James River gives up ancient fishing secrets

October 2, 2012 · 6 minute read


If you know what you’re looking for, the remains of the fishing weir are obvious.

The recent return of spawning sturgeon is a fantastic feather in the cap for Richmond and the James River. And for those of us who enjoy, protect and promote the James it was no surprise that RVA was recently named “Best River Town Ever” by Outside Magazine.

The big and bony prehistoric fish, once on the edge of collapse and now making headlines as they return to their historic love nests, validate what we have always known, and that the rest of the nation is starting to recognize – the James River is a destination worth the journey.     

That journey can be spatial or temporal. A friend and fellow river aficionado, Capt. Mike Ostrander, recently commented to me that “the James River is a time machine.” He was referring to the river’s way of making one feel as though you are lifted out of your 21st century environs and transported to a place that is timeless. I get that feeling every time I go to the river. 

Last week I had the opportunity to travel through time with Andy Thompson, his son Sam and their dogs. We were searching for an artifact that was documented by other river fans in the last century but hasn’t been noted recently. In 1995, retired professor and river history buff Bill Trout wrote the Falls of the James Atlas that documents historic sites along James River in the Richmond area. Of all the features he wrote about, one in particular has always stood out in my mind – a Native American fish trap, or “weir” near the Boulevard Bridge.

A weir is a structure that redirects the flow of water and the movement of fish in order to facilitate their capture. In shallow-river environments weirs were often made of stacked stones in the form of the letter V. The broad, open top of the structure received water from upstream and there was a small outlet at the downstream point. A large cone-shaped basket made of saplings or reeds was placed at the downstream opening. These traps were usually made in shallow and swift parts of the river where fish (such as sturgeon) tend to spawn. Often, exuberant Native American children were encouraged to chase the trapped fish down the weir and into the basket!   

See the “V” shape?

As a lover of history and the river, this weir is something I have wanted to see since I read about it in Mr. Trout’s atlas years ago. As a professional who endeavors to protect the river and as a 21st century husband and father, it has been very tough for me to carve out enough time to find it. Last year, I spotted a V-shaped object near a pipeline on an aerial photograph of the river on an internet search. I was quite surprised to see it. I figured it had been wiped out by years of subsequent flooding and floating debris. I was pretty sure this was the weir documented by Bill Trout. This discovery rekindled my desire to seek it out in person. Last Thursday afternoon, after a particularly hectic day at work, I finally had the chance.

I met Andy and Sam (who were fishing, of course) by the riverbank. The water was relatively low and very clear – perfect conditions for spotting stuff in the river. We saw a pipeline just under the surface of the water. It led to a large island where another pipeline led upstream toward the area where I suspected the remains of the weir would be found.

We excitedly headed out along the first pipeline toward the island – me with my camera and Andy’s fishing rod in-hand and Andy with his son on his shoulders. The water was low but swift and it made crossing the pipeline with our cargo a bit tricky. After some effort we made it to the island and headed upstream along a narrow path to the second pipeline. When we go to the second pipeline it was clear that the water there was too deep and fast for Andy to proceed with Sam. So, with a tinge of guilt, I pushed on alone.

One side of the “V.”

Andy and Sam happily resumed fishing.

It took several minutes to negotiate the tough current and the algae-covered pipe, but as I reached the halfway point it was clear that my search was not in vain. The weir was clearly visible from my vantage point on the pipe. A V-shaped assortment of stacked stones pointed downstream toward the Boulevard Bridge! The structure might not attract the attention of the casual river user, but it would be obvious to anyone looking for it.

At this place on the river there a very few modern distractions. A couple of houses peek through the trees on the horizon downstream. Looking upstream, you can see the graceful arches of the Atlantic Coast Railroad (currently CSX) bridge. I imagine the place looks much like it did when Native Americans used the weir to catch their dinner. At that moment, the only sound was that of the gushing riffles. Suddenly the excitement of the search and the urgency of workday subsided. The time machine had worked. I was calmly resting in another place and time. It’s good thing I brought a camera. 

It is impossible to determine exactly when the weir was constructed or by whom. The Powhatan and Monacans Indians both utilized the richness of the rapids in the Richmond area for centuries. In fact, it is generally acknowledged that the Fall Line was a combative “no-man’s land” between the rival groups. It is possible that the weir was maintained and reused by generations of both nations as their borders fluxed through time. By the early 18th century, both groups had been displaced by European colonists.  

 It is pretty clear that the builders of this weir chose a location that was already well suited for it. This location is relatively shallow and swift and has very large boulders (too big to carry) that were incorporated into the walls of the weir. The builders augmented the site with numerous small rocks found nearby to complete the structure. One of the large stones at the downstream point has a single hole bored into it; presumably a pole was inserted in it as an anchor for the cone-shaped basket that collected the fish.      

Bore hole to secure the fish-catching basket?

 The sun was starting to set and I was running late for dinner. As tempted as I was to soak in the stillness of this timeless place, I had to get back to modern life (as a matter of f act a large portion of this story was written the next day in a hotel room inWashingtonD.C.). I took as many photographs as time allowed. I thought it was important to document this piece of history before the passage of time take takes its toll. It seems though, centuries of raging water, brutal war, irresistible colonization and utility construction have not had much impact on this particular weir. It just might outlast us all.




The “V” is below the dam on this aerial shot.