The Rappahannock River watershed has undergone extreme changes since the advent of modern transportation and indus-try, particularly since the 1930s. The impacts to the river have been many, and the way people use it as a resource has changed. Many people still living in the watershed can describe their experiences growing up on small family farms, or moving produce by boat, during the Great Depression.
In addition, the advent of grassroots environmentalism and changes in regulatory policy during the 1970s and ’80s spawned local efforts that sought environmental protection for the Rappahannock watershed. Many supporters of Friends of the Rappahannock (FOR) were instru-mental in those early projects. Today, FOR is leading an effort to col-lect and preserve these stories of people living along the Rappahan-nock River, from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay.
The project is called, “An Oral History of Life Along the Rappahan-nock River,” and is made possible by a grant of more than $2,800 from the Virginia Heritage Fund of The Community Foundation of the Rappahannock River Region.
Major themes include commercial fishing, agriculture, environmental protection, efforts to preserve local history, and changes in business and industry. These audio-visual documentaries will be physically and digitally archived in a manner that makes them broadly accessible for generations to come. FOR will work with the University of Mary Washington De-partment of History to conduct this academic project, engaging students and faculty to help direct the course of the effort.
The effort will include interviews describing the establishment of the City of Fredericksburg conservation easement that protects more than 30 miles of shoreline, the removal of the Embrey Dam (and subsequent resurgence of anadromous fish species), and the development of a recreational paddling community that led to new businesses and increased tourism.
FOR’s goal is to work with UMW and local community partners to identify, collect and preserve these compelling stories, preserving them for researchers for generations to come. The initial phase of the project, consisting of three-to-four inter-views, will be accomplished by March 2017.
Two UMW history professors, Dr. Jess Rigelhaupt and Dr. Jason Sellers, were supportive early on and the project began moving forward this spring. Dr. Rigelhaupt, an expert on oral histories, provided specific guidance and taped the first in-terview, with narrator Harold “Hal” Wiggins.
Wiggins recently retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and was active throughout his career in the Rappahan-nock basin. His interview took place in early March and related his role in the project delivery team of the Corps of Engineers with removal of the Em-brey Dam in 2004. Nancy Milroy, a student intern from UMW’s history department, coordinated the first interview and its transcription to written form.
Look for this story, and future interviews, to be posted soon on the FOR website. “We are excited to be expanding our partnership with The Community Foundation and UMW to capture these stories,” said FOR Executive Director Kathleen Harrigan. “It is important for future generations to understand the history of this watershed and the story of its protection.”
By Woodie Walker, FOR Community Conservationist

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