It was a river "destined to bloody fame," wrote one Civil War historian of the quiet Rappahannock. Along its watercourse a nation nearly died; here Robert E. Lee camped, there Stonewall Jackson stood, in that small woods 30,000 men fell in a single battle. Hardly a mile of its course escaped great and terrible events. And then, in some perverse fashion, mankind passed the Rappahannock by. Infrequent is the bridge that crosses it, few the boats that try its eddies, rare the angler seen along its banks. But no river in this land stays lost forever, and today the Rappahannock is being battled over once again: conservationists vs. the Corps of Engineers, those who fear abuse against those who demand use. The issue is far from settled—and perhaps not truly begun. One thing is clear. A man who regards the canoe, the smallmouth bass and silence with equal reverence does well to savor this river of phantoms now.
The Rappahannock River traces a long diagonal path southeast across Virginia to the Chesapeake Bay. A spring day afloat on it is a collage of pools and rapids, bowed fly rods and leaping bass.
In the early morning mists enfold the river. An island splits the current. Trees meet overhead to form a green tunnel. A series of small rapids and waterfalls carries the canoe through pool after pool. Downstream, where converging currents have scoured a deep hole, a stone fly nymph attracts attention and suddenly a three-pound smallmouth is everywhere at once, into the air, boring for the bottom, upstream, downstream, flashing over glints of gold in the gravel riverbed. The gold is real. The nearby hamlet of Goldvein was named for a streak of ore that stretched north to Pennsylvania, and the gold is still there. In the 1840s, when men rushed West to California, the mines of Virginia were abandoned. Now they lie forgotten, like the Rappahannock.
A day on the river passes swiftly. Suddenly it is dusk. A natural campsite beckons: a large rock and a tree, a tiny clearing beneath a bower of leaves, a little beach, bass rising at the front door. Contentment. Sleep comes easily.
June 18, 1972
Only two important things ever happened to the Rappahannock: the Civil War and the smallmouth bass. No river in North America had as much fighting along its banks; no river of its size, anywhere, played a bigger part in history. And few have better smallmouth fishing. During the Civil War the problem was to keep the other side from getting across the river. The difficulty for fishermen since has been getting to it. Nearly all of the best fishing water is reachable only by canoe or after miles of hiking. There were never many roads, and the few towns along the river's course ceased to grow after Appomattox—or disappeared completely. Wild turkey, grouse and deer prowl shoreline thickets where the only loud noise ever heard was gunfire. Sit there on an evening and the shooting echoes still. The campfire becomes Stephen Crane's in The Red Badge of Courage: "A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army's feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile camp fires...."
The Rappahannock was an insoluble problem for military men. Throughout the Civil War no strategist, North or South, knew what to do about it. Almost every place you cast a fly today some intrepid officer tried to lead a force across the river, one way or the other, and though it was never deep enough or wide enough or fast enough to be a real barrier, it was too deep and wide and fast to be crossed with impunity in the face of fire from defenders on the bank. "It looked to be a wrong place for a battlefield," wrote Crane.
It still looks that way. At its closest, the Rappahannock is only 50 miles from Washington, D.C. but it is the only wilderness river in that thickly populated (five million people) strip that extends north to Baltimore and south to Richmond. Once a canoe is put into the river the five million vanish. On one 30-mile stretch there are no bridges, no towns, no houses, no roads. Just the river—and its bass.
The smallmouth, once characterized by the famed James Henshall as "inch for inch, pound for pound, the gamest fish that swims," flourishes because once the generals left the Rappahannock, nobody else came. The fish is not native east of the Alleghenies, but around the middle of the last century it was introduced into cold lakes and rivers from eastern Canada to Virginia. Smallmouths fare best in clear waters and fight best in fast streams, and there were plenty of these until cities and factories sprang up on river banks and dams turned white water into reservoirs. Now the smallmouth is fading from the American scene. When a river is damned, smallmouth fishing continues for perhaps a decade. It takes that long for a silted bottom to interrupt the spawning cycle. But, since civilization has ignored the Rappahannock, it is one river that does not have this problem.
