about environmental issues. He covered the environment for the RTD for 22 years.


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