The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, August 13, 1999


Stepping Back in Time for Adventures on the James River in Virginia

"Everyone out of the boat! .... One, two, three, heave!" called out our captain, Chauncey Hutter from Charlottesville, Virginia. All 11 of us slid over the sides, planted our feet on the uneven rocks at the bottom of the warm James River, grabbed hold of the gunwales and heaved a couple of tons of soggy wooden boat off the rock that had hung us up. The crew would repeat this a multitude of times between Lynchburg and Richmond, Virginia.

So what brought us to the middle of Virginia on an unusually cool and windy June day? We were crew members aboard the Fluvanna, a 43-foot-long "batteau," participating in the 14th annual James River Batteau Festival. This is a nine-day event during which authentic replicas of 18th-century batteaux and an entourage of perhaps 200 canoes and kayaks make their way over 120 miles of the rock-filled, upper James River. There are eight evening stops along the way, where boaters and local townspeople gather to enjoy a traditional supper, storytelling, music, booths with historical river appeal, and camping.

Moving tobacco and pig iron

From 1775 until the mid-19th century, the batteaux served as the principals of moving tobacco, pig iron and other up-country commodities to the deep-water port at Richmond, often returning with manufactured goods, building materials and luxury items. A batteau is a keel-less, round-bottomed, shallow-draft wooden boat, 40-70 feet long and 8 feet wide. It is pointed at both the bow and stern. The beam of a batteau was predetermined by the size of the tobacco barrels, called hogsheads, each weighing about 1,000 pounds. It is steered by long sweep oars at both ends, and can be propelled by people walking along the gunwales poling with long, hickory poles. The batteau's captain steers from the bow rather than the stern.

Thomas Jefferson joined the Rucker brothers, the inventors of this mass producible boat, at the launching of the first batteau on April 29, 1775. Jefferson noted in his diary that the boat was 50 feet long, able to carry 11 hogsheads of tobacco, drawing only 13 1/2 inches of water. By the 1830s, the heyday of the batteau, there were some 500 boats and 1500 men plying the river.

In 1983, excavations in the James River and its canal in Richmond uncovered partial hulls of five batteaux. Though similar, they differed in detail, reflecting the different eras, from 1800 on, when they were built. Further excavations brought the total to sections of at least 48 different batteaux.

The Virginia Canals and Navigations Society became involved in subsequent excavations. One of its members, Joe Ayers, built the first batteau replica in 1984. Other groups followed and on May 31,1986 the first James River Batteau Festival was launched from Lynchburg to Richmond. The owners and crews, all volunteers leading very different lives the rest of the year, have dedicated themselves to the reenactment.

This is the tradition which we joined, having learned of the river trip from Chauncey's sister-in-law Jenny, a dear friend of our son and daughter-in-law, who live in Charlottesville, Virginia. We must confess that the Festival brochure and Jenny's comments did not give us a complete picture of what we would experience. No one knew in advance that the James River water level would be at a 100-year low. Reading the local newspaper the day before the event, we did not fully appreciate the warning from one of the site coordinators: "The water is too low to be negotiated and the boats will have to be dragged through the shallows. It could be a difficult situation for the boaters. They need to look after each other."

Donning our "period" clothing

Saturday we donned our "period" cotton clothing and straw hats. We packed a lunch in a watertight bag, and drove about 1 1/2 hours southwest of Charlottesville to an isolated location, which was to be the first night's stop. There we left some cars and drove to Lynchburg with Chauncey. The Festival was in progress, with hundreds of people watching and 17 batteaux ready for the excursion.

Each boat and its crew, when departing and arriving, maintain as authentic an appearance as possible. The Fluvanna's wooden barrels housed no tobacco leaves, only Coast Guard- required life jackets. A large wooden box hid all our modern paraphernalia. Two coolers were fitted with custom-made burlap covers. It is the custom when the boat leaves or arrives that the captain fires a small cannon. It took some getting used to Chauncey's quick trigger finger, which barely waited until the end of the shouted warning, "Fire in the hole!" before letting go.

Low water level

The low water level of the river had been raised a little, courtesy of an upstream dam, but only for our initial day's journey. Still there were places where the turbulence across the rocks gave us little room to maneuver. Thus began the hard work and wet part of the journey, pushing and pulling the batteau through rapids. This does not detract from the high level of skill required of the captain and mate to "read" the river so that they could steer the batteau through the sluices (narrow, natural or man-made passages) among the rocks. Not all captains read the river in the same manner. While one captain might prefer the waters along the shore, another would maneuver through the middle of the river. We won some and lost others!

Nancy had not immediately realized that the speed of the boat, once freed from a rock, could leave her behind, still trying to negotiate submerged rocks. Thankfully, the mate threw her a rope and pulled her in! There is a trick to getting back in as the boat leaves the rocks. Walk alongside a stern or bow gunwale where you can throw one hip the second you feel the boat give way.

