Newtown Ancarrow: A hero to James river

I’ve been reading an excellent book, True Richmond Stories, by Harry Kollatz Jr. It is billed as selections from his “Flashback” column in Richmond Magazine.  Many great stories that I’ve been familiar with for years, mixed with many more that I knew little about, topped with a dozen or more than that were new to me. 

Thank you Harry. You are the newest Richmonder I aspire to emulate. 

One of the stories I knew little about was that of Newton Ancarrow, a scientist turned master boat builder who died in 1991. His old marina is now a park in the James River Park System, named for him. 

Kollatz’s article (June 2003) painted Ancarrow as an environmentalist: “Pioneer James River conservationist Newton Ancarrow didn’t realize the extent of his success.”

Ancarrow’s late 1950s and early 1960s boatbuilding informed him of the James River’s deplorable condition. He in public compared it to “the Ganges River at Banaras in India.”

In 1969, Ancarrow cofounded Reclaim the James Inc., and he advocated the construction of a floodwall to protect the city’s water filtration plant. The Virginia Wildlife Foundation, among others, celebrated Ancarrow’s work. Yet, throughout the 1970s, Ancarrow was considered an annoyance by government and corporate officials.

Ancarrow's Landing in downtown Richmond is a boat landing for the James River Park SystemAncarrow’s Landing is not the most attractive park in the JRPS. It is a functional boat landing in the tidal waters of the James, popular with fisherman and motor boaters. The acreage is largely dedicated to parking and the southside park is but a sliver along the shoreline. The small series of trails in the park are mostly made my fisherman looking for the right spot to cast their lines. 

The “nature preserve” feel one can appreciate with the western portions of the park system that are above the fall line is harder to detect at Ancarrow’s Landing.  The views of the flat river there are more industrial, but at least there are some decent views of the Richmond skyline and Libby Hill. Also, the Richmond Slave Trail originates at the infamous Manchester Docks, which are a part of the park.

JRPS manager Ralph White once gave me good audio describing the virtues of Ancarrow’s Landing that I incorporated with photos of the park. In editing (in 2007), I focused on the current usage of the park, but I’ll bet that Ralph would have had much more to say on its history if I’d asked.

Ralph always talks about the melting pot that Ancarrow’s becomes each spring during the fish runs, with all the different dialects and nationalities casting together into the James river. He often tells the story of how one afternoon on a visit to Ancarrow’s, he “overheard eight different languages — nine if you count a New Yorker.”

I’ve always thought of Ancarrow’s Landing as the Ugly Duckling of the James River Park System. Envisioning the JRPS as a football team, Ancarrow’s Landing would be the kicker — everybody hates the kicker, but you’ve got to have one. Ancarrow’s Landing is the only true boat launch in the system, and is a necessary cog in the park’s repertoire.

My impression has changed. I now see it as a victory for the good guy and I’m glad Ancarrow was moved to help save the river. More from Kollatz:

Ancarrow wanted officials to see the river after heavy rains released millions of gallons of raw sewage into the James. Ancarrow observed struggling masses of eels and catfish at this dock, trying to escape. He would observe them “with the skin digested off them.”

Ancarrow testified about the river’s health to an apathetic city council around 1966. He bought a large jar filled with putrid water, in which floated a condom and a dead rat. Council dismissed his evidence.

He then produced a powerful, prescient documentary film called The Raging James, shot from helicopters, boats and on shore. It aired on public television station WCVE, and Ancarrow showed it to anyone who would watch. Views of waste pouring into the James forced Richmond and the State Water Control Board to take measures against river pollution.

This is the information about Ancarrow that I had missed.  He is now a saint in my eyes. When you hear of people dedicated to a cause that refuse to give up because they know they are doing the right thing, doesn’t it always get you fired up?

Instead of imagining that we’re making Ralph White and Peter Bruce smile whenever my family gathers trash on our outings to the river, I will now think of Newton Ancarrow instead. Take this quote from White in Kollatz’s article:

He staunchly defended the river, and the city owes him a tremendous debt. He deserves to be memorialized.

NOTE: No, I’m not promoting Richmond Magazine because of my twitter account being mentioned in an article (though it’s amazing how many people pointed it out to me).

5 responses to this post.

  1. […] you’ve never read about Newton Ancarrow, you may not know about how unhealthy and polluted the James River was in by the 1970s. It is safe […]


  2. […] NOTE: This blog entry was originally posted March 2010 to Richmond on the James […]


  3. I love this stretch of river. It’s where you can find me on my boat all summer long like clockwork.
    It’s rich in history and fascinating accomplishments like Newtons dry dock and ramp….
    I tell his story a hundred times a summer to anyone that will listen on my boat…. My friends laugh at me because I’m kind of a tour guide on our way out to go wake boarding


  4. […] time ago, but back then people didn’t swim in the river. Some environmental pioneers, like Newton Ancarrow, did their best to wake up Richmond to the neglected, polluted […]


  5. […] Street that runs to the top of the Floodwall that is part of the Richmond Slave Trail, connecting Ancarrow’s Landing to the east and the eastern portion of the Floodwall […]


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