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From the time of Richmond's 1742 incorporation, the wandering watercourse of Shockoe Creek has provided both a boundary and barrier for the city's westward expansion — and a perennial engineering challenge. On Sept. 4, 1923, work began to enclose the creek following numerous studies about how best to solve the problem and after annoyed property owners brought successful lawsuits against the city contending Richmond's flood-control negligence. The project continued until Aug. 14, 1928, at a cost of more than $3 million (almost $50 million in today's dollars).
Shockoe Creek begins its journey near Harvie and Carlton roads, just east of Mechanicsville Turnpike. The creek meanders through ditches, beds, arches and channels. Combined with its tributaries — Bacon's Quarter Branch, Cannon's Branch and Griffin's Branch — the waterway drained more than 12 square miles and 8,000 acres in the days before urbanization.
Historian Jeffery Ruggles analyzed the origins of the "Shockoe" name in a 2010 monograph. The William Byrd Title Book contains a survey map illustrating a 1663 patent. The map identifies the branch as "Shaccoe Creek formerly called Chyinek." The native Powhatan, who spoke an Algonquian dialect, used the phrase Shacahocan (as transcribed by the English linguist William Strachey) to describe a
large flat rock situated at the mouth of the creek where it flowed into the river. The outcropping presented a significant landmark and served as a pier for small craft during the Colonial era. Historian
Tyler Potterfield writes in Nonesuch Place,
"It marked the beginning of what the Powhatans called Paqwachowng, translated by Strachey as the Falls of the Kings River."
Ruggles writes, "The same place on the river was known to the Powhatan and the English for different reasons — the English as the head of navigation, and the Powhatan as a place for fishing. The English heard the Powhatan name for this place and adopted it. They abbreviated it, attached it to a nearby creek, and eventually it became the name for their settlement on the north bank of the river." Thus William Byrd II mentions in his diary of land surveying on Sept. 19, 1733, "When we got home, we laid the foundation of two large cities. One at Shacco's, to be called Richmond, and the other at the point of Appomattox river, to be named Petersburg."
Shockoe Creek falls 200 feet from its headwaters to the river, giving the flow enough speed to power mills during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The mouth of the creek accommodated fishing boats. Commercial sailing vessels used it as a turning basin. Wooden bridges built over the creek often needed replacing due to the frequent James River floods that pushed back to the creek and inundated the valley.
The 1850s sewage system built in the Shockoe watershed carried the sanitary sewage and runoff from storms to the James River. After the Civil War, Shockoe Creek became an open sewer.
Bob Steidel, Richmond's director of utilities, says that the city waterfront of the 19th century was a busy place, "but I can't imagine what it smelled or looked like."
To defend against flooding, the city built a series of earthen berms at the creek's mouth around the turn of the 20th century.
A water treatment plant wasn't built until 1951. The combined sewer and overflow system runs Shockoe's waters to the facility. Utility inspectors in years past took boats up the creek sewer line to make assessments. Now, robots and cameras make this unsentimental journey.
Steidel emphasizes that during heavy rains the Shockoe gates do open, and some untreated water gets into the James. He explains, "Half a billion and another three-quarters of a billion [dollars] has been spent working on the sewage issue. The long-term goal is to eliminate that overflow that occurs at Shockoe Creek."
In 2004, severe flooding occurred, caused by the remnants of Tropical Storm Gaston. "Water went rushing toward the river through the historic channel," Steidel says, "and the water didn't care we were there. It's been coming down that hill for millennia, and it was going out to the river."
But why fight nature? In 2009, David Herring, then executive director of the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods, argued that if Richmond sought boldness in its efforts to lure visitors, the creek should again sparkle in sunshine between restored banksides, the sewer line buried within, and be made a natural centerpiece of downtown, rather than putting a baseball park nearby. He told Style Weekly: "We've been trying to tame this thing that's been untamable since they've been building buildings."