A trip downriver should begin near Chester Gap, Va. in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. There is a store in Chester Gap and a filling station, and little else except the young river beside the road. The Rappahannock is so shallow here that sometimes a canoe will not float. But a dozen miles farther on at Cresthill, the waters deepen. Everything is still in miniature. There are many small rapids that the canoe barely scrapes through, and at the end of each is a shadowy, cold pool. The river is just 15 feet wide and the bottom is lined with tiny stones. A canoeist feels like an intruder in one of those glass-encased dioramas seen in nature museums. As the river winds and turns, the approach to each bend becomes an adventure. This time a rapids, next a pool, and then the scurry of an animal rushing to a hole behind a tree. Another animal appears. Otter? Beaver? For long seconds it stares almost quizzically, as if wondering "What is this on my river?" And then it, too, flees.
The fly rod has gone too long unused. There are more good places than three men could cast to, and for a few miles streamer flies sink into the dark edges of pools and little bugs bounce off logs. A few bass make lazy passes, but they are numb with the cold of a heavy dew that still hangs on in the deep woods. The river is wider now, perhaps 20 feet, and cliffs of gray stratified rock rise tier on tier from the water's edge. The rock is covered with moss, and from earth-filled cracks jumbles of gnarled hemlocks jut at weird angles across the water.
Twelve miles of the Rappahannock pass before the first sign of civilization appears. On the right bank are the ruins of a tremendous stone chimney, all that remains of the Glen Woolen Mills. Twenty-five cabins and the mill itself were burned to the ground by the Union army for having milled cloth for Confederate uniforms. Two miles farther on is Waterloo Bridge in the town of Waterloo (pop. 30). Over this bridge passed more advancing and fleeing soldiers than over any crossing on the river. The bridge was not destroyed for a long while because each side recognized it might be needed for retreat.
A man named Randy Carter is waiting near the bridge, as promised. Carter, retired, was once the building inspector of Fauquier County, Va. and an architect. He is a student of the Rappahannock. His features suggest his ancestry. He is a direct descendant of Pocahontas, who married John Rolfe shortly after the first Englishmen reached Virginia, and whose offspring married into many of the state's prominent families.
Randy Carter is an expert canoeist, the author of Canoeing White Water, a gazetteer for paddlers to the rivers of Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina. Immediately assuming his role as guide, Carter pointed out a sign: STUART'S RIDE AROUND POPE. Here on the morning of Aug. 22, 1862 Jeb Stuart and 1,500 cavalrymen splashed through a shallow ford downstream from Waterloo Bridge to raid Pope's army from the rear and slash at his railroad supply lines. Stuart was 29 years old, a thickset, powerful figure who fancied gaudy uniforms and affected a heavy beard. He not only took the Federals by surprise, he surprised himself when he rode right into Pope's headquarters while the unfortunate general was away. Stuart made off with horses, wagons and 300 prisoners, as well as Pope's dispatch case and confidential letters, his hat, his military cloak and his dress suit.
Carter lives a few miles back from the north shore of the river in Paradise, a large white hilltop house named by a county sheriff, Martin Pickett, who built it in 1759. Paradise is in Warrenton, which was a center of operations for the Northern army through part of the Civil War, and Carter believes that Paradise was spared because General George McClellan was in love with the owner's daughter. McClellan is said to have used the house for his headquarters while his men camped in the front yard.
