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In the 1970s, a project to build new dams along the New River inspired thousands to organize

The New River at Lowmans Ferry Bridge as the river begins to enter Claytor Lake in Pulaski County, Virginia. The lake was completed in 1939 by the Appalachian Power Company to produce electricity.
Roxy Todd/ Radio IQ
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Bumper sticker that was created as part of an effort to protest the proposed dam projects along the New River in Grayson County, Virginia during the 1970s, by the National Committee for the New River.

A company building the Mountain Valley Pipeline through Virginia says they expect to complete construction by 2023. This comes after years of legal disputes, and a grassroots protest movement that’s delayed the MVP several times.

Nearly 50 years ago, a different major infrastructure project in southwest Virginia inspired residents, both young and old, to organize.

Savannah Murray is an assistant professor of writing at Appalachian State University who’s been researching what happened in the 1960s and 70s, when a group of activists from Virginia and North Carolina banded together to protest new dams from being built along the New River.

She said environmentalism is sometimes stereotyped as an issue that only a few people care about. “For me there’s a more inclusive story of the value of the New River to people’s everyday lives and culture, and how if the New River was gone, their way of life was gone,” Murray said.

In 1975, protestors hosted a festival that drew 5,000 people to the banks of the New River in Ashe County, North Carolina. A local high school band served food, and there were music performances, including six songs that were written about the river to protest the dams.

Bumper sticker that was created as part of an effort to protest the proposed dam projects along the New River in Grayson County, Virginia during the 1970s, by the National Committee for the New River.
Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Appalachian State University
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Bumper sticker that was created as part of an effort to protest the proposed dam projects along the New River in Grayson County, Virginia during the 1970s, by the National Committee for the New River.

A year after that festival, President Gerald Ford signed a bill that put parts of the New River in the National Wild and Scenic River System. That 1976 bill stopped any potential for the dam projects.

Ford said in a speech when he signed the bill “It should not matter whether the people involved are rich or poor. And it is clear that the people wanted the New River like it is.”

Murray said she sees parallels to the present day protest against the Mountain Valley Pipeline. “It seems to me that the fight against the Mountain Valley pipeline is in the spirit of the opposition of the New River dams,” Murray said

However, the Mountain Valley Project is still on course to be built, and could be completed as early as 2023.

If you have a story or a memory about the protests in the 1970s against the dam projects, Savannah Murray is interested in hearing from you for this ongoing research project. She can be contacted here: murrays@appstate.edu

Note: The music included in this story was recorded in Ashe County, North Carolina during the 25th reunion of the Festival of the New. The song "Mouth of Wilson" was written by Ronnie Taylor and was performed by Ronnie Taylor, Mike Little and Bob White. The recording was made by Hummingbird Recording.

Updated: September 22, 2022 at 4:14 PM EDT
Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.