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Culpeper dam-removal plan remains backed up

The permits have been secured and the funding is in place, but the objection of an adjacent landowner is holding up the removal of the Monumental Mills dam on the Hazel River.

According to Alan Weaver, fish passage coordinator for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the dam-removal project has been on hold for more than a year because of the concerns of Ben Grace.

Grace owns the land on the southern side of the Hazel River opposite Jean Scott, who owns the remnants of the rock dam and has agreed to allow it to be removed.

“Mr. Grace claims that by ‘king’s grant’ he owns at least half the river bottom and objects to having the dam removed,” Weaver said. “We have been trying to decide how to deal with that.”

Grace did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Former Culpeper County Commonwealth’s Attorney Gary Close at one point agreed with Grace’s contention, but later deemed it invalid.

The Game Department wants to remove the dam to clear the way for fish to migrate upstream. With the destruction of the Embrey Dam in Fredericksburg in 2004, the Monumental Mills dam is the only remaining barrier between the Chesapeake Bay and the headwaters of the Rappahannock River and its tributaries.

“American shad and blueback herring have now been found as far upstream as Kelly’s Ford, and they may have migrated up the Hazel,” Weaver said. “We just don’t check up any farther up at this point.”

Weaver said that removal of the Monumental Mills dam would also benefit eels, which have long preferred the warmer waters of the Hazel to those of the colder Thornton River that flows into Hazel a few hundred yards below the dam above the Double Ford bridge.

Removing the dam would also aid in flood control, according to Weaver, because the rock wall causes the stream to back up during periods of high water.

In 1972, for example, heavy rains from Hurricane Agnes caused the Hazel to back up above the dam and change course onto Scott’s property. It was a costly taxpayer venture to put the river back in its historic channel under the direction of the Army Corps of Engineers.

The original section of the dam, the part that remains, is believed to have been built by Culpeper County entrepreneur George Ficklin in the 1840s. At the time, Ficklin owned three mills along a 5-mile stretch of the river above Monumental Mills.

In the late 1840s, the Virginia General Assembly legislated the rights for Ficklin and a group of investors to build the Hazel River Canal from his uppermost mill to the Rappahannock River, where it joined the existing canal there.

From 1850 until the railroad came to Culpeper in 1852, farm produce passed down the Hazel to Fredericksburg via the canal.

The dam was upgraded in about 1928, when a hydroelectric plant was erected. Parts of that plant, which also suffered grievously from floods during its three-decade lifetime, still stands on Grace’s side of the river.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the pool above the dam was a popular fishing hole. But continued erosion of the rock barrier has annually lessened the amount of water held behind the rough rock wall.

Now both Scott and the Game Department feel it is time to do away with the dam. The decision was made in June of 2012, and the work was supposed to have been completed by now.

Fish coordinator Weaver said his department continues to work to clear all the legal barriers.

“We need to make sure we have everything in order, and that takes a while,” he said.

Donnie Johnston:

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