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River has run free for 10 years

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Ten years ago next Sunday, Embrey Dam in Fredericksburg was breached with great fanfare, allowing migratory fish to pass for the first time in nearly a century, and returning a long-submerged section of the Rappahannock River to paddlers and anglers.

Today, all remnants of the dam are gone. But the dam’s story lives on as a testament to the resolve of an unlikely alliance of environmentalists, government officials, politicians and regular folk who decided it was time for the Rappahannock to run free.

Former Sen. John Warner, an avid angler who secured $10 million in federal funds that made the project possible, fondly remembers demolition day: Feb. 23, 2004.

Clad in an overcoat and wearing the floppy fishing hat he had worn on outings with members of Friends of the Rappahannock, Warner had the honor of pushing the ceremonial plunger to detonate 240 charges of plastic explosives placed at the base of the 728-foot dam by an Army demolition team.

“If I look back on my 30-year career in the Senate, I don’t know of anything I may have achieved that gave me a greater sense of satisfaction,” Warner, now with a Washington law firm, said in a recent interview. He said he was simply part of a committed team that got the job done.

Thousands had gathered at the river that morning to witness the largest explosion since the Union Army shelled Fredericksburg in December 1862. News choppers buzzed in a cold blue sky as TV news satellite trucks jockeyed for position along the road.

Just after noon, sirens from police cars and fire trucks wailed, triggering a countdown on a large digital clock brought in for the occasion. People put in complementary ear plugs supplied by the city.


About a minute later, a small blast thumped under one section of the structure and water began funneling through. The crowd and Warner—expecting a spectacular explosion—were not impressed, with some wondering aloud, “Is that it?”

Some were folding up their chairs when members of the 544th Engineering Dive Detachment from Fort Eustis in Hampton Roads reported back that only one of 10 clusters of plastic explosives had detonated.

The wiring problem was quickly fixed and about an hour later, they tried again. The second time around, no one was disappointed. The blast sent a plume of water flecked with chunks of concrete high into the air, nearly drowning out the cheers from the crowd.

Warner at the time praised the coalition of groups coming together to make the dam removal a reality at a time when such projects were gaining traction across the United States.

Among those involved in the effort here: The Army Corps of Engineers, which oversaw the project, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Department of Environmental Quality, local officials and Friends of the Rappahannock.

The Free Lance–Star published a commemorative book, “River Runs Free,” about Embrey Dam, and that unusual day in the annals of city history, in 2004.

“Something like that happens only once in a lifetime,” recalled Bill Micks, a lifelong paddler, river-safety expert and co-owner of the Virginia Outdoor Center on Fall Hill Avenue, who was there.

“I feel like it’s one of the best things that’s ever happened” to the river, he said—right up there with Fredericksburg’s protection of thousands of acres it owns along the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers in a conservation easement in 2006.

“Anytime you can make a river, from top to bottom, free-flowing, it’s a good thing,” Micks said.

Removal of Embrey Dam made the Rappahannock one of the longest unobstructed rivers along the East Coast.


For paddlers, it opened up a mile-long stretch of whitewater below the Interstate 95 Bridge, and a section of challenging Class II rapids.

Prior to the breach, “You had to carry boats around [the dam] on the Stafford side” to continue on downstream, Micks said.

Now that section “is one of the most beautiful parts of the Rappahannock with big rock formations, and it uncovered a lot of history.”

Along the shore, the remains of locks from the 19th century Rappahannock Canal are still visible, along with a small dam on the Stafford County shore which funneled water in a Colonial-era iron works.

With no dam in the way, “there’s a beautiful five-mile trip from Motts Landing to Old Mill Park. And the last two miles are really exciting because there are some beautiful rapids,” Micks said.

Bob Gramann, a longtime local paddler, guitar maker and folk musician, said he often thinks about the dam—and that day—when he’s out on the river.

“It was clear the dam had no purpose anymore. For all of us who use the river, the dam was archaic, useless and dangerous,” he said.

The day after the breach, Gramann said he walked the shore that the dam had submerged for so long.

“At first, you couldn’t tell much” about the new paddling potential, but as the river began reshaping itself, “it got more and more interesting.”

Gramann’s connection to the river runs deep. On demolition day, he sang a song he composed in 1992, titled “Rappahannock Running Free.” The song, which he still performs, mentions Embrey Dam and includes the line, “I say it’s time we blow it up”

Fish, safety and aesthetics aside, taking down the dam “was the whole bringing together of the community, and with that, a sense of pride and ownership of the river—that this is ours,” said John Tippett, executive director of Friends of the Rappahannock.

“We connected with a lot of people” through the project, he said, “and had a chance to tell our message to others: This is why we’re doing it.”


Though the Corps of Engineers was in charge of the project, Doug Fawcett, Fredericksburg’s director of public works, oversaw the logistics of an event the likes of which Fredericksburg had not seen before, or since.

