While a pair of heavy-duty earth movers lumbered back and forth across the rocky stream bed of the South River like busy, destructive beavers, a hydraulic hammer chipped away at the old Rife-Loth Dam's moss-covered limestone walls. It was a symphony of metal scraping stone, only occasionally interrupted when the giant hammer stopped pulsing and the sound of rushing waters spilling over the old dam rose above the din.
The century-old dam, located in the middle of Waynesboro, VA, was finally coming down - and rising in its stead was the promise of new life for Virginia's South River.
Running through Waynesboro, just 20 miles west of Charlottesville, the South River is an old waterway but an up-and-coming trout fishery. The headwaters of the South River are just outside of town, bubbling up from huge underground springs that deliver millions of gallons of cold clean water each day. Splashing across farmland, the river eventually flows into the heart of downtown Waynesboro before rushing headlong to its confluence with the famed Shenandoah.
Running as it does through downtown, the river's fate has always been inextricably tied to that of Waynesboro - and the sound of industry on this river is nothing new.
In 1884, Waynesboro resident Alexander Rife created a hydraulic pump - called a "ram" because of its metal housing - to move water from lower to higher elevations. Rife, who sold thousands of these pumps to local farmers and other area businesses, soon realized that he needed a foundry and increased horsepower for production, and so built a wooden dam across the South River. The company's original dam was subsequently lost in a flood, and the Rife-Loth Dam, or Ram Works Dam as it is also called, was rebuilt with limestone in 1907.
Rife's company existed through mergers until 1953, when it was bought by Virginia Metalcrafters, a company that made metal accessories and museum reproductions for clients like Colonial Williamsburg.
At first the dam was a commercial blessing to the city - but it eventually became a curse. Not surprisingly, the dam impaired the river's flow and caused the water upstream to warm significantly in the summer. The dam also acted like a giant strainer, so that dozens of old logs or trees were swept downstream were frequently trapped against the dam wall. Small locks had been built in the dam, but these had long since stopped working; as a result, the river simply backed up until water crested the dam.
By 2010 it was clear that the dam had to go. It had long since lost any commercial purpose. It blocked fish from traveling upstream, including American eels that had no way other way to get there.
It also kept kayakers and other paddlers from using the river.
And, by keeping the water warmer than normal, it turned what could otherwise be an urban trophy-trout stream into an ordinary delayed-harvest area in which trout placed in the river had little chance of surviving the summer because of the heat.
Taking down a dam is no mean feat, and rarely do all of the interested parties agree on the matter. The demolition of the Rife-Loth Dam was no exception.
Urbie Nash, a stalwart conservationist and longtime member of the Shenandoah Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited, had lobbied to take the dam down for years. "The problem with the dam from an environmental standpoint," Nash said, "was water temperature and quality. The South River is a great trout stream until you get into town, and then the water becomes too warm for the local trout." Studies indicated that removing the dam might lower the water temperature by as much as 4 degrees Fahrenheit, a significant boon to the trout.
Other stakeholders felt differently about the structure. One was Waynesboro resident Chester Campbell. He had worked for Virginia Metalcrafters for more than 30 years as a financial planner before retiring. For five of those years Campbell's office directly overlooked the dam, and he became quite attached to the dramatic view. Campbell was also president of the Ram Works Unit Owners' Association, the owners' association for the riverfront condominium where he lived and the old dam's owner.
He was succinct in his response when Nash suggested the change: "Urbie, you'll take this dam down over my dead body."
Over time, however, Campbell and the other members of the homeowners' association realized that the dam, which now served no other purpose than as a man-made waterfall, was a real liability.
It had begun to show signs of strain, and evidence suggested undermining near a retaining wall that was adjacent to several of the homeowners. To make matters worse, people would often explore the old dam, which was easily accessible from both sides of the river. Once, homeowners were horrified to see a young mother pushing her toddler in a stroller along the crest of the dam!
Eventually Campbell and the others realized that the liability was too great and the insurance too high for them to continue maintaining the dam, which now needed at least $100,000 worth of repairs. Campbell remembered Nash had offered to take down the dam for the homeowners at no cost, and he decided that it was time for the dam to go.
Urbie Nash turned to Seth Coffman, who works for Trout Unlimited's national office as the head of the Shenandoah Home Waters Initiative, the chief purpose of which is to restore trout streams in the Shenandoah Valley to their native state. Nash and Coffman worked together to apply for the permits necessary to demolish the dam, cobble together parts of the old dam to stabilize the riverbank, and enable the river to return to its natural flow.
With the demolition work finished in November, The South River now flows free again for the first time in more than a century. Almost as soon as the dam came down, paddlers were crossing the old dam's boundary. And within mere days of the dam's demolition, members of the Shenandoah Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited were seeding a new riverbank created in part from the debris of the old dam. One observer pointed out that a healthy-looking brown trout had stationed himself just below the base of the old dam, already poised to take his first trip upstream.
Beau Beasley (www.beaubeasley.com) is an award-winning conservation writer who lives with his wife and children in Warrenton, VA.