Many outdoor enthusiasts who float the Rappahannock River upstream of Fredericksburg are surprised by its solitude. You can travel for miles on this stretch and not see a building. How can a place be so close to the urban corridors of Route-3 and Route-17 and still feel so isolated? Most visitors don’t realize that this place could have looked a lot different, if not for a curious chain of events and some forward-thinking government action over eighty years in the making.
Postwar America had a bad case of dam fever. In 1946, Congress authorized a massive 160-foot concrete dam between Motts Run and the I-95 bridge in order to boost water supply, lake recreation, and hydropower capacity in the growing Fredericksburg region. Surveyors expected Salem Church Dam to inundate the Rappahannock River valley upstream to Kelly’s Ford beneath a giant reservoir. A utility company acquired 4,800 acres of anticipated lake-bottom property, then sold it to the City of Fredericksburg, which expected to take ownership of the project.
Soon after, several events conspired against the dam. Local “river rats” began to organize to promote whitewater recreation, igniting a grassroots movement to stonewall the project and protect the Rappahannock. Meanwhile, in 1968, the North Anna Power Station and Lake Anna brought electrical capacity and lake recreation to the region, and in 1971, Motts Run Reservoir was built to supply water to Fredericksburg. In 1989, concerns over a declining cost/benefit ratio led Congress to officially cancel the dam proposal. And those 4,800 acres? The city sat on the property until 2006, when, after input from Friends of the Rappahannock and other local voices, the City Council voted to place 4,323 of them under a permanent conservation easement, in order to protect the recreational and environmental resources of our river.
So next time you find yourself afloat on this slice of paradise, consider how fortunate we are to still have such a wild and serene cathedral of nature in our own backyard.