This year marks the 40th anniversary of the James River Association. To celebrate this anniversary we’ll be releasing Top 40 lists throughout the year celebrating some of the awesome facts and experiences the James River watershed has to offer.

This month, we have surveyed our staff to bring you the Top 40 Historical Facts about the James River watershed. From Chief Powhatan to Hurricane Camille, this river has been here for a very long time and has quite the story to tell!

  1. 200 million years ago Atlantic sturgeon first appear in the fossil record during the Triassic period. Often regarded as a living fossil, the sturgeon’s appearance has changed little since the age of the dinosaurs.
  2. 3,000 years ago Native Americans settled what is now known as Virginia. At the time of European exploration, the principal Native American tribe living below the fall was the Powhatan – the name of the chief, the tribe and the river that became the James. West of the fall line, the Monacan tribe ruled much of what is now Central Virginia.
  3. No place we knew so strong, so pleasant, and delightful in Virginia. For which we called it None-such.” This is how Captain John Smith described Powhatan, later the site of Richmond, on an expedition up the James River led by Christopher Newport in 1607.
  4. Jamestown was founded in 1607 and became Virginia’s first capital. As settlers moved west across the state, the capital moved to Williamsburg in 1699, and finally to Richmond in 1780.
  5. As population grew in the Tidewater region of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood and his Knights of the Golden Horseshoe traveled westward into the Blue Ridge region on an exploratory mission to find new locations for western settlements.
  6. As the primary mode of transportation, the James River was vital to transportation and commerce between the 17th and 20th Centuries. Richmond’s economy was built on the human slave trade, flour-milling, tobacco production, and iron production, all relying on the natural power of the James River. Shipbuilding, cotton mills, paper mills, quarries, and hydroelectric plants also relied on the James and were historically important to Richmond’s economy.
  7. In 1732 Edward Scott patented land on a large horseshoe bend in the river that would become Scottsville. Being the northern most point on the river made this town a key location for trade with the Shenandoah Valley.
  8. In 1757 John Lynch founded a ferry that became a trade center. In 1786 Lynch was granted a charter establishing the town of Lynchburg. The town grew and became a major port for shipping goods to Richmond.
  9. The James River batteau, a flat bottomed work boat, was invented by Anthony and Benjamin Rucker in the 1770’s. They carried cargo and were poled up and down river by free or enslaved men.
  10. In 1781 French troops landed on the north bank of the river near Jamestown. They were the first French troops in Virginia sent to fight with the Americans during the Revolutionary War.
  11. The Rivanna Connection Canal was built in the 1850’s where the Rivanna River meets the James River at Columbia. The construction of the canal helped batteaux bring goods north to Charlottesville.
  12. During the Civil War, ironclad warships, whose hulls were protected by iron plates, revolutionized naval warfare. In 1862 the USS Monitor fought the CSS Virginia off Newport News Point in the famous Battle of the Ironclads.
  13. Richmond was among the largest Atlantic slave trade markets in the United States, second to New Orleans. As many as 500,000 African Americans were sold into slavery through Richmond before the passage of Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Many slaves were sold in the eight-block neighborhood of Shockoe Bottom on the north bank of the James River. The slave trade was a prominent economic activity in Richmond until the abolition of slavery at the end of the American Civil War.
  14. In April 1865 Union troops entered Richmond. Not wanting their supplies taken by the enemy, Confederates set them on fire. Unfortunately the fire quickly burned out of control and much of the city’s commercial area along the river was destroyed.
  15. In late 1800’s George Washington had a vision of Richmond becoming a gateway to the west through a canal system that would connect the James to the Ohio River. While never fully reaching Ohio, in its heyday, the James River and Kanawha Canal brought goods and people aboard batteaux to and from Richmond from as far away as Buchanan.
  16. Hatton Ferry crosses the river 5.5 miles upstream from Scottsville and was founded in the late 1870’s. It is still operated today on weekends by a nonprofit organization and is one of the last poled cable ferries in the US.
  17. Between 1880 and 1891, the population of Newport News grew from 30 people to 8,000 thanks in part to the creation of the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company.
  18. In Buchanan in 1897 the 336 ft. long James River Suspension Bridge or “Swinging Bridge” was built on the foundation of a covered bridge that was burned during the Civil War. In the 1930’s a highway bridge as constructed and the suspension bridge became a pedestrian crossing.
  19. In February 1925 the John Smith, a wooden ferry, entered service between Jamestown and Scotland as the first modern day ferry on the James.
