Daughter of the Stars: The rich history of the Shenandoah River

By Dan McDermott
Warren County Report

Long before there was an Interstate 81, a Route 522, or railroads, there was the Shenandoah River, the Daughter of the Stars. This once pristine 300 mile waterway stretches from forks in New Market in the north and Port Republic in the south and joins in Front Royal. The main river runs from Front Royal until it empties into the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.

It turns out that human activity surrounding the Shenandoah dates back a very long time–over 11,000 years. Beginning in 9300 BC, Paleo-Indians built structures along the North and South Forks of the Shenandoah and lived near Front Royal for more than 2,500 years. In fact, their homes are the oldest buildings ever found in all of North America. It should be noted that these early settlers inhabited the Shenandoah Valley only 20,000 years after the disappearance of the Neanderthal.

Almost 8,000 years later, around the year 900, Native Americans began farming along the Shenandoah River.

The first European settlers arrived in the Shenandoah Valley in 1669, encountering abundant wildlife, beautiful terrain, and many Indian tribes. Many English navy vessels had masts made from the fine timber the Shenandoah River’s thirsty trees provided. George Washington surveyed the Shenandoah Valley and River when he worked for Northern and Western Virginia’s English owner, Lord Thomas Fairfax.

Toward the end of the 18th century, the Shenandoah River quickly became a major commercial route in the Valley. Mills sprung up along the river’s edge grinding grain into flour. And iron was abundant in the region. To get these and other products to their northern buyers, traders built flat bottomed boats called gundalows. To navigate these 90 foot vessels through the Shenandoah’s rough terrain, the Patowmack Company was formed in 1785 with the encouragement of George Washington and began blasting rock and dredging the river bed to create a navigable passage for trade. In especially shallow areas, V shaped dams were built with an opening in the center to create a higher flowing passageway.

The cost to transport goods was fairly high for the period. In today’s dollars it seems a bargain. Commodore Jacob Sipe advertised in the Rockingham Register in 1841 that he would transport a barrel of flour weighing almost 200 lbs from Port Republic to Georgetown for about $1.20. Today that that would most likely be sent by truck and would cost about 37.50 for a commercial shipper. A single gundalow could hold more than 100 barrels, about half the capacity of a modern 18-wheel truck and trailer.

Port Republic gets it’s name because it was the commercial port at the tip of the South Fork of the Shenandoah. On the North Fork, Bridgewater was originally called Bridgeport because it too was a hub of commercial traffic on the waterway. Harper’s Ferry first became famous for George Washington’s decision to build an armory there. He chose this location because of it’s proximity to the joining of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. Iron could be brought north on the Shenandoah and made into weapons in Harpers Ferry.

The gundalows that brought manufactured goods north were made of wood and they were destined for a one way trip. Since railroads had not yet arrived, these boats could not be easily brought back south for a second use. At their port of destination, they were sold for up to $25 and made into houses. Some of these houses still exist today and are a facinating indicator of the rich commercial history of the Shenandoah. After the journey north, the gundalow’s crew would literally walk back home–a journey that would take 2 or 3 days. It is interesting that the journey up the river by gundalow could take twice as long because of its many bends and the muscle required to move a 90 foot boat through a sometimes shallow river.

In 1854, the Railroad first came through the town of Front Royal. This made Front Royal the usual final stop for gundalows since goods could be transferred to train cars and brought to other parts of the country not served by commercial river traffic. At the time, Front Royal was known as Helltown. It seems that this rural community was not immune to the usual effect of sailors arriving in a port with a pocketful of money and time to chase women and booze.

Today, the gundalows are long gone. But the tremendous value of the Shenandoah River remains. In a 1992 survey, over 11,000 people went whitewater rafting on the Shenandoah and the Helltown of Front Royal has a new nickname, the canoe capital of virginia.

Much of this history was gleaned from two great sources. The Luray/Page County Chamber of Commerce looks into the history of this famous river on its website: luraypage.com. Another wonderful source of information on the Shenandoah River can be found in the Shenandoah River Atlas, published by Friends of the Shenandoah River.


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