Rivanna Navigation Company

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The Rivanna Navigation Company was a private corporation that was chartered in 1806 to improve the navigability of the Rivanna River.



At the beginning of the nineteenth century, awareness arose among the populace of Albemarle County of the need to secure the transportation of their produce by water. Prior to this time, farmers had been obliged to move their crops first to Fredericksburg and then to Richmond by wagons, with the goods of merchants being conveyed to their stores by the same process. Because the course of the James River was then unobstructed, the question arose whether the Rivanna might not be made a suitable alternative to such tedious routes. A charter for an organization dedicated to leading the way in such purposes of commerce was procured in 1806.


Contemporary engraving of batteaux on the James River. Reproduced from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

The law of January 29, 1811 officially created the Rivanna Navigation Company and authorized it to improve navigation "from the town of Columbia, in the county of Fluvanna, to the town of Milton, in the county of Albemarle."[1] At the company's formation, George Divers, Williams D. Meriwether, Nimrod Bramham, John Kelly, and Dabney Minor served as its directors, whilst Peter Minor served as its treasurer.

The original services rendered by the company were to keep the channel of the Rivanna clear of snags and hammocks and to provide flat-bottomed boats (known as batteaux) for the carriage of freight. Advantage was taken of freshets to load the boats and run them down while the river was at high water mark. Because the water rushed with the speed of a torrent at such times, the navigation was often dangerous; however, the management of the boats became a special business, with the Craddock family for many years bearing a high reputation as successful watermen.


In 1814, the Virginia General Assembly authorized William Wood, owner of Wood’s Mill on the Rivanna near Columbia, to lead efforts in the improvement and maintenance of the navigation from below Milton to the James River, as well as to charge tolls for its usage. Under Woods’ direction, the company commenced in straightening and deepening sluices as well as building wing dams to direct water flow into the sluices. It also built wooden dams at Bernardsburg, Broken Island, Strange’s, and White Rock. Despite these improvements, boats still had to reduce their loads or wait for rain at times of low water.

In 1825, the County Court appointed commissioners to consider the practicability of clearing out the south fork of the Rivanna for the purpose of permitting additional tolls. During this time, boats bound for the James River Canal at Columbia could often be found carrying 80-100 barrels of flour and 40-50 hogsheads of tobacco.

In 1827, the company's books were opened for an enlarged subscription of stock in recognition of its increased duties, with 1115 shares being taken at $50 a share. A list of the subscribers was transcribed in Deed Book 27. This money was raised in order to further improve the channel of the Rivanna by erecting dams at shoal places in order to increase the depth of the water and thus secure the slack water navigation, with locks being provided to raise or lower the boats at the different levels. Some of the locks were faced with hewn stone and built in a substantial manner. Excluding the dams that were located in Fluvanna County, there was one erected at Milton, three at Shadwell, one at the Woolen Mills, one at the Three Islands, two at the Broad Mossing Ford, and two at Rio Mills.

On December 7, 1829, when the Rivanna Navigation Company was in the midst of improving the river in order to operate a line of canal boats and packets between Charlottesville and Richmond, William Hunter Meriwether purchased from the organization the right to construct a dam across the river just above the mouth of Moores Creek at the site of the port of Pireus. Within a few years, he was receiving rent from two partners, James S. Crewdson and Robert S. Jones, for a factory driven by hydropower and involved in the manufacture of various products. The company at one time also operated a warehouse at Pireus, with David W. Fowler (the father of Christopher L. Fowler) having been placed in charge of the facility.[2]

A canal outlet lock in Union Mills constructed during the mid-nineteenth century. Reproduced from The Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

In 1830, the company abandoned wing dams and sluices and began efforts to provide a complete slack water navigation, with each dam and lock backing water to the adjacent dam and lock. Locks of this period had an average lift of seven feet and a standard width of eight feet, whilst the bateaux using them were seven feet wide. Pre-existing dams, built at the top of falls to power mill turbines, posed problems; for example, although the law required that a lock be provided in association with every dam, these locks often discharged boats into turbulent water immediately below the falls. Additionally, during dry spells there was sometimes not enough water to run a mill nor water the navigation channel. Due to these concerns, the company proposed to construct a series of short canals to convey boats around the millponds to deeper water up or downstream.

At mid-century, the James River and Kanawha Canal Company made plans to construct a four and a half mile canal between Columbia and Rivanna Mills. This canal, known as the Rivanna 4Connection, was to include two locks and two walk-through culverts. In exchange, the Rivanna Navigation Company agreed to build seven new locks, six miles of canal, twenty miles of towpath and, at Carysbrook Farm, a new dam. The engineer named John Couty directed construction efforts for both companies. At St. Andrew’s Lock in Columbia, where the James River and Kanawha Canal and the Rivanna Navigation Company systems joined, miter gates facing opposite ways were established to impede the flow of water from either direction. It remains Virginia’s sole junction lock, being almost buried in silt to this day. The canal section between Columbia and Carysbrook remained in use until 1908.

During the 1850's, a towpath was completed that allowed horseboats onto the Rivanna. Towed by mules and horses, huge canal freighters that could reach sizes of up to 93 feet long and 14.5 feet wide could reach as far as Charlottesville by the 1870's. By the end of the Civil War, the company had built five dams and and six wooden locks on the Albemarle stretch of the Rivanna, although construction on this section was reported to be more frugal and less durable than earlier work. Two dams that had been constructed over Milton and Shadwell respectively were heavily damaged by sweeping floods.[3]


The advent of the railroads throughout the mid-late 1800's provided local businesses with a more efficient means of transporting their cargo across the county, causing the Rivanna Navigation Company to eventually dissolve at an unknown date. However, remnants of its work remained and continued to serve the wider population; in the 1930's, after Union Mills had closed and trains had replaced the canal boats, people still utilized the canal towpath as a footpath.[4]


  1. Web. Acts Passed at a General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia, yr.1807-11., Commonwealth of Virginia
  2. Web. CAPT. CHRISTOPHER L. FOWLER, Daily Progress, 04/18/1898
  3. Web. Albemarle County in Virginia, C.J. Carrier Company, 1901
  4. Web. Rivanna River History, Rivanna Conservation Society, February 1996