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A Current Affair
Scottsville, Va.'s Relationship With the James River Just Keeps Rolling Along

By Megan Lisagor
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 12, 2006; C02

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.

Then-Mayor Raymon Thacker determined to stay put and scored government funding for the levee, completed in 1989. It saved Scottsville, Phipps says as we walk along the embankment, an attraction unto itself. "Now people are coming back downtown."

He walks us through a historic district of churches and houses that University of Virginia architecture students come to study. On Harrison Street, we run into his wife, Trish Phipps, and two other Scottsvillians.

"Y'all havin' a party?" a local calls out hopefully, driving by in a van. Scottsville may be changing, but it hasn't lost its country charm.

Our tour concludes on Valley Street, the main drag, in front of a building with the James's various flood levels marked on its face; Hurricane Agnes reached the second story. "It really is scary," Phipps says, staring up.

We continue our river education at the one-room Scottsville Museum. Outside, the Valley Street sidewalks are busy with patrons seated around patio tables at down-home joints like Minor's Diner.

Our base is the High Meadows Vineyard Inn, a bed-and-breakfast that dates to 1832. In Scottsville style, the innkeeper recounts its history for guests. The place looks like an unremarkable weathered home from the parking lot, but a closer inspection of the Victorian and Federal wings explains its landmark status.

It's Sunday before we actually baptize ourselves in the river. For nearly three decades, James River Runners has been getting visitors on the water. Bused upstream and launched, customers float or paddle back down at their preferred pace in the vessel of their choice -- inner tube, raft, canoe or kayak.

Co-owner Jeff Schmick has his own Scottsville stories to share, mostly of the James's glory years and the aftermath. He pulls a cannonball from a shelf and plops it down on his ledger, a war artifact he found on this very waterfront property.

We move to his truck, our rental kayaks in back, bumping along rustic roads as he jerks gears. Schmick, with a beard and booming voice, talks us through the floods, providing a firsthand account that beats any exhibit.

At our put-in spot, he can tell with a glance that the river level hovers around three feet -- about two feet below normal but perfect for a leisurely paddle.

Finally afloat, we shout greetings to groups of gangly kids and chummy students. Better than the people watching, though, are the surroundings. In full flourish, the banks shimmer in green. We can peer through the shallow water to the bottom, helping us steer clear of rocks.

A final stretch of rushing rapids brings us back to town, near the old ferry and where river and town continue their long lives together.

"I think as long as people like ourselves are here," Schmick says, "we'll take care of the river."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company