By Kevin Howe
In the September 2021 issue of the Dragon’s Tale, I wrote about how The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and others began to realize the ecological significance of Dragon Run in 1973. But that is only half the story; the real recognition and protection came at the hands of residents living along the Dragon.
Although the first written record of Dragon Run is shown on a map as “Dragon Swamp” published in 1673 (yep, 349 years ago), there is not much written history to be found. We know Native Americans were in the area, and that logging occurred (and still does) in the Dragon. However, written accounts about Dragon Run don’t occur until 1958.
The Newport News Daily Press ran a human-interest story in the October 26, 1958 issue. The story focused on a group of Gloucester Explorer Scouts who began developing a 25-mile-long canoe trail along the Dragon. The Explorer Scout’s advisor, James (Jimmy) Morgan, was quoted, “Members were impressed with the complete difference of environment in that wilderness from anything else in this general area. The beaver dams, the muskrat piles, the complete absence of civilization and the gradual change of scenery . . . .” A December 2, 1959 Daily News article explained that the Explorer Scouts had just finished clearing the canoe trail and adding signage and camp sites. Interest in Dragon Run was growing.
It is not surprising that the Explorer Scout’s advisor was Jimmy Morgan. Jimmy and his brother, Harvey, grew up canoeing in the Dragon and that childhood passion led to a lifetime of love and protection for the Dragon. In 1986, that love guided Jimmy and other local conservationists to form Friends of Dragon Run (FODR), the organization we have today.
Although Jimmy passed away in 1997, his legacy lives on in FODR. Two other members, active from the beginning, are still active FODR Board members: Jimmy’s brother, Harvey, and Davis Rhodes. Jimmy and Harvey were well known Gloucester pharmacists and Harvey also served in the Virginia House of Delegates. Interestingly, Davis, was one of the Explorer Scouts on the 1959 canoe trail-clearing trip and his name was published in the Daily News. Davis continues to actively protect the Dragon—63 years!
Many things happened between the 1958 canoe trip and FODR’s formation in 1986, although the events resulted in little action. In 1963, residents launched a short-lived movement to designate the Dragon as a national park or national recreation Area. The U.S. Department of the Interior rejected the idea but advised that the area was “pure and unpolluted and should be protected.”
Around 1965, the State organized the Virginia Outdoor Recreation Commission. The Commission’s mission was to inventory and evaluate Virginia’s natural and recreational resources and develop an action plan to meet current and future demand for outdoor recreation. The plan, published in 1969, established a path to preserve outdoor recreation opportunities for the state’s rapidly growing population.
The Commission recommended protection of Dragon Run. Additionally, the Commission recommended designating Dragon Run as the State’s first Scenic River. This idea won the endorsement of the Middlesex County Board of Supervisors in late 1971. However, a newly elected Board in early 1972 reversed that support after Dragon Run landowners objected.
In 1973, the Smithsonian Institution published the study I referred to in the previous newsletter, identifying Dragon Run as the second most pristine area in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The results of the study spurred increased interest in protecting the Dragon, but it remained mostly interest rather than action.
In 1974, The Nature Conservancy, which helped fund the Smithsonian report, took an interest in conservation and protection of Dragon Run which continues to this day. For the next 10 years, Jimmy Morgan along with Brent Heath and others led canoe trips, appeared before county officials, supported a scenic river designation, and other activities--always with the goal of protecting Dragon Run.
In 1985, things began to change. Gerald Stokes, with the U.S. Forest Service, became the Virginia Land Conservation Coordinator for a joint arrangement with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, and the Virginia Secretary of Agriculture. Just a few months later, Mrs. Louise McKenna, who owned a 27-acre island (Big Island) in Dragon Run, approached the Chesapeake Bay Foundation about buying her land and protecting it for conservation. Mr. Stokes and Jim Walton met Mrs. Stokes to inspect the property and immediately realized its conservation significance. Mr. Walton, grew up along the Dragon, loved it, and was a member of the King and Queen Middle Peninsula Planning Commission. Mr. Stokes then focused on purchasing the property.
All that was needed was money to buy the land. A suggestion was made that Mr. Stokes approach a local resident, specifically Jimmy Morgan, which he did in December 1985. The thought was that Jimmy could round up enough local conservation-minded folks to come up with money for purchase. He did, and the story I heard is that he approached friends at a party with his hand stuck out for money to buy Big Island. Whether that is true or not, he collected the money from about 28 others who shared his interest.
Events leading to the actual purchase in November 1986 became muddled due to a series of situations that could fill this newsletter; but the net result was the purchase of an expanded 203-acre tract. A new group called Friends of Dragon Run assumed ownership in April 1986.
Today, Friends of Dragon Run is a 501(c)3 non-profit with a mission to promote preservation and protection of the Dragon Run watershed. FODR encourages others who own or manage property in and adjacent to the swamp to donate conservation easements or otherwise protect the area from future development. Nearly 25% of the Dragon Run Watershed is protected in some manner, such as outright ownership with a goal of conservation or through conservation easements. In addition to FODR, other active conservation groups along the Dragon include The Nature Conservancy, Virginia Outdoors Foundation, Virginia Department of Forestry, Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission, and the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.
But it all began with Jimmy Morgan and his Dragon-loving locals who offered up the money to kick start protection. We thank them for their foresight.