  20. The first James River Bridge in Hampton Roads was constructed in 1928. At the time it was the longest bridge over water in the world, at 4.5 miles long.
  21. Chippokes Plantation on the lower James River was established in 1617. The plantation was donated to the Commonwealth of Virginia as a state park in 1967.
  22. In August 1969, Hurricane Camille triggered the worst flash flood disaster in 20th century Virginia. The James River set new flood records, with water levels cresting to 28 ft. in Richmond and 41 ft. in Columbia. Nelson County was hit especially hard, receiving an estimated 30 inches of rain.
  23. Between 1969 and 1987, there were eight major floods in Richmond along the James River. This prompted city officials to construct a floodwall to help shield the city from rising waters.
  24. The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. Since that time, the health of the James has improved dramatically as sewage, stormwater, and industrial pollution are managed in more river-friendly ways.
  25. Since 1870, Scottsville has experienced over 20 floods of 20 ft. or more. In June 1972 Hurricane Agnes struck the town with a record setting 34.02 ft. flood. In 1985 the Army Corps of Engineers built a levee around the town to prevent future floods.
  26. Kepone was discovered in the James River near Hopewell in 1975. Governor Mills Godwin banned fishing on the James from Richmond to the Chesapeake Bay in December of that year and the ban remained in effect for 13 years. This devastated Virginia’s fishing industry and gave the James the designation of one of the nation’s most polluted river.
  27. In 1976, a group of citizens concerned about the effects of Kepone and other environmental threats founded the James River Association to act as a voice for the river and to protect and restore its health.
  28. In 1977, there were only 33 pairs of bald eagles in Virginia, none of which resided in the James River watershed. Since then, bald eagles have made an incredible return. In 2015, 236 breeding pairs were documented during an aerial survey conducted by The Center for Conservation Biology. Seeing a bald eagle soaring above the James River is no longer a rare event, thanks to the ban of the agricultural insecticide DDT in 1972 and the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
  29. The Falls of the James was designated as a Virginia Scenic River by the Department of Conservation Recreation in 1984 due to its beauty and ecological significance. In 1985, fourteen miles of the Upper James River also received this designation. In 1988, twenty five miles of the Lower James River was recognized for its historical significance.
  30. In May 1986 the first James River Batteau Festival was launched. Historic replicas of the work boats floated from Lynchburg to just above Richmond during the multi day celebration.
  31. Yogaville in Buckingham County opened in 1986 and its Lotus building is one of the most unique structures in the watershed. All are welcome to visit this beautiful property that has views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
  32. In 1997 a reward program for commercial watermen resulted in over 300 Atlantic sturgeon tagged and released in Virginia, discrediting the theory that sturgeon had nearly vanished from the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
  33. James River State Park in Buckingham County was created in 1999. It lies on a large bend in the river and offers paddling, hiking, riverfront camping and more.
  34. The James River Foot Bridge was built in 2000 as an Appalachian Trail crossing. Construction of this bridge cut off two miles for hikers, who used to have to cross the James using the US 501 highway bridge.
  35. A yearling sturgeon was captured in the James River in 2004, offering definitive proof that there is still a reproducing sturgeon population in the river. The US Geological Survey concluded that there is a genetically distinct James River sturgeon population.
  36. The James River is the single-most influential geographic feature to the historical development of Virginia and the United States. The United States House of Representatives recognized the James River as “America’s Founding River” in 2007 acknowledging its “extraordinary historic, economic, recreational, and environmental importance.”
  37. From 2010 to 2013 three experimental Atlantic sturgeon spawning reefs were constructed in the James River below the fall line. They provide the clean rocky surface that sturgeon need on which to lay their eggs.
  38. The James River offers numerous activities including whitewater rafting and kayaking, standup paddleboarding, canoeing, fishing, tubing, and swimming. Richmond was named “Best River Town Ever” by Outside Magazine in 2012. This designation is a significant milestone in the history of the resilient James River.
  39. On April 30, 2014, a train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire in Lynchburg. Three rail cars fell into the James River. One caught fire and completely lost its contents, either by burning up or spilling into the river. Fortunately no one was injured during the incident.
  40. In October 2015 the James River received a grade of “B-“in the State of the James Report, the best rating it has received in decades. Having the grade move into the “B” range is a major milestone and reflects the tremendous progress that has been made since the James was considered one of the most polluted rivers in the nation four decades ago.