In the 1700’s before the railroad and the canal, and when roads were muddy wagon tracks, the best way to move tobacco and other goods to and from the interior of the westward expanding colony was by James River batteaux. These long, narrow vessels were designed to maximize load capacity while maintaining the maneuverability and low draft necessary for navigating Piedmont rivers. They could transport as many as 12 hogsheads of tobacco to downstream markets (hogshead is a large wooden barrel, ~145 gallons & 1,000 lbs when packed with tobacco). One Footprints student described batteaux as the “Mack Trucks” of colonial Virginia. At James River State Park the Footprints team rendezvoused with Andrew Shaw, captain of the James River batteau “Mary Marshall” which would join us as far as Maidens Landing about 30 miles west of Richmond.
Shaw, a carpenter and history graduate, built the Mary Marshall for an audacious repeat of the 1812 survey for the James River and Kanawah Canal line led by Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Marshall. This survey traveled up the James River and Jackson’s Creek, over land across the Alleghenies, down the Greenbrier River and finally down the New River. In his Marshall Expedition blog, Shaw writes, “With this project, our aim is to celebrate the Bi-Centennial of Marshall’s journey, paying tribute to Marshall’s courage and vision by retracing the length of the intended canal line. … A batteau ascent of this length has not been attempted in at least 150 years and is bound to be an extremely arduous undertaking. Our region’s rivers are tremendous historical and ecological resources and we hope to inspire people to become more engaged in utilizing and protecting them. ”
From Shaw, the Footprints team learned about the history of batteaux on the James, their construction, and how to maneuver them up and down stream using long poles and bow and stern sweep oars. Poling the batteau consisted of paired teams of 2 – 6 students walking to the bow, synchronously planting their poles on the river bottom at the call “pole!“, and then pushing against the poles as they walked toward the stern. We averaged about 300 circuits up and back each hour. While the dimensions of the Mary Marshall are 43′x7′, the length we were able to walk when poling was probably about 50′ per circuit. Given this pace and the boat dimensions we estimated that we walked more than 15 miles each day up and down the boat. With this effort and the benefit of the current we maintained a speed of 3-4 mph down river, even on sluggish stretches, and covered 15 – 20 miles each day.
The batteau quickly became the focal point for Footprints during this period. We traveled with 6-8 people crewing the batteau followed by 3 support canoes. For snacks and lunch we would raft up and pass food around. Sometimes one student would read assigned course materials out loud as others poled. In the evenings we often sat along the beached batteau as dinner was prepared on board, either using our propane stove, or sometimes over a fire on the “built in” brick fire pit. At night, the class camped riverside, but Shaw and crew-mate Sebastian Backstrom slept on board under tarps rigged over drawn up sweep oars.
As we made our way down river Shaw and Daugherity pointed out relics of the batteaux and canal eras. We saw the wooden ribs of drowned batteaux buried in muddy river banks and observed a number of aquaducts over tributaries joining the James. At first appearance these aquaducts looked like train bridges. However, in the early 18oo’s it was the James River and Kanawah Canal line, not train tracks, that these supported. As we ate lunch sheltered from the sun under one such aquaduct, we imagined horse drawn 90 foot packet boats passing along a 6′ deep channel suspended above us. At other locations we had to carefully navigate the Mary Marshall through the rocky remains of long washed out wing dams designed to direct river water into the adjacent canal.
Although the James between the Tye River confluence and Maidens Landing is generally pretty mellow, there were numerous shallows that had to be negotiated and a few Class II rapids we had to run. For the bigger rapids we paused to scout the best route, and two were tricky enough to catch a canoes off guard. With its flat hull and large sweeping oars on bow and stern, the Mary Marshall, like most batteaux, was surprisingly nimble in swift water. Indeed, on his earlier Marshall Expedition, Shaw (also an avid kayaker) navigated her through serious Class IV-IV+ whitewater in the New River Gorge.
The chance to float this section of the James with the Mary Marshall and her crew was an unforgettable experience, bringing the history of the river alive, and providing insight into how the challenges of navigating the James helped drive the development of canals and rail systems.