According to the Geographic Names Information System, the Rivanna has also been known as "Mountain Falls Creek" and "River Anna."
In the late eighteenth century the river was made navigable, partially by the efforts of the Jeffersons who owned much of the lands along its upper course, eg. Shadwell and Monticello. Improvements included in the first generation (through 1830) were sluice cuts, small dams and batteaux locks. Second generation (1840-1870) improvements had long stretches of canal, serviced by large locks, many of which are still visible along the river today. Shortly after the completion of the initial Rivanna navigational works Virginia requested that the river be opened to public usage. It is said Jefferson at first refused, but the commonwealth would not be denied, and the Rivanna became an integral part of the central Virginian transportation network.
The route serviced a large community of farmsteads and plantations throughout Albemarle and Fluvanna counties. It also bore ever-growing numbers of industrial facilities, like those at Union Mills. It was the construction of these larger mills which prompted the great "second generation" improvements to navigation which were coordinated by the Rivanna Navigation Company. Union Mills alone featured a two and a half mile long canal and towpath, one upper and two massive lower locks, all directly upon the river.
Where the Rivanna meets the James River at Columbia so too did the four and a half mile long Rivanna Connexion canal merge with the James River and Kanawha Canal, itself an altogether impressive work intended to connect Richmond, Va with the Ohio and the West. The series of locks which connected the two works lie just outside of the town, and are mostly buried by sediment today.
In the batteaux era Milton was the head of navigation along the river, but by the early nineteenth century horse-drawn canal boats were traveling all the way upstream to Charlottesville, where the head of navigation was located at the very point where the Fredericksburg Road (now VA 20) and Three Chopt Road (U.S. Route 250), the primary road to Richmond, met and entered the city at the Free Bridge, establishing the city as a major commercial hub.
During the late twentieth century the river saw the establishment of the Rivanna Trail, a greenbelt trail that encircles the city of Charlottesville. As its name suggests the trail was originally envisioned as a river-front promenade, after the San Antonio River Walk, but the plan was soon enlarged under the guidance of the Rivanna Trails Foundation It now takes hikers all the way around Charlottesville, passing through many of the city's parks and the wooded lands surrounding it, totaling over 20 miles in length.
Below this confluence, the Rivanna flows generally southeastwardly into Fluvanna County, past the eastern boundary of Charlottesville and through the Southwest Mountains. In Fluvanna County it passes the communities of Lake Monticello and Palmyra; it enters the James River at the town of Columbia.