Leslie Middleton

Leslie Middleton writes about water quality, public access, and the special places of the Chesapeake Bay region from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

All aboard! Travel down the James’ history

River atlas unlocks secrets of Virginia batteaux

As river trail maps and smartphone apps continue to pop up around the Chesapeake, the river atlases produced by the Virginia Canals and Navigations Society at first glance seem anachronistic.

But what makes these atlases special is their devotion to the era when the craft of choice to move tobacco, grain and flour down Piedmont rivers was a long, narrow wooden boat called a batteau.

The river atlases are printed on 8.5 inch by 14 inch card stock, adorned with black-and-white reproductions of 18th century prints depicting rivers and boats, and bound by spiral plastic for easy removal and waterproofing.

Flip one open, and you’ll find a treasure trove of information about navigation along Virginia’s waterways from the invention of the batteau in 1771 to the mid-1800s — a time when plantations were spreading above the fall line and owners needed a way to move their products to Europe-bound boats moored at the tidewater heads of rivers like the James, Rappahannock and Appomattox.

There are 18 river atlases produced by the all-volunteer Canals and Navigations Society — and written almost solely by longtime member William E. Trout, III, a Ph.D. geneticist who has been interested in canals and historic craft since boyhood. Trout took part in a fortuitous discovery in 1983 along the Richmond waterfront while excavators were preparing to build the James Center, high-rise buildings with underground parking lots overlooking the James.

The site had once been a deepwater “turning basin” used by batteaux and canal boats at the terminus of the James River and Kanawah Canal system that once stretched from Buchanan to Richmond. During a lull in the construction activity, 63 sunken craft were discovered in the mud, most of them batteaux.

“For the first time,” Trout said, “we knew what these boats really looked like.”

Ultimately, several batteaux were removed from the basin, providing enough information for Joe Ayers, a river enthusiast, to construct the first batteau of “the second batteau era.”

“Joe Ayers determined to take a boat down the James from Lynchburg to Richmond,” Trout said, inaugurating what has become an annual event, the James River Batteau Festival, which has taken place every June since 1986.

Batteaux evolved from Indian dugout canoes which, up until 1771, had been lashed in pairs and loaded with hogsheads of tobacco for the trip down to Richmond. But brothers Anthony and Benjamin Rucker from Amherst, VA, built the first “James River batteau,” a long wooden boat, pointy at both ends, with high sides, and built to go with the flow downriver, or be poled back upriver.

The boats were 40–70 feet long, only 6–8 feet wide and had no keel, making them flexible enough to navigate the rocky rapids and sandy shoals of the James. “If you try to take a rigid boat down a river like the James,” said Ralph Smith, longtime chair of the annual batteau festival, “it would be disaster.”

But river men of the time also did things to make the river more navigable. They built sluices and wing dams, piles of rock on the bottom laid to funnel the river into channels to ease boat passage. Many of these structures still exist, as Trout and his friends discovered, during thousands of hours of walking and scouting the rivers —

mostly in low water — to find the old dams, sluices and millraces that defined the era. The river atlases document the fieldwork — and the work in libraries scouring old records.

“We published the first atlas as a guide to the James River Batteau Festival Trail,” Trout said. “Then we started to work on other rivers.”

Most people, Trout said, are interested in going down a river, through the rapids. “They don’t generally go back upriver or stop to see what’s there.”

Brian Coffield, now the president of the Virginia Canals and Navigations Society, said that he thinks of the river atlases as “field guides” to the river. “You can read books about the history of these rivers, but for anyone really interested in how they were used for navigation, they are invaluable resources.”

Each atlas has two parts, the river sites — including what Trout calls “the interpretations of what I see out there” — and the history of a particular river during that era. Trout also uses the atlas to credit others who have discovered the remains of boats and other structures in the rivers.

Trout’s details are meticulous. On page 29 of the Festival Trail atlas, Trout notes the location of Jude’s Fish Dam (last recorded in 1818) at “Devil’s Sluice” in the James above the entrance of Fine Creek from Powhatan County. Shallows and islands mark this stretch of the James. A note in the atlas advises watercraft to keep to the right. Just a quarter mile downstream is Tom Rock in the center of the channel, named after Capt. Tom Bennett, who lost two boats on it.

The big advantage in Virginia, Trout said, is that its rivers were made navigable this way, in contrast with other parts of the country where canals were dug to support commerce between growing communities. “If you want to visit these navigation features, you can still travel our rivers. That’s not true in many other parts of the country.”

And every June, the James River Batteau Festival does just that, with as many as 30 replica batteaux making the weeklong trip 120 miles down the James. The boats are filled with their owners, families and friends, often in period garb, reliving the time when the river was the conduit of commerce for a growing commonwealth.

The boats stop at several river towns along the way, as well as private campsites — and the public is invited to join them, on the river or off. There’s a festival in Scottsville, with food and music — and at every stop, Trout is there to answer questions, sell river atlases and promote the society’s latest project: a center in Amherst to house archives, exhibits and the thousands of artifacts now stored in basements, barns and attics of modern-day batteau men and women.

Until then, these river atlases provide a window into the era when Virginia’s rivers were super highways.

To purchase atlases or books about the batteau era in Virginia, visit: http://vacanals.org/store.

The 2015 James River Batteau Festival takes place June 20–27. Kayaks and canoes are welcome. For a schedule of stops along the route or to register for one or more days of camping, visit www.vacanals.org/batteau.

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Leslie Middleton

Leslie Middleton writes about water quality, public access, and the special places of the Chesapeake Bay region from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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