Rivers wrote the American story. This land was penetrated, mapped and settled on the backs of rivers.
You crossed an ocean so full of peril that the old maps told no lies in populating the big waters with sea monsters. You bumped ashore on some care-worn ship and began scratching out a living in the hard dirt. When you were ready to pick up and move farther inland, seeking something better, you rode a river. The ride wasn’t easy — unless you tried to go by land.Rivers are the land’s circulatory system.
Captain John Smith explored Chesapeake Bay, but every chance he got, he had his shallop crew row him inland up a river. He mapped nearly 3,000 miles of Bay and rivers.
The first explorer was always just that. Settlement was a massive charge to follow the leader. Smith mapped the Chesapeake in 1608. Settlement followed in short order: His Jamestown colony endured; the Arc and the Dove established the Maryland colony in 1634. Thence up and across.
By mid-century, European settlements dominated the Chesapeake.
The pattern held true all across the land.
By 1803, President Thomas Jefferson, a big thinker, sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark down the Ohio River, up the Mississippi to open up the nation by way of the Missouri River. To the Pacific and back was an arduous, many-river journey taking two years. Yet within a quarter-century of the Corps of Discovery’s return in 1806, steamboats were making the journey from St. Louis, Missouri, to Fort Benton, Montana.
The legendary steamboat era lasted no more than a century. With railroads and roads, who needed rivers anymore? Rivers got pushed into the backyard of American history. There we used them to dump the downside of progress, including sewage, farm waste and industrial chemicals. We straightened their curves to control them and make them serve us better.
By the middle of the 20th century, the Missouri, the Mississippi and many other great American rivers were ditches.
By 1970, our own Patuxent River was one of the most polluted rivers on the East Coast. Upriver sewage treatment plants, discharging what came to be called point-source pollution, were the heart of the problem. “Up until 1987 or ’88, it was gross,” said Bernie Fowler, who has led 40 years of legal and legislative battles to restore the river.
A quarter of a century ago, as water quality improved, Fowler devised his most successful tactic: Leading people into the river.
To restore a river, you’ve got to get people to care about it. Get them to a river, and it’s likely to win them over.
Once a river is accessible, people take to it. I’ve learned that lesson on the Missouri, where tourism thrives in areas that embrace the river.
Colorado is another place where rivers get love. River tourism there accounts for “80 million bucks a year because people want to do things on the water,” Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman told me, a bit enviously.
The human connection works for the river, too. The Patuxent River Water Trail has spawned the Patuxent River Roughnecks, who keep the trail free flowing, providing, Tutman says, “a backdrop for better preservation.”
“That stewardship has a collateral effect of opening inaccessible areas,” Tutman says. “The Clean Water Act gives protections to waters that are navigable in fact. We want to be sure those protections don’t unravel.”
Many champions have made ways to lead people back to the Patuxent.
In this week’s feature, read how one, Dave Linthicum, spent 17 years making a map to bring us to the river. It’s a story I’ve enjoyed researching and writing, for it’s brought me back to the river, as I hope it will you.?