History Afloat: Virginia's Batteaux Festival

By Renner, Craig J. | The World and I, June 1998 | Go to article overview
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History Afloat: Virginia's Batteaux Festival

Renner, Craig J., The World and I

For the past half hour, Ed Barbour has been busy rounding up volunteers. He's not that particular. He collars just about anybody he encounters on the sidewalks and in the small shops and restaurants that dot Scottsville, a rural outpost on Virginia's James River about twenty minutes south of Charlottesville.

Thanks in part to his recruitment efforts, Barbour laughs, "everybody in this town knows me." Residents know what he's up to and are too gracious to turn him down or to turn away when they see him coming. As a result, it doesn't take long to recruit about twenty volunteers to his cause. The fact that it's an uncommonly warm and sunny January afternoon, inspiring a touch of spring fever, doesn't hurt either.

The task at hand is fairly simple if one has enough people: turning over Barbour's fifty-foot-long, one-and-a-half-ton batteau, the Edward Scott. All morning long, volunteers have been stripping out oakum, a loosely twisted fiber used for caulking to waterproof the boat, and checking the gunwales, kingplank, and other parts of the boat for damage. Fortunately, the vessel came through the winter in good shape. No major repairs will be necessary to make it riverworthy for another year.

The preliminary work completed, Barbour lines up his volunteers--men, women, and children--on one side of the vessel, while he stands on the other side and gives them their instructions. "Count off ones and twos," he commands. All lift the boat until it is halfway over, then the "ones" run to the other side and catch the boat in its descent. They hold it while "twos" quickly move around to join them. The boat is then carefully lowered to the earth. It's a delicate process: If the batteau is dropped or let down harshly, it may be damaged.

The turn is successful. With recaulking and minor maintenance, the Edward Scott will again take part in June's week-long James River Batteaux Festival. This is a thirteen-year-old event that celebrates river life in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Virginia. For participants like Barbour, getting ready for the festival is a year-round effort. It requires numerous hours of preparation and, during the week of the festival, hours of backbreaking effort poling the boat along the sometimes shallow, rocky river. Still, he wouldn't miss it. "The whole point," he says, "is to have fun on the river."

Recovered in Richmond

Batteaux were the dominant form of commercial transport on the James River from about 1771 through the Civil War. The flatboats were generally forty to seventy feet long, though sometimes as long as a hundred feet, and were pointed at both ends, improving their ability to handle the swift currents of the James. Lined with ribs from side to side, the boats could evenly distribute thousands of pounds of cargo, normally hogsheads of tobacco being carried to market in Richmond and eventually Europe. They were poled along by small crews, usually slaves and indentured servants, who walked along broad planks laid over the gunwales. At times, up to five hundred of the boats plied the river. They were a marked improvement compared to overland transport, were used by mill operators and plantation owners including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, and played a critical role in settling the postcolonial interior.

Until a few years ago, little was known about these boats. None had survived. The all-wood structures were usually destroyed, sold for scrap, and used as firewood when they came to the end of their economic utility Though batteaux were still used on the James as late as 1900, exactly how they were constructed was a matter of conjecture.

In fact, the boats might have remained a historical mystery, except for a fortuitous series of events in Richmond in 1983. In August, construction began on the James Center, a high-rise office building and hotel complex. Among those watching was Bill Trout, a retired canal enthusiast whose interest was piqued because the dig was taking place in the Great Basin, an area of the Virginia capital that was a terminus for river traffic throughout the nineteenth century.

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