All this can be found in the library of Paradise, which is a fine place to read about the war on the Rappahannock. It is all there: how most of the 212-mile course of the river was involved in battle; how for nearly four years Confederate and Union soldiers watched each other across the river, exchanged occasional artillery fire, searched for fords, built pontoon bridges and endured long periods of anxiety and frustration that ended in the colossal battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. On the north bank, which was generally higher than the south, the huge armies of Generals Pope, McDowell, Burnside and Hooker assembled for their assaults across the river. Along the south side, hidden by dense thickets, the brigades of Stonewall Jackson and the cavalrymen of Jeb Stuart periodically raced up or downstream for lightning attacks on Union supply lines. But the Confederate raids were never decisive and the Union crossings were always beaten back. The Rappahannock defeated everybody. Only Stonewall Jackson gained a reputation for successful action along the river, but even Jackson, who understood the Rappahannock better than anyone, was always afraid of it. He never wanted to fight a major battle on its banks, and it was there he was eventually killed by mistake by one of his own men.
At White Sulphur Springs, not far from Paradise, old Jubal Early and his Confederates crossed the Rappahannock on the remains of a broken dam on the same day that Jeb Stuart captured General Pope's hat. A downpour began, the river rose, and Early was cut off unless he could make his way undetected upstream to Waterloo Bridge. In the rain and darkness his scouts were captured by Union cavalrymen who surrendered in turn, believing they were surrounded by a large Confederate force. With Stonewall Jackson's army on the south bank providing some protection, Early got his men back across the river on an improvised bridge.
Meanwhile, farther down the Rappahannock, a Union force had crossed to the south side and captured some Confederate wagons, but it had to give them up when it was driven back to the river, which was now a torrent. From a high bluff on the northern side Brigadier General George Gordon, a New England writer who had trained for the war at the Utopian colony of Brook Farm, saw "the unhappy wretches struggling to regain the shore." On the other side a Confederate officer reported: "Our men pursued them closely and slaughtered great numbers as they waded the river or climbed up the opposite bank. The water was literally covered with dead and wounded." So it went—give and take. Strange things to read in a house called Paradise.
Fifteen miles away, the distance managed alone and by car with Randy Carter gone for the day, the Rappahannock is sampled once again. It is a different river now. Cornfields line the banks. Cows stare at the passing canoe. The dip of a paddle is the only noise. The cry of a crow carries for miles. So deep is the stillness that the hiss of one's own breathing becomes fascinating, so unobtrusive the surroundings that great attention can be devoted to the grain of wood in a paddle. And then comes the sibilant whistle of tires on cement, and the spell is broken. A map indicates a bridge just ahead at White Sulphur Springs. This is not far from the place referred to in some histories where Confederate and Union soldiers made their own truce one December. The rival armies were in winter quarters and chroniclers tell of the soldiers swapping coffee and tobacco across the Rappahannock. Sometimes the Northern band would play a popular Southern tune. And the Confederate musicians would respond with The Star-Spangled Banner.
White Sulphur Springs is still something of a socializing center, it seems. The first glimpse of people after 30 miles of river is almost sure to be groups of golfers intently at play.
Suddenly ahead is a canoeist's nightmare. A tree, two feet thick, has fallen across a fast, narrow stretch of the river, piling up branches, twigs and sediment. I get out, climb on the trunk and pressing down hard manage to push the canoe beneath the obstruction. Just downstream, an immense oak has lodged against a bend, its root system extended outward like the hair of a giant witch. Between the fallen tree, its collected debris and this maze of roots, there is a pool. It is a Grand Hotel for small-mouth bass. I drop a deerhair mouse along the edges. But the current is strong, and soon superpool is upstream.
High above the river now, half a mile to the southeast, a single row of trees stands along the spine of a hill. Four colts are chasing each other around the trunks. The scene is silhouetted against a sky of puffy clouds. Lying back in the canoe, head against a thwart, I am an appreciative audience of one. Skies, fields and trees float by. Commitments are forgotten. And how did it get dark so soon? The takeout point is far downriver and Randy Carter is waiting. Mad paddling is required before I reach him; he is flicking his headlights upstream.
