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Virginia/West Virginia Tributary
Draining one of the best-known valleys in America, the Shenandoah River meets the Potomac at Harpers Ferry, W.Va. after a hundred-mile trip northward parallel to the Blue Ridge.
The Shenandoah is the largest tributary to the main stem of the Potomac, draining an area of approximately 3050 square miles. Scientists have theorized, based on studies of ancient fish life, that the Shenandoah River once flowed eastward, not northward as it does now. The river, according to the theory, flowed through what are now "wind gaps" in the valley, to meet either the Rappahannock or other tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. In the Pliocene era, the Potomac "captured" the Shenandoah at Harpers Ferry as the earth's oceans receded. The Potomac is the only river that presently breaches the Blue Ridge between the Susquehanna River to the north and the James River to the south.
Evidence of the complex geology of the Shenandoah River valley is clear just above its confluence with the Potomac. The "Staircase," a popular section of the river for experienced canoeists, is formed from remnants of rock layers that at one time were flat, but now stand on end. Hard rock layers have resisted the river's erosion, and there are few soft rock layers to erode into channels. The result is a series of ledges given such creative names as "Find your own way Ledge," "Race Head Ledge," "Hesitation Ledge," and "Boomerang Chute." A final "Roller Coaster" set of rocks leads to the canoe take-out point at the Harpers Ferry picnic area.
Attempts to tame the wild Shenandoah, or at least sidestep its rapids, were made as early as 1808. The Patowmack Company built a bypass canal, 1700 feet long, dropping 17 feet through two locks. The canal was known as the Shenandoah Navigation, and some sections of the old canal are still visible. In the 1880s, the old canal was harnessed to power mills on Virginius Island, now a preserved part of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. An old rubble dam in the Shenandoah marks the entrance to the Patowmack Canal; much of the rest of the canal has been silted in. Virginius Island during its heyday featured a large cotton mill powered by the waters of the Shenandoah. The cotton mill became a flour mill in 1867, and operated until the record 1936 flood, which inundated it.
Bull Falls, about 1.5 miles above the Staircase, is the largest single drop that a canoe can run on the entire Shenandoah. It is a five-foot ledge that provides several passages for experienced whitewater canoeists. The put-in point for the Bull Falls-Staircase trip is at the Millville Pumping station, owned by U.S. Steel Corporation. It is an exciting 4.5 mile trip that requires a leader who knows the route.
Above Millville, the Shenandoah is a peaceful stream dotted with the sites of old ferries and, more recently, vacation home communities. Settlement in this area dates to 1740, when Quakers began to move south from Pennsylvania to settle in the Shenandoah Valley.
The lower Shenandoah, from U.S. Route 50 to Va. Route 7, is one of the most popular rafting streams in the valley. Access to the river is relatively easy at major highway crossings. There are no large towns along this stretch of the river; scenery is exceptional.