In 1763, Thomas Jefferson floated down the Rivanna River to determine if the waterway could be made navigable for trade.
To celebrate the 250th anniversary of that trip, which spurred commercial activity on the river, members of the Virginia Canals & Navigation Society spent time this weekend visiting the locks and canals that were used to move goods along the Rivanna.
“[The locks and canals] give people a greater understanding of the generations that came before them and what they were able to accomplish,” the society’s president, Brian Coffield, said. “Most people don’t realize that above Woolen Mills was an area called Pireus, which was the port of Charlottesville. Charlottesville was connected to London by water.”
But connecting to the historical significance of the Rivanna’s past, not the Old World’s, was at the top of society members’ lists.
After his successful trip, Jefferson paid, along with son-in-law Thomas Randolph Mann, to have a sluice constructed at Milton Falls, which allowed for a smooth navigation of goods to Jefferson’s mill upstream of the rapids.
But what’s more, Rivanna Scenic River Atlas author William Trout III said, was the role the trip played in Jefferson’s life and in the river’s future.
After Jefferson saw that the river could be made navigable, Trout said, he collected money and requested that an act of assembly be passed to begin the construction that made the Rivanna River a viable commercial waterway.
“[And he] used that project for his platform to run for public office,” Trout said. “His trip down the Rivanna is what started him toward the presidency.”
To experience the stretch of river Jefferson paddled, society members on Saturday floated from Milton to Crofton, stopping along the way to examine the historic structures and utilizing some of the sluices created years ago.
Albemarle County outdoor recreation supervisor Dan Mahon said that having an understanding of a place’s history can deepen one’s experience of it.
“It’s about knowing your mythic foundation,” Mahon said. “Lewis and Clark, Jefferson, they were all from around here, and I think that the river affected them.”
For Mahon, the “mythic foundation” is essential.
“Having roots or a story in a place is important,” Mahon said. “I was working in Japan … but I didn’t have a connection to the place … The next level was missing.”
Similarly, Coffield pointed to the importance of gathering an unsanitized understanding of history.
“I think that’s a big reason why [Trout] does this … to get into the peoples’ heads who built them and figure out why they built this [the way they did],” Coffield said. “There’s one [lock] that had two sets of gates, and he gets so excited and says, ‘I can’t figure out why this one has two gates.’”
Trout said he feels that these structures make connecting to the Rivanna’s history possible.
“Seeing these structures helps give people perspective,” Trout said. “These features are a major part of the history of the river.”
What were once canals, locks and mills are now narrow chutes, stone walls and collapsing structures stretching down the Rivanna’s banks.
As Old Mills Trail extends south in the coming years from the Pantops area, Mahon said he believes these structures along the river, such as the remnants of the Woolen Mills lock and damn and Peter Jefferson’s mill south of Interstate 64, will serve as one of the Rivanna’s many stories.
“A lot of conversations are around the science of the river, the health of other rivers, but not often do I get to speak to the soul of the river,” Mahon said. “The more I work with it, the more I realize how important it is to bring people to the river to make them realize that it is the heart of this community, of how much this story is tied to the river.”
Mahon said he hopes that exploring the narrative of the place also will attract new users to the Rivanna.
“The extra layer of meaning invites participation from community members other than cyclists and fitness runners,” Mahon said. “[They] reveal facets of the trail that invite tourism and make the river a destination.”
Kiosks with interpretive material from the society’s atlases would benefit the trail, Coffield said.
Trout would like to see a scientific survey of the sites.
“It’ll be great to get Peter Jefferson’s mill opened up and get archaeologists down there to study it,” Trout said.
“As we pull this thing together, the icing on the cake is these features,” Mahon said.
“It’s not historic preservation; it’s historic revealing,” Mahon added. “We’re pulling back the curtain in a sense.”
The next opportunity to experience a section of the Rivanna River is during the Rivanna Regatta. More information can be found at rivannaregatta.blogspot.com.