Fawcett says in the months before the breach, some in the city didn’t think all that many people would show up.

“I remember saying this could be really big.”

There was no official estimate of the crowd that day, but he remembers it may have been close to 3,500.

Traffic and parking was diverted and shuttles ran from Old Mill Park.

“We closed Fall Hill Avenue, had chairs on the street,” Fawcett said.

Through the morning, the crowd swelled in the area behind where local, state and national dignitaries were seated.

Lots of things had to be changed and negotiated, Fawcett said, to suit the Federal Aviation Administration and the military demolition experts.

For example, the Army at one point asked for a blast exclusion zone “that would have required the evacuation of Normandy Village.” That was changed to 1,000 feet, requiring no one to leave and getting the crowd close enough to view the explosion.

One morning, a few days before, Fawcett got a call at home from the FAA after some media outlets learned that the agency wanted a three-mile no-fly zone around the dam. That, too, was adjusted.

And, Fawcett recalled, “I was the one who had to tell Sen. Warner, [Mayor] Bill Beck and a general from the Corps of Engineers” the bad news about the wiring issue with the blast.

After the second, successful detonation, Fawcett quipped at the time: “You came for one blast; we gave you two.”

Beck fondly recalls the day.

“It was probably my most fun day in office,” he said recently. “It was just a great event. It was something everybody supported and were really glad we were doing it.”

Underlying the festivities, he said, “was the fact that the community knew we were doing the right thing for our environment.”


The removal project actually began in 1988 on a much more modest scale, with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries looking into ways to build a fish passage around the structure. The dam had a built-in fish ladder, but it was ineffective.

The Free Lance–Star editorial page was among early proponents for tearing it down. Some river denizens at the time joked that someone with a few sticks of dynamite, under the cover of darkness, could do the deed pretty cheap.

The dam, which sat just downstream from a submerged wooden crib dam built in the mid-1800s, had long outlived its original purpose: supplying water to generate electricity at a defunct power plant on the river below Caroline Street.

Its other reason for being ended in 1996 when the city joined Spotsylvania County to use Motts Run Reservoir for drinking water.

Embrey Dam had shunted raw drinking water, via the canal, to a treatment plant near Kenmore Avenue.

In 1997, the game department concluded that removing the dam was the best way to get fish upstream.

That became a rallying cry for Friends of the Rappahannock and others at a time when aging and obsolete dams around the country were being targeted for removal to allow salmon, shad and herring to reach their primal spawning grounds.

With Warner and others on board, Congress in 1999 authorized $10 million for the project under the Water Resources Development Act.

There was one big job to be done prior to the breach: removing a vast shoal of silt that had accumulated upstream of the dam. About 250,000 cubic yards was removed; an average-size dump truck holds about 5 cubic yards.

All that dredged material was dumped in a huge pit about 200 feet up the shore behind Bragg Hill off Fall Hill Avenue. Ball fields now cover it.

Silt in the river has been an ongoing issue since the breach.

When the dam removal exposed additional sediment above the dam, the Corps of Engineers agreed to remove more. And when shoals of it began showing up downstream of favorite swimming and fishing holes, some blamed it on the dam project.

The Corps of Engineers has said that studies of the silt movement show it is not directly related, but linked to sediments entering the river upstream.

The dam project didn’t end with the 2004 explosion. The Corps of Engineers later built a pump house in the former Embrey power plant to replenish water in the city canal, and installed an aeration system to keep it from stagnating.

Edward DuRant, acting chief of planning and policy branch of the Corps of Engineers’ Norfolk District, said this week that while it has handled costlier projects, Embrey Dam was the largest in scope.

Hal Wiggins, a biologist with the agency’s Fredericksburg field office, who was involved with the project from the beginning, called it “an overwhelming success story” for the fish, the Rappahannock and its tributaries.

For a decade now, the Rappahannock has run free.

Warner says it was worth “every copper penny.”

And, “It is an example of what can be achieved. One of the most precious assets in America is the rivers and streams we have.”

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431 


They did it for the fish.

There were other good reasons for taking down Embrey Dam—it was obsolete and dangerous—but none as compelling as that simple fact.

The whole idea was to get shad and herring back into their historic range. According to Alan Weaver, fish passage coordinator with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, it’s working.

Weaver says it didn’t take long for the anadromous fish—they live in salt water and spawn in fresh water—to get started. Within weeks after the breach, “We saw herring, hickory shad and even one American shad” in samples upstream, between the dam and Interstate 95.

“Pretty much every year, we’ve gotten American shad at Motts Run, and we’re consistently getting shad” swimming upriver, he said.

In 2008, department biologists netted an American shad at Kelly’s Ford, 28 miles upstream.

“In 2009 we got our first blueback herring” there, Weaver said.

Residents and anglers have reported seeing fish much farther up the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers.

