A Brief History of the Rivanna River

At one time the Rivanna and the James above Columbia were known as the North and South Forks of the James, or as the Rivanna and the Fluvanna.

Peter Jefferson built a mill at Shadwell in 1757. It washed away in the great flood of 1771, was rebuilt by Thomas Jefferson in 1795, and was burned by the Yankees during the Civil War. Thomas Jefferson became interested in navigation on the Rivanna and made a study of the river in 1763. At his instigation the channel was cleared of rocks and debris and was said to be navigable for cargo by canoes and bateaux as far as Milton.

In 1762, the state legislature authorized construction of a toll bridge over the Rivanna near the new town of Charlottesville, but apparently none was built. Depending on the height of the river, the Three Notched Road crossed the river at Secretary's Ford near the site of the Woolen Mills, and at Moore's Road or at Lewis's Ferry, both near the site of Free Bridge. Bridges were built at both locations early in the 1800's.

The Rivanna River was an important transportation route during the Revolution. There was a military depot and arsenal at Point of Fork. It was captured and destroyed by British troops. The town of Milton at the head of navigation was established in 1789. It had a state tobacco inspection station and several warehouses. Milton flourished and was larger than Charlottesville. It began to decline after the war of 1812 due to competition from Scottsville and the railroads. A number of buildings were removed from Milton to Charlottesville (including 213 Seventh Street, NE).

The Rivanna Navigation Company was organized in 1805 for the purpose of improving the river for navigation from the James to Moore's Creek. Its initial work consisted primarily of clearing out the channel and building dams. More dams and a number of wooden locks were built in the 1830's, enabling bateaux to go all the way to Moore's Creek when the water was high. The handsome stone locks whose remnants can be seen along the river today were built in the 1850's, as was a tow-path for horse-drawn boats.

Sometime around the 1820's, Charlottesville gave its ports on the Rivanna the name "Pireus," after the port city of Athens. This area is now better known as the "Woolen Mills." Just downstream from Pireus, at the junction of the Rivanna and Moore's Creek, the dam and mills that were the forerunner of the Charlottesville Woolen Mills were built about 1830. The Charlottesville Woolen Mills manufactured cloth for Confederate soldier's uniforms during the Civil War. Union soldiers burned the Woolen Mills, perhaps by accident, when they burned the bridge over the Rivanna River in March, 1865. Although subsequently rebuilt, the Woolen Mills were eventually closed in 1964.

The three parks along this part of the Rivanna involve land that is much a part of the River's history. Pen Park, the largest park in the City system, sits on land that gave Park Street its name, even though this is a relatively new park facility. The area of land has kept its name for more than 200 years. In 1786, Dr. George Gilmer, a Virginia patriot, purchased the plantation of "Pen Park" from John Hattie, who settled in Albemarle in the 17406 from Scotland. In about 1910, the old home of Dr. George Gilmer burned and another house was soon built. In 1972, the City obtained the first 250 acres and by 1979, the remaining acreage had been acquired, making a total of 280 acres.

Rivanna Park, the 111 acre joint city-county park now under construction across the River from Pen Park, was once part of the historic Franklin estate. Since the 1700's, it had always been open land and in agricultural use. Elk Drive and Dorrier Drive (north of the site) used to be Route 20 before it was realigned. Rock excavated from the old stone quarry location on the site was used to build old Route 20. This land was purchased from the Mahanes and Snow families in 1986 by the City and County for the Park.

Riverview Park sits on the land near the Woolen Mills and dam that was known as "Pireus" as discussed above. It also is one of the newest additions to the City's Park lands. This 26. acre tract of land was a gift from Riverview Cemetery Co. (the Jessup family) on October 16, 1974 and is currently being prepared for development as a passive recreational area.

Ella Baylor Recollections Thomas Ferguson Inge, Sr. Recollections Rebecca McGinness Recollections George Ferguson Recollections

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Last Modified: Thursday, 28-Jul-2005 17:00:33 EDT