Cruisin' on a weekend afternoon: Stephen Thiele of Charlottesville Va., floats down the James River.
Cruisin' on a weekend afternoon: Stephen Thiele of Charlottesville Va., floats down the James River.
For The Washington Post

A Current Affair

Life in Scottsville, Va., has always been tightly connected to the James River. Today, that means tubing, boating and swimming.
Life in Scottsville, Va., has always been tightly connected to the James River. Today, that means tubing, boating and swimming. (Stephanie Gross - For The Washington Post)

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By Megan Lisagor
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Our car feels a little naked as we approach Scottsville, Va., on a Saturday afternoon. It seems to be one of the few on rural Route 20 that isn't wearing a canoe on top. It's like driving onto the set of an L.L. Bean ad without the prop.

The theme only deepens once we reach Scottsville, a small city on -- and of -- the James River, 20 miles south of Charlottesville. It's a boat kind of town, from the hand-poled ferry that still shuttles passengers across the river to the classic wooden bateau (batteau to Scottsvilleans and many other Southerners) they celebrate here like classic cars to the on-water action that fills the river most summer weekends.

We've come in search of a small-town getaway but soon find ourselves out on the James with everybody else, paddling rented kayaks past lazy groups of tubers, rafts loaded with rollicking kids and banks lined with fishermen and loungers.

Scottsville counts on such merriment. With the river as its lifeline, this former port town has reinvented itself as a destination for scholarly and sporty sets. Its tight link to the James has created a historical and recreational retreat worthy of a visit. The restored buildings command attention, but the river steals the show.

We follow the sign over the main street pointing to the water, which brings us to Canal Basin Square, an outdoor exhibit of river history. The park features a series of brick pylons. A walkway connects the informational panels, leading to a levee.

Tours are available, and our guide, Steve Phipps, looks seaworthy in deck shoes and shorts. He turns out to be the mayor of this town of 560 residents. And like everyone we meet, he doesn't wait long to get the river talk flowing.

"The James is the town," he says.

Sleepy Scottsville measures only about a square mile. Route 20 cuts through the center of town -- a short strip of shops and restaurants -- then crosses a bridge over the water.

The relationship between river and town dates to the 1700s, when tobacco and other goods were transported along the James in long, wooden boats that did business in Scottsville.

As trains gained favor, these flat-bottomed bateaux fell out of vogue, but Phipps points to one beached for our viewing pleasure. The town continues to honor the bateaux with an annual summer festival.

At the levee, we get our first local look at the hallowed river. Paddlers drift with the gentle current. Tall trees trim the shoreline. A campsite colors the northern side with blue and red tents.

Of course, beauty turns ugly when the James overflows. The town, a victim of Civil War ravaging, endured a series of floods over the years. In 1972, Hurricane Agnes unleashed a record 34 feet of water, causing locals to contemplate decamping permanently for higher ground.


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