Posts Tagged ‘Grant’s Dam’

Taking the path less traveled on the James River

James River Railway Bridge, viewed from below Grant's DamI’ve taken many trips down the James River from Pony Pasture to Reedy Creek, but I almost always follow the normal paths that generally track the southern banks of the river. When the river levels are low, that is sometimes the only floatable path.

Since the water levels in the James are a little higher than normal for late August, I decided to stick to the north bank of the river once I reached the James River Railway Bridge (AKA the Atlantic Coast Line Railway Bridge or Belt Line Bridge). I needed to explore a little and see the river and the scenery from a different angle.

Some of the rapids in this area may be the results of quarried or blasted rockI’m often a guide for friends and family that have never been on the river, and I try to keep it easy, predictable and safe.  I also find that I seek consistency and predictability in my life and sometimes it is good to break away from the routine. 

But when I kayak alone, I usually get a rush from trying the unknown of a new course, even if it isn’t a tremendous challenge. So with reluctance, I skipped Choo Choo Rapids, Cooper’s Rifle and Mitchell’s Gut – the prescribed path for most paddlers.  I love that course, but I was pleasantly surprised by the little drops and tight runs between the rocks and trees along the way.

Entrance to Lower Arch blocked by trees and overgrowthInstead of shooting down Choo Choo, I took the channel through what used to be Grant’s Dam past the entrance to the Lower Canal. Someday the overgrown area where it passes under the CSX railway line on the north bank will be cleared all the way to the Pumphouse, giving  paddlers access to the Kanawha Canal through George Washington’s Lower Arch and creating a new river access at the Pumphouse.

I found plenty of scenery and views of the riverscape that were new to me. According to the Falls of the James Atlas by Bill Trout, much of the river in this section had been altered by man to create and maintain Grant’s Dam, which was built to direct water into the Kanawha Canal at the Pumphouse.

I love the area between the Powhite Parkway and Boulevard bridges.  It is so natural, wild and remote, yet right in the middle of the city. You can feel so free there among the honking geese and hunting osprey — only to hear an Amtrak train streaking its way across the arched railway bridge or a freight train roaring through the trees on either bank of the river.

Crude log table on a sandy island west of the Boulevard BridgeAs I passed under the Boulevard Bridge along the north bank, it again occurred to me how isolated that section of river is, despite the thousands of cars that pass over that area every day by the bridge.

Even though the area south of the CSX tracks is part of the North Bank Park, one would have to hike a long way to reach that area legally, due to the fences that block access along the tracks and the only allowed access is by the walkway tower at least a half mile down river.

Creating an access at Pumphouse would form a needed second access and a loop to the trail.  Plans for bike trails in the area are already in the works.

Trash collected from the James RiverAt the end of the trip I’d collected more trash than normal — likely due to the fact that I’d taken the path less traveled by most everyone.  It was that much more satisfying snagging a few odd bits of river trash, like an inner tube and a broken piece of a styrofoam pot. Sadly, I also found an empty woman’s purse — a sign that not everyone on the river has the best intentions.

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Field research: Paddling up Lower Canal

I recently wrote about paddling up the Lower Canal between Tredegar takeout (putting in canal at Hollywood Cemetery) and Pumphouse Park  in Richmond. It could be done with some work if CSX granted permission, though my photos could leave some doubt due to a lack of water in the canal this fall.

View of canal below Hollywood Cemetery on North Bank Trail

View of canal below Hollywood Cemetery on North Bank Trail

First, let’s ignore CSX’s rights to the canal. Second, let’s also ignore the low water levels in the canal. That isn’t the case year-round. The above image shows the canal just west of the end of the Lower Canal as it drops through a sluice at Dominion Virginia Power. The paddle from here is flat and scenic. The train tracks would be to your left the entire trip.

After passing through wooded and secluded sections below the North Bank Trail and North Bank Park, the canal widens as it approaches Maymont. This trip was made by multitudes of Richmonders in 1800s as a means of travel headed west toward Lynchburg.

The canal widens as it reaches Maymont (see the Blue Heron, at left)

The canal widens as it reaches Maymont (see the Blue Heron, on the pipe)

After passing Maymont, the beginning of the Lower Canal is nearby at the historic Lower Arch. This would be the end of the paddle before re-entering the James. George Washington himself famously visited the Lower Arch while it was under construction in 1786. Washington was honorary president of the James River Company that founded and built the visionary canal system.

Lower Arch. There is an opening at left through second arch.

Lower Arch. There is an opening at left through the second arch, which is damaged. (Water is green in photo).

Sad thing here, as illustrated by the above photo, is that the breach in Grant’s Dam (which provides us Choo Choo Rapids) cuts off the major supplier of water to the canal at the Pump House.  It was nearly dry the day I visited, and quite overgrown. The area near the Lower Arch is cut off from foot traffic as it is CSX property. More study needed in this area.

Through the Victorian age and into the 1920s, the trek west on the Lower Canal was made by city dwellers on their way to the Victorian Gothic-styled Pump House for dances and parties for the city’s elite. It would be great to relive that, even if it was just in a canoe or kayak (trading suit and tie for a PFD). The canal was also used to transport goods, including rocks from the many granite quarries along this stretch, including Maymont and the hillsides west toward Williams Island.

The City of Richmond is trying hard to bring back the glory of the Pump House. It has been rumored that it one day may be the new home for the James River Park System visitor’s center.

City of Richmond plans for canal rides at Pumphouse Park someday.

City of Richmond plans for canal rides at Pumphouse Park someday.

I also know the plans seem to be slowly, slowly moving toward one day being able to take batteau or canal boat rides west from the Pump House on the Kanawha Canal toward the Powhite Parkway bridge and the Settling Basin, just below Windsor Farms. I’d love to be able to take my family on that trip around locks and under the James River Railway Bridge (my favorite man-made feature on the James).

Most of my information on the history of the canal comes from the Falls of the James Atlas by Bill Trout and from park signage at Pumphouse Park.