Batteau Anchor and Sweep Oarlock
Scottsville is over 150 miles from the coast. The western horizon is rumpled by the Blue Ridge and, beyond that, the Alleghenies. It’s a small town of about 500 people, give or take, situated in horse country at the northern edge of what was historically a tobacco growing region. Not exactly the kind of place you’d expect to find a hot bed of traditional boat building.
But the Melonseeds aren’t the only boats under construction here. Tim Small and some volunteers are building a full scale model of a 19th century Packet Boat in Canal Basin Square. I helped them turn the first half of the hull over a couple of months ago. No one knew quite how to go about it, but Tim’s scary arrangement of paper air-bags and a come-along worked perfectly.
Today the Batteau Festival is in town, and the stopover in Scottsville is the highlight of a weeklong floating party and parade of period boat reproductions. Packet Boats were just the highest form, the luxury liners, of a locally developed river craft called Batteaux. The Square is a new park built to celebrate the role that the Batteaux and their vagabond crews, the James River, and the town played in the history of Virginia and, by extension, the country. For boat lovers it’s a pretty fascinating history.
Scottsville is an old town, on an old river. It’s been here on the northern bank of the James River since before the Revolutionary War. In fact, when the King sent his army to pay respects to the man who wrote that nasty letter, the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson took the opportunity to indulge his interest in geology and made a hasty visit here to study the inside of a small cave in the bluffs along the river, until the coast was clear. He visited frequently, under more relaxing circumstances.
The James River has been a watery highway of boat transportation since John Smith sailed up the mouth in 1607, greeted by people traveling in dugout canoes, and it remained the single most important avenue of transportation in the Colonies for hundreds of years, not only for moving people, but also goods and produce.
By the time Jefferson was hiding out in caves, tobacco had long been to the Virginia Colonies what the coca leaf has become to Colombia – it was the addictive product and economic engine that drove all commerce. Getting that tobacco to markets in Europe was of prime importance. The soil along the coast was quickly exhausted by continuous tobacco cultivation, and rich lands to the west were soon cleared and in full production. But the farther inland you travelled to farm tobacco, the more costly it was to bring back to coastal ports for shipping.
Overland roads were rough and primitive, and tobacco was heavy. Huge barrels were constructed, packed with a half tone or more of dried tobacco, and a pole driven through the middle lengthwise as an axle. Then the whole assembly was hooked up to a team of oxen and a driver prodded them constantly to roll the barrel down the dusty, muddy and rocky roads, over mountains and down winding valleys, until the contraption could be rolled onto a ship in port. Not only was travel slow and arduous but, as one might imagine, the quality of the product inside was not improved by the journey. To make it work at all, special roads had to be constructed, the better more heavily travelled ones were paved in wooden boards and charged tolls. These roads were known as “rolling roads,” and many in our area, such as Cole’s Rolling Road and The Plank Road, still bear names that reflect their early history.
Strange as it may sound, this was the primary means of upland tobacco transport until 1775. By then 102 million pounds were shipped annually to England and Scotland. In that year, Jefferson observed the launch of the first James River Batteau, and soon bought several for use shipping his own goods from Monticello.
In the years leading up to that day, a couple of upland planters on the Tye and Piney Rivers, smaller streams upriver on the James, had experimented successfully with using dugout canoes to float their hogsheads downstream. By lashing two very large dugouts together, side by side, they were able to create a shallow draft craft stable enough to carry several barrels balanced on their gunwales all the way to the fall line in Richmond. There they were offloaded onto wagons and carted around the dangerous falls to the port downstream, and loaded onto ships in the tidal portion of the James.
A small fleet was constructed, and this worked well until the great floof of 1771 wiped out all the canoes, and there were no large trees left to build more. Faced with only small timbers, and the prospect of overland transport again, Anthony Rucker, on a neighboring plantation, devised and built a large flat bottomed boat he called a Batteau, a craft that revolutionized river transport and became the predecessor of containerized shipping in America. Half a century later, in 1821, with Jefferson’s help he was posthumously granted a patent for the design, and by then Batteaux were in use on all the major river systems from Alabama to New England.
fire pit for cooking, and by all accounts crews ate well.
Batteaux were wide flat boats, built of stout planks and frames by carpenters, joiners and cabinet makers rather than shipwrights. They averaged 60 feet in length, and 6 feet wide. Empty, they could float in less than 8 inches of water. Fully loaded with over 12 tons of cargo, they drew little more than a foot and half. To facilitate transport, hogshead barrels were standardized to a fixed size to assure they would fit snugly inside the hulls. By the early 1800’s, 22,000 hogheads of tobacco a year were arriving in Richmond on Batteaux. The water tight barrels were also packed with all manner of goods and produce, particularly wheat, flour and whiskey. Besides making Richmond the leading source of tobacco in the world, batteaux made the city the second largest source of flour on the continent, and the mill on the wharves there was the largest brick building in the world at the time. In addition to containerized shipping, the boats carried loose cargo, such as coal, lead, and iron from mountain mines, lumber from mills, bricks and slate shingles. And fine finished goods from the Old Country were hauled back upstream to the frontier.
The boats typically carried a crew of three. One steered the boats from the rear with a long oar called a sweep. Sometimes a second sweep was mounted at the front so the boats could be steered from both ends. On the trip down, the two other men helped direct the steersman around obstacles and propelled the boat with long iron tipped poles. The boats were easily floated downstream to Richmond in three days when the water was up, provided they avoided snags and rocks, and navigated safely through the various rapids – both of which frequently sank boats and drowned their crews. The trip back required at least 10 days, pushing the boats upstream with the poles.
