Potomac Highlands Watershed School

Cacapon River Watershed Readings

Excerpts from

Portrait of a River:

The Ecological Baseline of the Cacapon River

Read the entire document: Portrait of a River: The Ecological Baseline of the Cacapon River (2.5 mb, PDF)


The Past

It is easy to imagine that the waters of the Cacapon River have always meandered their way northward, forever taken the 112-mile journey from the river's headwaters in Hardy County, through the sharp-edged Appalachian ridges of Hampshire County, to their final mingling with the Potomac River in Morgan County.

But the sharp-eyed observer might notice a few signs along the way indicating that the watershed has not always looked the way it does today. A seashell fossil far from the ocean, a thick layer of sandstone balanced vertically on edge... these are clues that the Cacapon River basin has a rich geologic history spanning hundreds of millions of years (see "Geologic Origins"). Similarly, the abandoned railway and the lonely log cabin hint at the valley's shorter, but no less significant, human history.

No one knows exactly when humans first set foot in the Cacapon River basin. Most anthropologists believe we have been in Appalachia since the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago, and a few even believe we were here 100,000 years ago. We do know that by the late 1600s, human tribes populated the area and left their mark on the land. They used fire, for example, to maintain clearings that attracted game animals.

The next wave of human immigrants, from Europe, changed the basin in ways we can still see today. European settlers arrived in the early 1700s. Seeking good soil and water, they followed the river valleys, erecting cabins at promising sites. Sometimes, it was quick work: A one-room log cabin like the Lab's original headquarters could be erected by four men in a day.

Valleys with the best soil and sunlight such as those along the Cacapon were occupied first.

Settlers found themselves in one of the richest environments on earth. Flocks of passenger pigeons darkened the sky. Heavily forested mountains sheltered woodland buffalo, elk, and timber wolves.

In less than 200 years these and other species were gone, hunted to extinction or displaced by habitat changes. By the 1920s, the thick forests were also only a memory. With the coming of the railroad, virtually every major tract of Appalachian forest was logged cleared for agriculture or cut for fuel, turpentine, and ship masts.

In the Cacapon watershed, you can still find relics from industries that relied on logging. For example, along Waites Run a tributary near Wardensville - are several large wood-fired furnaces that once forged pig iron. Similarly, abandoned rail lines that once carried timber and passengers can be spotted in the basin, though they are largely hidden by second-growth trees.

Deforestation surely had an impact on the Cacapon. Tons of soil eroded from denuded mountain slopes. Silt muddied the water, destroying fish spawning areas and blocking sunlight that powered aquatic plants. Settlers along the Cacapon's banks could have experienced frightening flash floods, as vegetation no longer soaked up and then slowly released run-off.

Settlers not only removed organisms from the basin, they also introduced new species. One, the chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica), a fungus accidentally introduced about 1900, eventually killed all mature American chestnut trees (Castanea dentata). Today, rotting chestnut logs can still be found in the forest.

Other exotic species that have degraded the Cacapon River basin include the gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar), an insect that can defoliate mountainsides and eventually kill the trees, and honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), a fast-growing vine that shades out native plants. (See *On Gypsy Moths and Pesticides" in the Winter 1991 issue of Cacapon, the Lab's river journal)

But not all introduced species are seen as a threat. Most people aren't aware that the rock bass (Ambloplites rupestris) and the smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieui) two popular sportfishes of the Cacapon are not native to the river (see "Fishes").

Human settlement continues today. Along the river, numerous recreational cabins have been built by people from nearby cities. The permanent population of the three counties that include the Cacapon has also grown, from 35,608 in 1980 to 39,603 in 1990, an increase of 11 percent.

Change in the basin will continue. To protect the Cacapon, we need a tool that will help us evaluate how changes will affect the river. The baseline is that tool.