Rockfish, Weaver says, are also making an appearance. They’re likely feeding on those forays; they tend to spawn in tributaries of the tidal portion of the river.

Much of the effort has been focused on American shad. Once abundant in the Rappahannock and prized by early colonists, they are still rare in the Rappahannock and protected in Virginia rivers, as are river herring. Hickory shad, their smaller cousin, are more common.

Anticipating the removal of Embrey Dam, the game department began stocking American shad fry in the Rappahannock in 2003. On average, 4 million fry spawned from adult shad caught in the Potomac River, have been stocked each year since.

During the 1990s prior to the breach, Weaver said, few shad—sometimes none—were found in sampling below the dam.

“Now, we can always get them. We’ve gone from zero to now getting shad readily in samples,” he said. The moratorium on American shad, combined with the stocking effort, appears to be the reason for the increase.

“It’s encouraging,” Weaver said, noting, “We’re seeing some of the hatchery fish coming back at 5 and 6 years old.”

And there’s good evidence that they are spawning.

“Only about 10 to 15 percent of the adult fish we get tend to be hatchery fish,” he said. They know because the ear bones of hatchery fish are chemically marked so they can be identified later.

Weaver says another American shad stocking is planned for this spring, but that may end because most of the fish returning to the river are wild.

The James River has been the focus of a similar, larger program. Weaver says most adult fish returning there to spawn came from hatcheries.

Another sign of progress on the Rappahannock: Last year, “for the first time we were able to get our minimum sample size of 100 adult [American shad] in spring sampling.”

He says 100 to 200 adults are ideal for determining the percentage of returning hatchery fish.

Said Weaver, “Overall, it seems like the Rappahannock is headed in the right direction.”

Still, though the Rappahannock is barrier free, there are two hurdles along the Rapidan: Mill Dam in the town of Rapidan, and a water supply dam in Orange.

Other dams in Virginia may someday come down.

For example, VDGIF has been working with local officials and the private owner of the Harvell Dam, which spans the Appomattox River in Petersburg.

For more than a decade, dams around the country that have outlived their usefulness are being targeted for removal to replenish dwindling stocks of migratory fish.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are about 2.5 million dams in the U.S. Of those, about 99,000 are small dams, and to date, about 700 have been removed.


American shad—The king of shads, also known as the “poor man’s tarpon” because of its fighting ability on hook and line.

It is the subject of restoration efforts on East Coast rivers and is protected in Virginia, which banned their harvest in 1993.

Egg-bearing females can grow to more than 6 pounds.

Hickory shad—A smaller cousin, still abundant in the Rappahannock and an important food source to predators. They can grow to more than 2 pounds.

Herring—Related to shad, but smaller. Also travel in vast schools. Important food source for game fish such as striped bass. A moratorium was placed on the possession of those fish two years ago.

—U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service


1854—Wood-and-stone crib dam completed by Fredericksburg Water Power Co.

A stone lock on the southern end controls water flow into city canal and allows passage for occasional canal boat.

1910—Fredericksburg Water Power Co. finishes construction of new concrete dam to generate electricity. The 770-foot-long, 22-foot-high structure, named after power-company official Alvin T. Embrey, spans the Rappahannock 2.4 miles upstream from Fredericksburg’s downtown.

1910—Frank Gould buys Fredericksburg Water Co. and establishes Spotsylvania

Power Co.

Electricity is produced at a powerhouse where the canal re-enters the river.

1926—Virginia Electric and Power Co. acquires power plant and dam, operates power plant until shutting it down in early 1960s.

1968—City acquires the dam from Virginia Electric and Power Co.

1980–1990—City studies various plans for new electric-generating plant at Embrey Dam. Plans go nowhere.

1998—Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries study recommends dam removal to aid passage of migrating fish. Army Corps of Engineers recommendation says fish passage and restoration of Rappahannock River are in public interest, opening up the project to federal funding.

1999—Water Resources Development Act authorizes $10 million for removal of dam. .2000–2001—Corps of Engineers completes feasibility study for dam removal, receives $500,000 in federal funds for planning, engineering and design to remove dam.

2002—Corps permits issued for removal project.

February 2003—Fredericksburg agrees to purchase 48 acres from the Silver Cos. on which to place dredged silt.

2003—Woodside Construction Corp. of Dayton, Md., begins dredging 250,000 cubic yards of silt backed up behind the dam. The material is pumped up to a pit behind Bragg Hill.

2004—Dam is breached by explosives on Feb. 23. Dam removal begins. By August, Corps of Engineers agrees to remove additional silt remaining behind dam site.

2005—Remaining concrete and dam debris removed from river.

—Historic Resources Along the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.


Get the scoop on the Embrey Dam, its history, its explosive end in February 2004 and its legacy, in “River Runs Free,” published by The Free Lance–Star. It’s full of essays, photos and more. Copies are available for $5 each at the cashier’s desk in the lobby at 616 Amelia St., Fredericksburg.