I had seen some of the upper river, Carter said. Why not float a remote, lower stretch? The next morning we set off in two cars, one carrying the canoe, the other to be left at a takeout point where we would finish running the river. Could there be trouble finding a parking place in this wilderness? Yes. The first request, made at a farmhouse, was turned down. We headed for another, Kennedy's Farm, reputed to be more hospitable. Carter, a master on the water, proved less sure ashore. He drove along country roads that led nowhere and over lanes that circled back to the place he had just left. At one point he came to a stand of loblolly pines with a billboard at the edge reading WATCH THEM GROW—CULPEPER COUNTY. So we sat and watched them grow for a while. Down the next road was a sign, ENTERING RICHARDSVILLE. Carter screeched to a halt in front of it, only to see a few feet away another sign that said LEAVING RICHARDSVILLE. The entire population of Richardsville was in the general store: seven people. They offered directions to Kennedy's where $2 earned permission to park for the day. Then it was back to the canoe, which was carried through the woods to the river.
The lone stop was to examine a pair of stone walls, high and parallel. They are what remain of the locks from the Rappahannock Canal, a venture begun in 1835 and completed in 1847 with the help of slave labor. Running from Fredericksburg to Waterloo, the canal cost the then stratospheric sum of $400,000. All the river rapids were bypassed. When the Orange & Alexandria Railroad was completed around 1850 the canal died, almost overnight: the railroad could carry a bushel of wheat for 8¢ and the canal boats required 12¢. The locks are now overgrown with vines and rarely seen by human eyes.
We took to the river and before long reached the Confluence, where the Rapidan comes in from the southwest. It looked like the finest stretch of small-mouth water on earth, a brawling, quarter-mile-wide stretch of grassy inlets and warring currents. There is a rapids here half a mile long, wide and fast, dangerous in high water, a pleasant run in low. Moving downstream, the river deepens and slows, and streamer flies sink into the bright water, there to be viewed by indifferent fish. Another heavy dew had chilled Virginia and its smallmouths. Finally we put aside the rods and drifted, dipping a paddle occasionally, staring at the lacy lines of trees. When we spoke, near shore, quail whirred off through the trees. And then, dead ahead, an elephant lay sleeping in the river. I said nothing as we drifted toward it; it was too ridiculous. Finally Carter gestured. "Elephant Rock," he said. A river landmark, it looked so realistic it could have gobbled peanuts.
Soon it was late afternoon, and the Rappahannock shallowed over stones. "United States Ford," Carter said. Another historic name. Here in 1863 the beaten Northern army retreated back across the river after losing more than 17,000 men at Chancellorsville. "My God," Abraham Lincoln cried. "What will the country say?" Robert E. Lee won his greatest battle here, but he lost Stonewall Jackson, whose last words were: "Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees."
Spring is deepening on the Rappahannock, and commitments are calling from another world. Just one more day afloat. Like a child with a piece of candy I have saved the best for last—Kelly's Ford Rapids, upstream again. Canoeing While Water describes it briefly: "...excellent rapids with heavy water, running for over a mile...and others half a mile long all with continuous white water. This section is for experts only." During my evening at Paradise, Carter had reminisced about spending the whole winter of 1934 building a canoe in his basement, and then wrecking it at Kelly's Ford on its maiden voyage on white water. "Me 'n Bill Sprague," he said, "two damn fools, went into the river at flood stage. We started at Remington and thought we'd ride 28 miles to Fredericksburg. We'd never been on a flooded river before and weren't sure what to expect, but we assumed the rapids would be smoothed out in the high water. Well, we came around the bend above the first set of rapids and it looked like the Atlantic Ocean. You couldn't see the shore from the trough of a wave, and the canoe swamped immediately. We held on until it went under, and I finally wound up in a tree debating whether I should take off my shoes so I could swim to land easier, or leave 'em on so I could walk to town when I got there. I looked around for Bill, and he was up in a tree, too. It was the last time he ever set foot in a canoe.
"Don't worry," Carter added, "the river is much lower now."
