Native Americans came to the falls of the Rappahannock River because seasonal runs of spawning ﬁsh provided food. Europeans settled near the falls to take advantage of the river's powerful ﬂow. This area reﬂects more than a century of industrial activity, from a water-powered grist mill to an early hydro-electricity plant. Around 1740, Francis Thornton constructed the ﬁrst river-powered enterprise in this area. Following the American Revolution, Robert Dunbar acquired Thornton's Mill and changed its name to reﬂect his new ownership.
As local farms increased their harvests of corn and wheat, additional mills were built to process the agricultural bounty. In 1822, Joseph B. Ficklen extended the raceway past Dunbar's Mill and established his Bridgewater Mill. In 1887, a local company converted an existing grist mill near the Falmouth Bridge to a hydro-electric plant, but this lower canal would soon fall into disuse. In 1910, an electric company constructed a larger dam across the Rappahannock River, which increased the head pressure for a new plant that could provide electricity to the entire region.
In 1907, the Bridgewater Milling Corporation improved its raceway by constructing a concrete dam and gates where Thorton's \/Dunbar's Mill had stood. This lower
canal served several mills, which made such improvements appear worthwhile, but a new hydroelectric plant constructed in 1910 made this lower canal and its mills obsolete.
This map dates to an 1806 court case and clearly shows the lower canal, Dunbar's Mill, and its diversion dam (which was improved in 1887 as shown below).
In 1887, this stone and timber crib dam directed a greater flow of water into the lower canal to power the Rappahannock Electric Light and Power Company, near the Falmouth Bridge.
This 1890 painting by Fredericksburg artist Annie Arnaud shows the upper canal and the stone and timber dam that converted the canal from navigational use to a raceway. Note the canal lock on the left. Image provided courtesy of the Rowe family.