The Rivanna runs 46 miles from its headwaters near Charlottesville to its confluence with the James River in Fluvanna County. On its journey from the Blue Ridge foothills out into the Piedmont plain, the Rivanna meanders through a world of natural scenery that delights the senses and restores the spirit. In recognition of its special beauty and ecological importance, the Virginia General Assembly named the Rivanna the first designated Scenic River in the Commonwealth.
The waters of the Rivanna flow off the steep slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The South Fork of the Rivanna is formed at the confluence of the Mechums and Moormons Rivers near Free Union. The South Fork Rivanna Reservoir, five miles of flatwater created by a dam built near Rt. 29, provides much of the area’s drinking water while serving as a playground for paddlers, rowers, and fishermen. The North Fork of the Rivanna flows out of Northern Albemarle and Greene Counties, where the Lynch River and Beaverdam Creek flow together. From the confluence of its South and North Forks northeast of Charlottesville, the Rivanna runs freely southeast, through Shadwell, Crofton, Palmyra and on to the “Point of Forks” at Columbia on the James.
On the Southeast edge of Charlottesville, the Rivanna flows through the Southwest Mountains, along the base of Monticello Mountain, where rocky ledges and rapids make for exciting paddling. As the river crosses into the Piedmont and Fluvanna County, it takes on a tranquil quality with the occasional fun whitewater, usually created by the remains of an historic dam. The river’s flow is increased along the way by tributaries such as Moore’s Creek, Buck Island Creek, and Mechunk Creek. Throughout it’s journey, the river tells the remarkable and sometimes hidden story of our region’s geology, ecology, and history.
From the dawn of time, humans have been drawn to rivers as sources of sustenance, transportation, and spiritual life. Long before English colonists named it for Queene Anne, Monacan Indians made their home along its banks. For thousands of years, American Indians made their way in dugout canoes along the river. As English colonists appropriated the region, they turned toward the Rivanna as a means to transport agricultural goods. Long, narrow, flat-bottomed craft called batteaux were designed to navigate these waters, carrying crops downriver to Richmond, where they could be loaded on oceangoing vessels.
In 1763, a young man named Thomas Jefferson led an early effort to shape the flow of the Rivanna for navigation. This began a long age, lasting into the 1900s, in which the Rivanna was harnessed for navigation and power. Two periods of dam building, including the construction of locks and canals, made the Rivanna the very nexus of economic life in the region. At one time, eight dams blocked the flow of the river. The ruins of this age, including the stones of the dams, locks, canals, and mills, can be seen alongside the Rivanna to this day. In 2007, the Woolen Mills dam in Charlottesville was breached to restore migratory fish habitat, making the full length of the Rivanna free flowing for the first time in nearly 200 years.
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