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The Lost Community of the Seven Islands
December 8, 2021
Once thriving Virgin Mills was located at the Seven Islands of the James River near today’s Bremo Bluff. This community flourished in the early decades of the 19th century thanks to its canal and a wheat mill built around 1800.
Native Americans had lived in the area for thousands of years before European-descent families permanently settled at the Seven Islands in the 1750s. According to Seven Islands of Fluvanna, the families of John Ware and Thomas Shores Jr were some of the first. Ware settled there after receiving a land inheritance from his father, Peter Ware, in the 1750s. Shores was originally from Powhatan County and later moved to the Seven Islands after his marriage in 1778.
“As one of Fluvanna County’s earliest centers of industry, Seven Islands, with its mill and proximity to transportation, was an economic engine that powered the county’s early development,” said Tricia Johnson, a local member of the Fluvanna County Historical Society. “Situated on the James River, this early industrial site was one that proved to those considering construction of the James River & Kanawha Canal that the canal was necessary to support economic growth in the new Commonwealth,” she added.
According to Virginia Tech graduate and local resident Andy Sorrell, people used the batteaux from the “1770s to the 1830s to get up and down the James River. Then the James River and Kanawha Canal were built in the 1830s.” Using the canals, he said, “farmers grew wheat and corn and brought it to the mill for processing [and] the owner of the mill sold the flour made from the wheat to markets in Richmond. Most of the mills in Fluvanna at the time were grist mills, meaning they ground corn for local use.”
Sorrel also noted that Virgin Mills was reportedly the only mill between Scottsville and Richmond not burned by Union General Phillip Sheridan’s Cavalry troops headed to Richmond via the canal in March of 1865. “Being a completely wooden mill, after standing for 60-plus years, it probably wasn’t in that great of shape, and the Union troops probably didn’t think it would be able to make a lot of extra flour for Confederate troops,” said Sorrell. He noted the mill appears to have had limited use after “the Richmond and Allegheny Railroad laid its railroad track on the old mule towpath of the canal in 1881.”
At that time, sparks from the railroad caused the Virgin Mill to burn down. Without the mill, much of the community became focused on nearby Middleton Mills as the area’s main manufacturing mill.