The Evolution of the James River

According to their website, the James River Park System has over 1,300,000 visitors annually, the highest number of any parks in Richmond, and a number that is expected to continue to grow in the future. The James River Park is not actually just one park; it is a group of parks all over Richmond and around the river.  Not only do these visitors come from the Richmond area, but the river system also attracts visitors from across the nation because of the variety of activities it provides. The river is not just important recreationally; it provides drinking water to the surrounding areas and is a key economical component for the state of Virginia. The river has always been important resource for everyone nearby; however, only recently has it been used for enjoyment and recreation.

The James River was historically home to Native Americans, particularly the Powhatan Confederacy and Monacan tribes, allowing them the ability to easily farm land and access to water for drinking, food, traveling, and helping to defend their regions. Eventually, the British came to Jamestown in 1607 and began colonizing the area. The colonists moved west up the river, settling on farms and plantations along the way, and eventually to the current capital, Richmond.

As the population and area the colonists inhabited grew, so did use of the river. Ships carried crops, especially tobacco, and transported slaves along the river. The James River would also end up being used during wars as a means of transportation, both defensively and offensively. In fact, during the Civil War the North used it to capture Richmond, a significant contribution to their victory. Up to and after the Civil War, America began changing rapidly due to industrialization. In the nineteenth century, a canal system (including the Kanawha Canal), and eventually railroad tracks were built along the river. George Washington first came up with the idea of a canal in 1784, to try to open the country up to the West. Construction was finally completed in 1854 and at this time, an estimated 200 boats regularly passed through the canal. This industrialization started to pollute the river, but it worsened in the 20th century, partially because of its use as an open sewer through the 1950s.

One of the largest catalysts for change and one of the worst disasters to occur on the James River was when an estimated 200,000 pounds of a now-banned toxic chemical called Kepone was found in the James River near Hopewell in 1975. Globally used as an insecticide, the chemical caused workers at the Life Sciences Products factory (the only Kepone producer at the time), such as Thurman Dykes, to have symptoms such as “involuntary shaking, vision problems, and joint pain,” but several people commented on worse symptoms, according to an article published in Richmond Magazine. There are current concerns about the long-term effects of Kepone and its possible link to cancer. After health complaints (one employee was found to have over 39 times the amount safe for humans in his blood) had been ignored for months, the state finally shut down the Life Sciences factory in July 1975. Even nearby Hopewell residents were found to have Kepone in their blood.

Allied Chemical Plant, now no longer in use, on the James River. Photo credit: VCU Archives.

At the same time, the sewer system clogged because Kepone in it prevented solid waste from breaking down, and it spilled into the river. As a result of the crisis, Virginia’s then-governor, Mills E. Godwin, Jr., banned commercial fishing in the river from Hopewell all the way to the Chesapeake Bay. This ban would stay in place for thirteen years due to the slow rate that Kepone breaks down. In fact, Bill Street, Chief Executive Officer of the James River Association said, “The primary reason Kepone declined is, it became buried in the river bottom as more sediment washed into the river and settled on the bottom,” not because it has completely disintegrated. An investigation led scientists to discover Kepone had been in fish since the early 1970s. It was also found in animals such as bald eagles, and was a likely cause of the local eagle population’s severe reduction for a time. After this, Kepone was banned. However, the more important effect was that “the contamination helped people realize how polluted the river was,” Street said. Both Life Sciences and the previous producer, Allied Chemical, were heavily fined for the damage caused. Much of Allied’s fine went to the Virginia Environmental Endowment, which advocates against pollution.

A number of organizations have developed in the last 50 years to combat the pollution of the James. The Park System was developed as a movement to allow public access to the river, which was banned because of the sewage, and to improve its conditions. John W. Keith, Jr., and Charles J. Schaefer, Richmonders with deep adoration for the river, acquired, then donated the first land in 1972, and it grew from there to cover over 500 acres today. “My dad loved the water. He was very, very proud of being able to do this,” said Keith’s daughter, Judy Davis, in a Richmond Times Dispatch article.

Ralph White Photo credit: Phil Riggan via Richmond on the James

Ralph White, former manager of the James River Park System for over thirty years, was incredibly influential in this transformation process. So influential, in fact, that he received the 2006 Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award. White was instrumental in initiating the end to blatant pollution (such as throwing trash into the river) and making the parks a place people wanted to visit. Pony Pasture is one park that White helped completely change. A 2012 article by the Richmond Times Dispatch discussed the crime and rowdiness associated with that park in the past. In fact, it was home to several gangs in the 1980s. Lindsey Melvin (‘88), Assistant Head of the Middle School (and my mom), grew up in Richmond and said that “people occasionally went to Pony Pasture to sit on the rocks, but that’s it. It wasn’t considered a family-friendly place. I don’t know anyone who had a kayak or paddleboard and used the river for that much enjoyment.” Police were often called to Pony Pasture, but their enforcement only affected extreme crimes, leaving petty crimes unregulated.

