Forty generations of American shad, alewife and blueback herring have had to stop their migration up the Rappahannock River when they reached the base of the Embrey Dam in Fredericksburg, VA.

That changed in an instant on Feb. 23 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, working with the City of Fredericksburg and the volunteer organization Friends of the Rappahannock, blasted away a 130-foot section of the dam so that fish can now migrate to spawning grounds nearly 100 miles upriver in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

By creating a notch in the dam, the Corps of Engineers made the Rappahannock the only free-flowing river from the Bay to the mountains. The 650 pounds of explosives opened up 71 miles for fish spawning in the Rappahannock River, 35 miles on the Rapidan River, and as much as 900 miles on smaller tributaries.

The dam’s demolition, which is to be completed by early 2006, is a major contribution toward the Chesapeake 2000 agreement goal of opening 1,357 miles of new fish passages.

“We’re spending millions of dollars to improve water quality in the Bay, it would be a shame to not have all that habitat area available to the fish,” said Rebecca Hanmer, EPA Chesapeake Bay Program director.

The U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force benefited from the project, too. The 544th Engineer Dive Team from Fort Eustis and demolition experts from U.S. Air Force Reserves were able to engage in a real-world, joint training exercise as part of the Department of Defense Innovative Readiness Training Program. The divers drilled 250 holes into the base of the dam, using a 60-pound jack hammer in chest-deep, freezing water, then inserted C4 explosive charges. “This shows how a Chesapeake Bay Program initiative can dovetail with the military’s readiness mission,” said Glenn Markwith, the Navy’s Chesapeake Bay Program coordinator.

Built in 1910, the 22-foot-high, 770-foot dam was last used for hydroelectric power generation into the 1960s. It replaced an earlier dam built at the site in 1855, so the river had been closed to fish migration for nearly 150 years.

The city of Fredericksburg last used water diverted by the dam into the Rappahannock Canal as a raw water source for the city’s water system in early 2000. According to city officials, the dam had deteriorated to the point where it became a safety and maintenance liability.

Launching the actual dam removal project nevertheless required years of grassroots lobbying. Friends of the Rappahannock, a Fredericksburg-based conservation organization, began talking to government officials at all levels starting in the early 1990s. They also sponsored annual shad festivals at a park on the banks of the river. A local folk singer even wrote a song, “Rappahannock Running Free.”

The group’s big break came when Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, spent a day fishing on the river with members of Friends of the Rappahannock. “On that August day they took me up to the dam and convinced me to join their efforts to tear it down,” said Warner—wearing a fishing cap—who was instrumental in securing federal funds for the project.

The project reflects the Corps of Engineers’ increasing emphasis on conservation according to John Paul Woodley, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works. “The Corps is well-known as a builder of dams, it owns 609 of them,” he said. “However, today 20 percent of our civil works budget is devoted to the restoration and stewardship of water resources.”

Another speaker at the pre-demolition ceremony was the grandson of the dam’s creator, Alvin T. Embrey. He said that in 1937, his grandfather wrote a history of Fredericksburg in which the annual fish migration prior to the dam was described as “a mass of molten silver.”

Every one of the hundreds of people who came to view the spectacular sight of the dam’s demolition looks forward to the return of the fish migration as an even more spectacular sight.