Capt. John Smith may, or may not have been the first “tourist” to see Fones Cliffs on the Rappahannock River; there were Spaniards in the Chesapeake before him. But he was the first that we know of who wrote about them.
On Aug. 19, 1608, Smith and a dozen crewmen sailed up the river past the cliffs. They were not well-received.
Smith described it this way: “As we passed by (the American Indian towns of) Pisacack, Matchopeak, and Mecuppom, three towns situated upon high, white, clay cliffs — the other side all a low plain marsh, and the river there but narrow — thirty or forty of the Rappahannock’s had so accommodated themselves with branches as we took them for little bushes growing among the sedge.”
The Rappahannocks let loose a volley of arrows, and the English replied with a volley of lead. Neither side apparently did much damage, and the explorers sailed on to the falls at present day Fredericksburg, VA.
Tourists are more warmly welcomed today. This is an excellent thing, because the Northern Neck of Virginia, where the Fones Cliffs are situated, is a place rich in history (birthplace of three presidents), culture and natural beauty. It is a hot spot for birding, and it is here that Fones Cliffs stands out. Along the East Coast, it is one of the best places to see bald eagles.
Fones Cliffs themselves are a 4-mile cliff formation along the eastern side of the Rappahannock River, about halfway between Port Royal upriver and the Route 360 bridge to Tappahannock. The cliffs are made up of diatomaceous earth, which gives them their bright, white color.
The cliffs are part of an Audubon Society Important Bird Area with “global significance.” Hundreds of native and migrating species contribute to this designation, but the bald eagle is the one most associated with Fones Cliffs.
In addition to a healthy local population of bald
eagles, hundreds of eagles from Canada and New
England winter here, and in the summer hundreds more fly north from Florida.
Eagle experts say the heights of the cliffs give the eagles a vantage point to look for prey. But the entire area, including the great “low plain marsh” across the river from the cliffs, create ideal habitat for a variety of wildlife — and good hunting for eagles.
Much of this habitat remains intact, not by accident, but by design. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and many landowners and conservation groups have worked together to protect land through easements and purchases to create the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
The USF&WS purchased the first tract of land for the refuge in 1996. Almost 9,000 acres are in the refuge now, and the goal is to protect 20,000 acres of wetlands and their associated uplands along the Rappahannock and its major tributaries. The protected lands include freshwater tidal marsh, forest swamp, upland deciduous forest, mixed pine forest and grassland habitats.
The cliffs themselves are not a part of the refuge system, and could be developed. The landowners have drawn up plans to build houses atop the cliffs and one of them recently received some of the permits needed to build a community pier, albeit significantly reduced in size and scope from the original proposal.
There is hope the cliffs will be protected. The owners and the USF&WS have worked at reaching an agreement, and there is strong public support for their protection.
The white cliffs, rich heritage and soaring eagles make this a very valuable place in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Few other places blend these ingredients.
Losing the cliffs to development would harm the ranking of the area as an Important Bird Area, one of the region’s major tourism draws, and it would greatly diminish the eagle habitat, and would forever spoil
what is now an almost 17th century landscape. I hope it will be saved.