Batteaux leak a lot! In the true spirit of the past, one or two of us bailed a good bit of the time. A few batteaux actually had battery-powered bilge pumps, hidden except for their black hoses. The Fluvanna was as authentic as possible -- no thought of such devices! Visible leaks were stuffed with oakum (loose, untwisted fibers from old hemp ropes) as they appeared. To lighten the load, Chauncey had taken out the floorboards. It was tricky to keep from slipping on the wet and muddy bottom of the batteau. Our boat was going to get from place to place by pure effort and teamwork. This was no leisurely float down the James, but an active, all-consuming team effort to keep the boat reasonably dry, afloat and moving.

Saturday, there were 11 aboard. We were the only first-timers. Chauncey, who has an accounting business throughout the region, was our skilled and gentle leader.

The most senior citizen aboard was the mate, Howard Williams, who spent one year building the Fluvanna. Seven years ago, Chauncey took Howard to his first Festival. Howard said that he "saw crazy uniforms on a bunch of senior citizens playing Tom Sawyer!" After a hearty laugh, he said, "I joined them right away." Howard had tough bare feet. He was the only one who walked on the river bottom without shoes.

Just like our captain, Ellen has participated in the river trips since the festival began. Recently graduated from college and a highly skilled synchronized swimmer, she never ran out of energy, whether bailing, poling or pushing! She planned to complete the entire route. Michael, a 16-year-old, also had limitless energy. He was experienced and took all the hard work in stride. Jenny's 24-year-old nephew, John, was a strong "poler" as were several others. Alyn got his chance to relieve them from time to time. Walter, an avid photographer, also put a lot of energy into the day's work. Don and his grandson, Matthew, a hard-working 14-year-old, shared quite an adventure.

A long day

Saturday was a long day. As darkness approached, we worried about the boats which were behind us. The last two rapids had required our getting the boat over rocks when it was almost too dark to see the water. Some batteaux, in fact, did not reach the day's destination.

When we arrived at Christian's Creek about 9 p.m., there were three other batteaux, canoes, and hundreds of people. Climbing up the bank, wet, very cold and hungry, we headed for a large tent. Members of the Amelon United Methodist Church were serving a pulled pork sandwich, potato salad, cole slaw, drink and homemade cake for $5. We were too tired to explore the other aspects of the Festival. We enjoyed the food, changed our clothes and headed home to Charlottesville -- to a hot shower and a dry bed. We hoped that would renew us for the next day.

A comedy of errors and miscommunication kept us from making the Sunday leg of the trip. Monday was cool and breezy. We met the Fluvanna at the newly opened James River State Park. We learned that Michael and Ellen had gotten up at midnight to bail the Fluvanna, which had been about to sink. To make movement about the boat easier we put in the floorboards. There were times later during the day when we would gladly have thrown them into the shallows. An experienced boatman, a fireman from Manassas, and his daughter, a first-timer, had replaced Walter.

Monday's segment of the journey, while only about nine miles, took almost 11 hours. In addition to the rocks, we were frequently faced with 10-to-15-knot winds that tended to push us back upstream. We lost count of the number of times we had to leave the batteau to push and pull it over the rocks. Sometimes the rocky areas were so extensive that the crews of two or three batteaux would combine to work the individual boats through the rapids.

We were glad to arrive at our destination, Wingina, where there was a lot of festivity going on with music, booths and food. Once again, we were so tired and cold that we returned to Charlottesville for a hot meal, shower, and a good night's rest.

Our visits to Virginia are multipurpose. Earlier commitments to be with our new granddaughter took precedence even over such events as the Batteau Festival. Our adventures on the James River were over for this year.

Discomfort and exhaustion

We liked the batteau experience. Despite the discomfort and exhaustion at the end of each day, we were enthralled with the historic reenactment, the genuine camaraderie of the crew members, and the rhythms of the boat. The river was in control of our day. No matter how we might have wished it, we could not turn on an engine or get rid of the rocks to alter that pace.

Normally, we do not have full days of such manual labor. The repetitive rhythms of the bailing, the poling, and the slow, lazy passing of the woods and fields were calming, tiring and amazing. "Do you realize where we are?" one would ask. "Do you realize what we are doing?" the other would say with delight.

Our crew did not sing, but each activity we performed has lent itself to song throughout the years: a poler placing the pole in the river bottom, pushing and walking it back on the gunwale, feeling the boat move ahead; the quicker rhythm of the bailers scooping and emptying the bilge water. The most powerful rhythm of all was the continuous flow of the river current, most noticeable when we stood in the water beside a reluctant-to-move batteau.

The river and its surroundings are beautiful. We had time to look around and to imagine the heavily loaded batteaux and their crews of three that had struggled up and down this river for decades. All of this, as the immutable James River, through its rocks and banks, "jus' keeps rollin' along."

We hope we will be able go on to Richmond next year.

1999 The Carlisle Mosquito