The Down to the Wire campaign

group opposes dominion plan to put power line across river near jamestown

Preservation Virginia and Jamestown Rediscovery are part of the Down to the Wire Coalition urging Dominion Virginia Power to reconsider its plans to ruin the historic landscape of the James River near Jamestown Island.

The James River and its pristine landscape connect five National Park Service units and some of our nation’s most important historic sites, including Jamestown Island, the Colonial Parkway, and Carter’s Grove. The river itself is the Captain John Smith Trail, the nation’s first Congressionally-designated water trail that traces the English mariner’s exploration of the Chesapeake Bay. Visitors today experience a river landscape that is largely unchanged from the way it appeared in the 17th century. That would no longer be the case if this project is approved.

Dominion is currently pursuing a transmission line across the James that would dramatically alter this cherished landscape, disrupt its wildlife, and jeopardize its many recreational uses. The project also puts at risk decades of investment by the public and private sectors to protect and preserve this important part of our country’s past. Some of the 17 proposed transmission towers will reach as high as 295 feet – nearly the height of the Statue of Liberty.

We understand the need to provide power to Virginia, but there are alternative solutions that would not endanger the Commonwealth’s priceless heritage. These include burying the power lines below ground, using an existing river crossing, locating the transmission line in a less historically sensitive location, or exploring alternative energy options. Please click the button below to join with us in urging Dominion Virginia Power to route its transmission line in a way that preserves the unique historic, scenic, and natural assets of this region.

Map of Where Lines Would Cross
Op-Ed Essay on America's River

In the unseasonably hot summer of 1619 along the banks of the James River, two seemingly insignificant events occurred within a few weeks of one another that would profoundly influence our history for centuries to come.

The first was a gathering in Jamestown’s new-built church of the governor, his councilors and 22 burgesses of every town, corporation and large plantation. The General Assembly, as it was called, was in session for only six days but was the first representative legislative body established in the Americas. A little more than three weeks later, an English privateer entered the James River carrying some two dozen Angolans who were exchanged for food supplies and distributed among some wealthy settlers as laborers (possibly slaves). They were the first Africans to set foot on mainland British America.

The commemoration of these events in 2019 offers a wonderful opportunity to reconsider their significance and to attract national and international attention to Jamestown and the region. But if plans by Dominion Virginia Power to build an enormous transmission line across the James River go ahead the historic landscape, still largely intact, will be permanently disfigured. What will the millions of visitors who come to this area annually think of such a massive blot on the landscape that seriously compromises a natural beauty spot and cultural resource of incalculable value?

Let’s remind ourselves what is at stake. The James River is one of the most historically and culturally significant waterways in the United States, designated as the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Water Trail, managed by the National Park Service, and Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Water Trails Network. For thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans the river shaped the lives of Native American peoples who gathered food along its shores and fished its waters The great Powhatan chiefdom, which arose in the second half of the 16th century and eventually extended across thousands of square miles of coastal Virginia, had its origins on the banks of the James River, which they named the Powhatan.

Jamestown, the earliest permanent English settlement in America, was established in the spring of 1607. Colonists subsequently settled all along the James River Valley, including Carter’s Grove, where the town site of Wolstenholme (Martins) Hundred was discovered. Wolstenholme, a principal example of an early tobacco plantation, suffered the greatest losses of any English settlement in the massive Powhatan Indian uprising of 1622 that nearly put an end to the colony. Carter's Grove, near where the huge proposed towers – some as high as 295 feet -- carrying the transmission lines cross the river is a hauntingly beautiful estate, designated as a National Historic Landmark and listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register.

Just as the James River is one of America’s most important waterways so Jamestown is one of the most important historic and archaeological sites in the nation. At Jamestown colonists learned the hard lessons of how to survive; all subsequent successful British colonies (including Plymouth and Massachusetts) followed in its wake. The English first came into sustained contact with Indian peoples at Jamestown and along the river. Powhatans, Siouan, and Iroquoian peoples of the Chesapeake region encountered English settlers and discovered the newcomers’ world. Jamestown was the first transatlantic site of what in time became a global empire that carried the English language, laws and institutions across North America. The English Church, representative government, and the rule of law were all first established at Jamestown. Tobacco, which was cultivated all along the James River Valley, was the earliest successful New World commodity developed in British America and was the basis of an Atlantic trading system that endured throughout the colonial period. The tobacco economy stimulated the earliest waves of mass emigration from Britain of tens of thousands of poor workers seeking opportunity and, in stark contrast, the forced transportation of enslaved Africans who had none.

The transmission line towers, less than five miles from Jamestown, will be clearly visible from the eastern end of the island, along the historic parkway to College Creek, and from extensive areas of frontage on both sides of the river, including Kingsmill and Carter’s Grove. If you were blindfolded and stuck a pin in a map of the James River you could not have marked a more culturally significant stretch of water.

Jamestown Rediscovery, Preservation Virginia and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, together with other leading national and regional institutions, are adamantly opposed to Dominion Virginia Power’s proposed siting of the transmission line. Help save America's River. We cannot allow it to be despoiled.