Anticipation though, not worry, is the mood preparing for this day on Kelly's Ford. I set out alone. The river, slow and gentle, seems to be gathering strength for something heroic. The trees are black with crows, more crows than can be imagined. They fly off as the canoe approaches, screaming canopies of black that fade downriver.
As the miles pass, the suspense increases. I paddle ever more slowly, craning my neck around each bend to see if this is the one that hides the rapids. Finally, after a long, straight stretch, there is a right turn ahead. This is surely it. I hold upstream for a moment, like a skier at the top of a jump he has never seen before. Then I dip my paddle and round the bend. It does not look like the Atlantic Ocean. Though awed, I am not afraid; Kelly's Ford Rapids is a masterpiece of white water. "What I like most about it," Randy Carter had said, "is that there are two or three different ways to go through each rapids." Two or three indeed. Kelly's Ford is an obstacle course for canoeists. Possibly a third of it is taken up by enormous boulders. Little waterfalls lead to dead-end pockets in the rocks. Subsurface ledges, streaked with scrapings from aluminum canoes, create rapids within rapids that race every conceivable direction except upstream.
I picked my way through, excited by the white water and fatigued by it, too. Finally I rounded a bend, tied the canoe to a driftwood log and climbed out on a large boulder to stretch and look about. There was little to see but rocks and river. Barely visible through the trees was the longest remaining section of the Rappahannock Canal, and again the past intrudes. On Feb. 24, 1863 General Fitz Lee led a regiment across these very rapids and fell on a Federal outpost, capturing men, horses and equipment. And then some months later, in the same vicinity, came the Battle of Brandy Station, which is to this day the largest cavalry engagement in the history of the Western world.
I stayed and watched the sun set and as I pondered history a small hatch of moths appeared on the water. Bass began slurping them from the smooth stretches between rapids, and each time a little white Wulff dry fly was dropped among the moths, it too disappeared. Four smallmouths did what their kind have always done, and were rewarded with release, and then quite suddenly the hatch was over. The sun was sinking fast with nearly a mile of rapids remaining, and I hurried down them in the twilight. My Rappahannock visitation was ending. Personally involved had been 58 miles of river, two men, a few bass and some perspective about life; how it resembles a canoe trip down a fast river, how quickly the future becomes the present and then the past, how near we are to Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, to Stuart and Pope and McDowell and Burnside, to Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, to cannon fire and campfire. And how near tomorrow is—assuming the wild Rappahannock has one.
The time to take a floating, fishing trip down the Rappahannock River is not tomorrow, but today. The Army Corps of Engineers has proposed a $130 million dam near Fredericksburg. The 230-foot structure would back up water 27 miles, inundating a lonely stretch of river where today the only access points are two or three private dirt tracks branching off from signless country roads. One argument being made for the dam is that few recreational fishermen can get to the river now. The Rappahannock, according to the Corps of Engineers, accounts for only "35,000 man-days of fishing annually," but the new lake...aah...250,000 man-days annually.
Undoubtedly a huge new lake could support greater numbers of fishermen than the lonely river. But the fishing would no longer be unique. The small-mouth bass might remain for a short time, but smallmouths need their clear water, and they would vanish, leaving just one more panfish haven. The lake would have another problem, too, something called water drawdown. The Corps of Engineers estimates that water levels would vary 10 feet in most years, and as much as 28 feet in dry ones. In the upper reaches of the new lake, which would cover flatfish cornfields, even a 10-foot drop would mean a rim of ugly red mud fiats half a mile wide, far from ideal for camping, swimming, boat launching or the other recreational attractions that are envisioned.
Then why build a dam on the Rappahannock? There are many reasons offered, many arguments presented. The issues are complex. But sometimes they get boiled down, perhaps unfairly, to very simple language: "We don't care how they're spending the $130 million," says a Fredericksburg businessman. "We just want it spent in this town."
"Everyone wants to get his snout in the trough," says a Fredericksburg newspaper editor who would protect the river.
Brother against brother? The Rappahannock has heard it all before.