It was a pleasant journey when the water levels were right. But floods made it dangerous, and droughts made it miserable. (Some years ago I did part of the trip downstream in a batteau during a drought. Dragging a multi-ton oaken barge over rocks by hand, even empty, is no fun, believe me.)
The life of a batteauman was lively, to say the least. All this river commerce went on essentially unsupervised, and the crews immediately gained a reputation for ribaldry and mischief. Official rations for a crew for the whole trip consisted solely of bacon and cornmeal, and a lot of it. To add a bit of variety to the menu, fish and ducks were commonly taken with gun or hook. But chickens, cattle and hogs, and anything else from farms along the river that wasn’t nailed down was also fair game, along with much of everything that was. One plantation owner stipulated in his will, for instance, that he be buried along the river so he could continue to guard his fence rails from the thieving batteaumen.
And, of course, the goods actually carried on the boats were not safe either. “Skimming” and “ducking” were common terms applied to art of arriving at the end of the journey with a boat notably lighter than it left. The “losing” of all or part of whiskey shipments, in particular, only fueled the problem. Camps along the river at night were full of music and dancing. Grog Shops sprung up along the banks to service the trade, along with remote “grocery stores” lining the river to buy and sell the stolen goods.
Eventually, thievery and other hazards to commerce created the demand for a way to both control and expand the trade. Aside from loss of goods to pilfering, the changing river levels, dangerous rapids, and other natural hazards all contributed to the loss of shipments and profits. With the aid of the Virginia General Assembly, the James River and Kanawha Canal Company was formed with the purpose of improving navigable portions of the river, and building a series of canals and locks to bypass rapids and other impediments, charging tolls for their use. In addition to improving navigation, it would provide a network of inspection stations to check manifests for assessing tolls.
Construction progressed gradually over many years, but completed sections were put to immediate use. A series of locks and a 13 acre turning basin allowed boats to bypass the falls in Richmond and float the batteaux directly up to ocean going ships to transfer their loads, and to gain access to the warehouses and markets that stored other goods there. Canals and towpaths eventually lined much of the river between Richmond and Lynchburg, so the boats could be moved by draft animals.
In Scottsville, another Canal Basin was constructed, where the park is now, and was lined with warehouses, bawdy taverns and hotels. Scottsville became the center of regional commerce, a crossroads destination with barrels rolled in from the Valley through Rockfish Gap. It became the county seat, serving both ends of the legal spectrum by adding a courthouse, so a night in a local tavern could be followed with a morning in the local jail.
The canals made travel safe, and the improvements allowed construction of even larger boats – the Packet boats. These boats not only carried more tonnage, but became a popular means of travel for passengers as well. Riding on the cabin roof was especially pleasant, as one could enjoy the fresh air and watch the countryside glide by. The pilot would shout out “Low bridge!” and everyone scrambled below to avoid a bump on the head and subsequent swim in the canal. Sleeping and dining accommodations were provided inside.
The Canal system and traffic prospered for many years, and steadily expanded. The ultimate plan would have connected the Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi River valley through a single pass in the mountains into West Virginia. Before construction could be completed, however, steam powered railroads were developed, and their appearance soon siphoned off both the passenger and shipping trades.
During the Civil War, when Stonewall Jackson was killed in battle, his body was carried in a funeral procession by Packet boat down the Rappahannock and up the James past Scottsville to his home in Lexington, and people lined the river banks along the whole route to watch it pass. The event marked not only coming of the end of the Old South, but the end of the Canal system, as well.
In only a few years, the Canal became redundant, and eventually the land along the river was sold to the railroads. Soon a train track was laid along much of what was once the tow path, and the canal filled in. That track still carries freight to Richmond and the port in Hampton Roads, though in many places traces of the canal and locks can still be found.
Revival of historical interest in the canal system started in 1980’s. While excavating for an office building in downtown Richmond, in what was once the Great Basin, the remains of many batteaux were found, buried where they sank. Historians were able to obtain only a brief delay in construction so volunteers could attempt to document the boats and artifacts. I worked at the Department of Conservation in Richmond at the time, and I remember walking down to the big muddy crater on my lunch hours to watch the progress. As boats were uncovered, just ahead of the back-hoes, hasty measurements and photographs were taken, but with neither time or funding, eventually little could be saved.
Nevertheless, interest was sparked and the story was followed closely all over the state. Before the hole had even been filled some adventurous fellows got to work. Intrigued by the discovery, a full size working reproduction of a batteau was soon constructed not far from Scottsville, by a blue grass musician with an interest in history, named Joe Ayers. He got some friends and poled it down river to the capitol in Richmond. It made big news, the whole city anticipating and turning out for their arrival, and the Batteau Festival was born.
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Though anyone in Scottsville can tell you the general history of the Canal and Batteaux, many of the facts and figures here come from a fascinating document by Bruce Terrell of Eastern Carolina University. He was one of the harried group that worked to excavate the boats in Richmond. A PDF of that document can be downloaded here, and the full history of the batteau trade he tells is far more interesting than the title:
The James River Bateau: Tobacco Transport in Upland Virginia 1745 – 1840 by Bruce G. Terrell
An interesting first person account of a modern batteau trip in the Smithsonian here:
And last, a link to the Batteau Festival website, where you’ll find links to builders blogs and other resources:
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