This building, at Pony Pasture, hosted police during the 1980s. They used the second floor windows to oversee the parking lot. Photo credit: Phil Riggan via Richmond Times Dispatch.

White began leading nature walks in the park in the early 1980s. People then started joining in to pick up trash, usually on Sunday mornings when troublemakers were not out. These actions eventually became more common, and people began going out of their way to pick up trash and glass.

Other organizations also developed to help. The James River Association was founded by citizens in 1976 to protect and restore the river from future toxins. The Park System and JRA now receive help from organizations such as Friends of the James River Park and thousands of volunteers, 2,433 in 2015 alone. The Park System also gets funds from the City of Richmond.

Certain problems have been resolved that have also contributed to the improved environment, now abundant with wildlife. As stated in Municipal Wastewater Treatment: Evaluating Improvements in National Water Quality, a 2002 book published by John Wiley and Sons about public policy regarding United States’ water quality, “factors contributing to improvements in wildlife habitat [in the James] include the creation of a flood control reservoir in the early 1980s to stabilize flow, the ban of the insecticide DDT [different from Kepone], and floods and hurricanes in the 1960s and 1970s.” Floods and hurricanes actually helped by damaging dams. This, combined with the creation of fish ladders, assured that fish could migrate to spawn as they need.

Though laws had been previously passed to attempt to manage the environment, the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972 was tremendously successful. The Act “establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Street said it was so crucial because, “It provided the overall structure and national mandate to restore rivers across the country.” To help support this act, the EPA Superfund was created in 1980 to help fund and investigate toxic spills.

Osprey spotted over the James Photo credit: Rich Young via Facebook.

Nowadays, the James River is a popular place for wildlife and people. Eagles and heron, in addition to numerous fish and other birds, have been more frequently spotted ever since the 1970s. In 1976, no bald eagles nested anywhere near the James River. In 2015, 236 breeding pairs were found around the Chesapeake Bay and James River. Exponential growth like this has occurred with bass, oysters, trout, and other species. People can also constantly be found roaming the James River Park or even in the river. Kayaking the rapids, rowing or paddleboarding in the flatwater, and swimming during the summer prove to be popular activities. Catherine Clark (‘18) said, “One of the best parts of the summer is going to Belle Isle and Pony Pasture and just spending time on the river.”

Kayakers on the river. Photo credit: Rich Young via Facebook.

Although there are occasional crimes and there is still pollution, families are always around enjoying nature, no longer fearing violence and severe crimes, not to mention the possible diseases more common in the 20th century. Children also can access the river by participating in Park programs or through private initiatives such as Passages Summer Camp. Passages employee Lauren Brizzolara (‘18) echoed this, saying, “Passages opens up a relationship between the river and kids and introduces them up to all sorts of activities they can do. It also makes them want to come back with their families or for another week of Passages just to spend time on the river.”

The train derailment in Lynchburg. Photo credit: Paula Mays via Richmond Times Dispatch.

Though the river is in much better condition now than it was, it still has its fair share of problems. In 2014, a train carrying crude oil derailed in Lynchburg. Three cars fell into the river and nearly 30,000 gallons from one, which burst, either spilled into the river or burned, releasing toxins in the river and air. In this case, the spill did not affect the drinking water supply because a boom stopped most of the oil from spreading, but similar scenarios could easily affect drinking water or the wildlife if the correct precautionary steps were not used. Derailments are becoming a greater issue, as situations like this have recently occurred in numerous locations such as Pennsylvania, North Dakota, and Quebec, according to reports by National Geographic.  These spills have released a combined hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil into the environment, but this has also led to conversations about developing stricter standards for transporting oil and other dangerous products.

Incidences like these, combined with other unresolved pollution contributors, still negatively impact the James River today. The James River Association publishes a biennial report assessing the progress the river has made to reach set goals that indicate the river is healthy. Often these goals are set by the state based on relevant data. The State of the James report, last published in 2015, evaluates the River at 61%. While some environmental goals are close to being achieved or have even been surpassed, and overall conditions have improved immensely since the river was rated at 25% in 1975, several factors need much more work. For example, wastewater pollution controls are at a phenomenal 116%, bald eagles at 100%, and riverine forests at 94%. However, stormwater pollution controls are at 36%, vegetated buffer restoration at 30%, American shad at a mere 4%, and many others (as shown in an interactive graphic in the link above) are also below their full potential. These statistics show that much more work needs to be done.

The most pressing challenge today, Street explained, is that pollution runs off of farms and urban areas into the river. He said the small things that people can do to make a significant effect include minimizing the use of fertilizer, using native plants, and allowing rain to soak into the soil rather than run into storm drains. If enough time and care is devoted to following these suggestions, the river could continue to transform into the fully respected place it deserves to be.

Featured image credit: Frances Melvin.

About the author

Frances is a junior at Collegiate School.