A river now flows free



Rixeyville resident Jean Scott made the decision to give back something special to the world particularly to the area that she has called home for many years.
Photo by Marshall Conner

At her recent weekly Silver Citizens Club meeting in the Culpeper County Library Jean Scott, of Rixeyville, rose from her chair to be recognized by the club for earning a prestigious conservation award the previous week.

She received the award for her role in the removal of the Monumental Mills dam on the Hazel River, a 47.8 mile tributary of the Rappahannock River. The dam’s removal in October returns the river to a pre-European settlement flow pattern.

“You know we haven’t treated this wonderful planet very well at times,” said Scott. “It was my goal to return something special back to the world. The Hazel River now flows freely and the fish and wildlife now have greater freedom of movement.”

In February, Scott was presented a polished walnut plaque from the Virginia Chapter of the American Fisheries Society, at its annual meeting held at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. The plaque states, “Natural Resource Conservationist Award 2017” with an inscription that reads, “For outstanding contributions to the conservation of Virginia’s aquatic resources.”

“It was such an honor and it was a very informative symposium. I learned a great deal. As many of you know I’m a proud member of the Green Party so the environment is very important to me. Personally, it comes down to giving something back to our natural world—to a river I’ve grown to love and to the fish who really deserve better from all of us,” said Scott, as she spoke about the honor. “We overfish the Chesapeake and often pollute our great rivers. We take so much from the natural world. Now in my late 80s it seemed like the right time to do the fish a favor and give them greater freedom to spawn. It took a little while to finally remove the Monumental Mills dam. It has been a barrier for fish for over a century.”

Scott received the honor for deeding her property that bordered the dam and for her willingness to permit its removal. The Monumental Mills dam was located largely on her property that borders a bend in the Hazel River. The dam was officially removed with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service funded grant and Scott’s deed.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries construction crews removed three-fourths of the stone dam leaving just one side of the dam’s base structure in place.

The removal of the dam restores the river to roughly its original flow pattern. It will also become a less contentious bend in the river for fishermen, canoeists and hikers, according to Scott.

In 2012 the Game Department obtained permits to remove the dam but conflicts over property rights on one side the dam and river slowed the process of removal. Over the last four years the landowner directly across the river, Ben Grace, directly questioned property rights to the section of the river frequently calling on local law enforcement to enforce trespassing claims against various canoeists and kayakers. Grace had contended that he owned the section of river that flows by his property by “right of a king’s grant,” according to Scott.

A sign that reads, “King’s Grant!” still hangs from the remnants of the dam on Grace’s side of the river along with a tattered American flag and lawn chair.

The removal of the dam last fall has allowed easier access for fish and recreational users.

“The Fish and Wildlife biologists have told me that the dam’s removal will improve habitat and spawning for smallmouth bass and allow for (freshwater spawning ocean fish) such as shad and herring to gain more spawning ground as they travel upstream from the Rappahannock River,” said Scott. “My late husband John Scott and I enjoyed and appreciated fish and wildlife—he was an avid fisherman and hunter.  We chose this property originally because we enjoyed the natural beauty of this land. Knowing that I wasn’t getting any younger I thought about how I could leave this world a better place and give back to the river.”

The award personified a heartfelt recognition for one woman’s dream to give back to nature. Scott’s motivation was threefold: the future of a river, its wildlife and future generations of outdoor enthusiasts. Over her lifetime Scott has treasured the time she spent outside fishing, horseback riding, camping and hiking with her family.

Like many seasoned anglers she began to care deeply about the beautiful array of fish she once caught along the Hazel River. She still enjoys frequent walks along the riverside.

The former dam stood as a mute witness to an ever changing river and history. In the 1800s the dam transformed from grist mill to a small electric plant in the 1920s that produced enough electricity at one time to power sections of Culpeper County, according to historic accounts.

The twists and turns of man were never quite as rich and complex as the river’s journey through time.

“There have been many floods over the years that have diverted and realigned the river,” explained Scott. “The large pond behind my home was once created by the river, so was the dry stream bed nearby. It’s always evolving.”

There is a freedom in an untamed river that appeals to the soul of one who takes the time to see it.

Marshall Conner is a contributor to the Culpeper Times. You may reach him at kelpiescot@gmail.com