‘Exceptional Waterway’ along Route 17

Published 10:07 pm Tuesday, May 10, 2016

By Susan and Biff Andrews

Leaving Carrollton on Route 17, just before you cross the James River Bridge going toward Newport News, is a little-known jewel of a spot called Ragged Island Wildlife Management Area.

It is composed of 1,537 acres of brackish marsh and small pine islands along the south side of the James River and extends from about one mile west of the bridge to Candy Island in the east.

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The marshes in the area are fed by three major creeks: King’s Creek to the west, Cooper’s Creek off the James, and Ragged Island Creek to the East entering at Batten’s Bay near Eclipse.

A group of volunteers from the Historic Southside Chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists is working hard to ensure that the area stays clean and pristine. Led by Claudia Lee, these folks have worked every month or two to remove the styrofoam, plastic and other trash that washes up on the shores at this river park.

They have asked us to spread the word about the natural beauty and historical significance of Ragged Island.

Looking out across the marsh from the viewing platform and boardwalk, visitors can see vast areas of marsh mallow, smart weed, salt marsh cord grass and black needle rush, along with breathtaking views of the mighty James.

Access to the viewing area is available from two parking lots along Route 17 North, just south of the bridge.

The area was designated as our state’s only brackish “Exceptional Waterway” in a relentless three-year effort spearheaded by the Isle of Wight Citizen’s association in 2004-‘05.

It is designated as a Tier III waterway for its environmental setting, exceptional aquatic community and recreational opportunities. The salt marshes are described by the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences to be the “largest undisturbed brackish marsh system anywhere along the James River.”

There is no central source of historical information about the area. The original land grant was apparently to John Bennett Boddie and/or the Norseworthy family around 1640. Additionally there was a Quaker population that formed the Founder’s Point Quaker Church (1672-1772?). The land was farmed and cattle grazed on the islands.

Around 1858, the land was sold to/by John Quincy Adams (not the former president), who was from the Eastern Shore. It was called “Springfield Farm” or “Batten Bay Farm” (but not the current one).

There was a sawmill and a lumber company and at one point a “ship’s chandlery” that served the huge oyster fleet that worked the James in the early 1900s.

Today, the area is mostly used by duck and deer hunters in the fall and winter and fishermen standing along the bank in the summer — all by permit or license, as the refuge is run by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. But it mostly goes unvisited. It is under-utilized by kayakers and canoers.

There is a danger in revealing the untouched virtues of a place such as Ragged Island WMA, because there are so few undisturbed places left in existence. The fact that few people know about it or visit there is part of the charm and has provided a measure of protection.

With care and consideration, this could become an exceptional eco-tourist opportunity, especially with folks like Claudia Lee and the VMN volunteers there to help keep it clean and all the citizens of Isle of Wight County, who are determined to protect this “Exceptional Waterway.”

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at b.andrews22@live.com.