Dr. James Horn, FRHistS

Dr. William Kelso, CBE, FSA

Speaking to a YouTube audience

Dr. James Horn, president of Jamestown Rediscovery, speaks about the cultural heritage of the James River.

Standing by the James River, Dr. James Horn, president of Jamestown Rediscovery, told a film crew from the National Trust for Historic Preservation that “it would be an act little short of vandalism to erect 300-foot towers across the river.”

“Jamestown is one of the most important historic sites in the country, a cultural resource of incalculable value,” he said. “What you see from the island and adjoining parkway is pretty much what the river looked like 400 years ago. You are looking at a viewshed that Captain John Smith, Pocahontas, and the first African arrivals in 1619 would have seen.”

Indian peoples lived along the James River for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. In the 16th century Spanish mariners explored the river, and early in the following century its deep channel led the English to establish their first permanent North American settlement on Jamestown Island. The river was a vital conduit of trade from Virginia to England; convoys of ships brought settlers and goods to the colony and shipped tobacco back to London and other major ports. The British army and navy invaded Virginia along the James River towards the end of the American Revolution, and two armies, blue and gray, confronted each other along its banks during the Civil War.

Dominion Virginia Power is pursuing regulatory permission for a transmission line across the James that would dramatically alter the landscape, disrupt wildlife, and jeopardize the river’s many recreational uses. Dominion’s plan would put 17 towers — some as tall as the Statue of Liberty — across the river from Hog Island to James City County, just south of the Carter’s Grove historic plantation.

Dr. William M. Kelso, director of archaeological research at Jamestown Rediscovery, excavated at Carter’s Grove and other early settlement sites along the river before Jamestown Rediscovery’s work began on the island in 1994.

Kelso said of the tower plan, “What is the price of that piece of river? It’s priceless. The James River is the heritage of the people of Virginia. Why should a private company be allowed to spoil it? There’s got to be an alternative. Why not put the lines under the river bed for example?”

Kelso noted that the towers, though not visible from the James Fort site on the west end of the Island, would mar the view of visitors on their way to the island. The line would stand about 3.75 miles from the Colonial Parkway section that runs beside the river. It would stand about 5 miles from the beach at Black Point on the eastern end of Jamestown Island. “The towers would destroy that view,” Kelso said.

At hearings before the State Corporation Commission, Dominion’s plan was opposed by James City County, Save the James Alliance, and the James River Association. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the College of William and Mary, and Preservation Virginia joined in opposition. But the commission approved Dominion’s plan in November 2013.

The commission’s decision was appealed, and on April 16, 2015, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled the commission erred in part because a planned switching station in James City County — a station which Dominion has said is fundamental to the project — must win county zoning approval. Beyond a county review, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must also approve the project and has not decided yet on how detailed its review will be.

A “Down to the Wire” coalition has formed to gather signatures against the proposal. The coalition includes Preservation Virginia (which owns the James Fort site), the Chesapeake Conservancy, the Garden Club of Virginia, the James River Association, Save the James Alliance, Scenic Virginia, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The film crew that visited Jamestown in mid-April plans to make public in May several videos about the history along the James. There are already four “Down to the Wire” videos on the National Trust’s YouTube channel:

“We are focused on telling as much of the comprehensive history of the James River as we can so it will help people understand what Dominion’s plan puts at risk,” said David Weible, a content specialist for the National Trust film crew. “We are trying to bring the story of this river to the people who cannot visit the river themselves.”

The coalition is also running newspaper ads and will bring its bright yellow van to the events on the island on Jamestown Day, May 9, to gather more signatures and discuss the proposal.

“Preservation isn’t about impeding progress,” Horn told the film crew. “We are saying that you don’t have to put the transmission lines right here.”

The National Trust discusses those alternatives on its website section devoted to the Down to the Wire effort:

Kelso has lived in a cottage on Jamestown Island for 22 years. He spoke on camera about his concern that the transmission lines would also be a tipping point that would lead to more construction on the James — such as a highway bridge just west of the island that is often discussed as a replacement for the ferries there.

“The context of Jamestown is the river,” he told the film crew.

Historic Jamestowne is jointly administered by the National Park Service and Jamestown Rediscovery (on behalf of Preservation Virginia) and preserves the original site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Guests share the moment of discovery with archaeologists and witness archaeology in action at the 1607 James Fort excavation April-October; learn about the Jamestown Rediscovery excavation at the Nathalie P. and Alan M. Voorhees Archaearium, the site’s archaeology museum; tour the original 17th-century church tower and reconstructed 17th-century Jamestown Memorial Church; and take a walking tour with a Park Ranger through the New Towne area along the scenic James River. Guests can also enjoy lunch or a snack by the James River at the Dale House Café.

Preservation Virginia, a private nonprofit organization and statewide historic preservation leader founded in 1889, is dedicated to perpetuating and revitalizing Virginia’s cultural, architectural and historic heritage thereby ensuring that historic places are integral parts of the lives of present and future generations.