Sep 9th, 2016

Fast Boats & Ancarrow Wildflowers

Boat designed by Newton Ancarrow

Boat designed by Newton Ancarrow


Newton Ancarrow had a passion for his hometown river, the James. He’d always loved boating, and took up boat-building as an adult. With two 300-horsepower Cadillac engines and fins to match, his luxury crafts were designed for the world’s richest speed boating enthusiasts. Customers included King Paul of Greece, the sheik of Qatar, the emirs of Kuwait and Bahrain and shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.

In 1965, with his Southside Maury Street business well underway with a massive concrete boat ramp, Ancarrow was outraged when a high river tide left an oily film on his boats and ramp. He observed the filthy, stinking residue and approached the City of Richmond demanding answers. When none were forthcoming, he began a nearly two decades-long crusade for a clean James River.

newton ancarrow wildflowers collage

Newton Ancarrow at work, and an Ancarrow wildflower Ektachrome transparency of a native purple passionflower.

Ancarrow kept records of pollution levels and sewage outfalls along the river in the area that is now the James River Park System. He’d tramp along the muddy, weedy bank looking for pipes and signs of raw sewage. He noticed wildflowers and says he fell in love with them. He learned photography and documented nearly 500 species of native and introduced plants. Ancarrow was already a popular speaker on conservation topics and he added wildflowers to his presentations to attract a wider audience. He packaged his best images into a presentation he called Flower Show #2. We are thrilled to present this show, and other related content, to the world through the Ancarrow Wildflower Digital Archive.

 Ancarrow Wildflowers Bloom Again

Mertensia virginica or Virginia bluebells, one of many Ancarrow wildflowers

A Virginia native wildflower sill found along the James River in Spring: Mertensia virginica, Virginia bluebells

It took a long time to make these wonderful images and Ancarrow’s story available to the public. In the end, it took collaboration of several Richmond organizations working together to make this happen. The family donated his slides to Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in 1992. In 2015, Anne Wright, coordinator of Environmental Outreach Education at VCU’s Rice Rivers Center, learned about Ancarrow’s work from Ralph White, retired director of the James River Park System. Wright came to the library at Lewis Ginter and inquired about the slides. Long story short, the VCU Libraries agreed to digitize Flower Show #2 and other content and make the images available to all. I worked with Wright, Sam Byrd and other Virginia Commonwealth University Library staff to present this delightful and compelling story of one man’s environmental activism. Enjoy the flowers and think about Ancarrow tramping along the river when it seemed like no one but him cared about its stewardship. Then visit the James River Park System, along with nearly a million other annual visitors, and be grateful for what Newton Ancarrow set in motion.

ancarrow's landing

Ancarrow’s Landing today, part of the James River Park System

The Ancarrow Wildflower Digital Archive can be reached from VCU Rice Rivers website or from our Lewis Ginter library page.  You can browse the collection, view it in slideshow order, see only native plants or view only plants that were introduced into the ecosystem and are not native.
VCU Libraries has made an wonderful video of Newton Ancarrow’s original slideshow, using audio he recorded, and paced to have the slides coincide with the audio.  It’s quite long at nearly an hour and 20 minutes, but well worth watching.  The Ancarrow wildflowers slide collection is housed at the Garden but is not on display; enjoy these images online with the link provided here.

About Janet Woody

I am the librarian at Lewis Ginter and like to talk and read about plants. I also enjoying researching Lewis Ginter and our founder Grace Arents. Visit me in the library and we'll talk about plants, or history, or some other fun topic.

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