Not being recognized at work can be awkward. There is typically a pause, followed by a stammer, and maybe some blushing. The exchange seldom involves automatic weapons.

Unless you are Carrie Curran, harbormaster at Fort Eustis.

A machine gun-carrying soldier confronted her one recent morning as she walked toward a dock near the James River. He asked Curran, who has four years on the job, who she was and what she was doing.

Without pause, stammer or blush, she replied: "I'm the harbormaster. We're here to see the boats."

Without delay, the soldier let her pass.

Curran is one of thousands who earn a living on the James and its tributaries. That includes, but is not limited to, shipbuilders, fishermen, historical re-enactors and longshoremen.

But the river is more than an economic engine; thousands of people, from dairy farmers to city dwellers, live along its banks. Its history is celebrated in places like Jamestown. And its potential recovery from years of pollution has become an important social and political issue.

Chuck Fredrickson, who works for the nonprofit James River Association, summed up the importance of the James this way: "The river has nurtured the commonwealth of Virginia since the English settlers came over, and even before that with the Indians. There's an emotional appeal that most folks have with the water."

The James River starts in the Blue Ridge Mountains near the small town of Iron Gate. Formed by the Jackson and Cowpasture rivers, it runs 350 miles across the state and empties into the Chesapeake Bay. Its watershed covers 6.5 million acres, or roughly a quarter of Virginia, according to the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.

The mountainous western part of the watershed is nearly 84 percent forest, according to the DCR. That changes as the James travels east. Forests make up 71 percent of the watershed from Amherst to Charles City counties, a stretch that includes Lynchburg and Richmond.

The decline of forests is noteworthy, Fredrickson said, because it gives way to agriculture and development, the two largest pollution sources in the James and Chesapeake Bay.

In Hampton Roads, forests account for 31 percent of the James watershed. Cities and suburban neighborhoods, at 48 percent combined, are by far the most common land use.

This is evident in Newport News, where the river is lined with single-family houses and, farther east, heavy industry, such as the Northrop Grumman shipyard and Newport News Marine Terminal.

A longshoreman the past three decades, Mike Spencer is always near the river, even on a brisk December morning when there are no cargo ships to unload. At the helm of a tiny street sweeper, he drove across the terminal's barren concrete yard into a half-empty warehouse.

Spencer, president of the International Longshoreman's Association Local 1736, methodically ran the machine up and down the concrete floor. The terminal, which specializes in handling cargo that's too large for traditional containers, hadn't received a ship in months — the result of a sluggish economy.

"We've seen it like this before, but not this bad," Spencer said.

Commercial shipping on the James dates to colonial times, when settlers sent boatloads of tobacco to Europe. The James' deep, ice-free channels make it an ideal port, which is why the practice continues today. Tobacco, coal, waste paper, grains and lumber are among the most-shipped commodities from Virginia's ports.

The ports, which include facilities in Portsmouth and Norfolk, also receive goods such as furniture, automotive parts and nonalcoholic beverages. At the Newport News warehouse, blue tarp drapes over metal shells that conceal products from distant locales, such as Singapore.

Asked what's inside, Spencer shrugged and said, "Not a clue."