In Virginia, take an 18th-century-style river ride on a boat
In the late 18th and 19th centuries, boats, flat-bottomed boats, sailed the stormy James, bringing cash crops such as tobacco, flour and later coal to the east coast. One of the earliest references to this economically transformative armada was written by Thomas Jefferson in 1775 when he noted in his journal that a ship could carry 11 hogsheads or 11,000 pounds of tightly wrapped tobacco. A huge departure from the expensive and exhausting process of rolling pig-head barrels overland over bumpy roads behind oxen, the boats would help open up the Virginia border and line the pockets of the farmers who stocked them.
However, the bulk of the work was done by crewmen—usually slaves, freedmen, or poor whites—extraordinary boatmen who brought their flotillas to Richmond market. Indeed, between 1820 and 1840, some 1,500 boatmen operated 500 boats along the river. Today, outdoor enthusiasts and history buffs re-create their journey each June from Lynchburg to Maidens during the eight-day James River Batteau Festival.
But unless you have a close buddy who is a boatman or you intend to embark on a boat like the Mary Marshall or the Lady’s Slipper, it is difficult to get a place on one. of these old-fashioned boats. This is until now. Thanks to James River Batteau Festival veterans Will Cash and Will Smith, the experience of a boat ride is accessible to everyone with the launch of their James River Batteau Company touring service next month.
James River Batteau Company will offer guests river tours, sunset cruises and private charters from April through October on Morning Dew, a vintage reproduction that Smith built with his father and brother in 2011 and one of the only boat floats of its type in America. . (There is a motorized version in Lynchburg.)
“The boat we have now is the third boat our crew has floated,” says Cash, who along with Smith has been piloting his own boat at the festival since 2006. In fact, Smith practically grew up on a boat thanks to his father. , Ralph, president of the festival for 15 years. “My mom was like, ‘You were crawling in a boat in 1988,'” Smith says.
Thirty-four years later, his zeal for cruising the river in a 45-foot-long wooden boat has only grown. It’s something Cash and Smith – who met in high school in Amherst before going to Radford University together – have long wanted to share with others. After college, the friends gained a foothold in the tourism industry, driving Hummers on the Outer Banks for Wild Horse Adventure Tours, then used those funds to travel the world. It was partly thanks to their trips abroad that their teenage passion for floating the James seemed like a viable career option. “I went on this tour to the backwaters of Kerala in India and realized it wasn’t that different from the boats,” Smith says.
The Morning Dew allows six passengers to watch Cash and Smith sweep the river, carefully finding openings to allow the craft’s shallow passage between rocks and rapids. Beyond the lip of the boat at sunset, visitors will have the chance to admire the beauty of the river’s ecosystem, such as sycamores swaying and swaying along the shore, great blue herons, ospreys and maybe the occasional passing bald eagle, accompanied by the sound of Smith on guitar. The float will return to Scottsville, where guests can enjoy post-cruise drinks at the city’s only fine-dining establishment named, naturally, the Batteau Restaurant & Wine Bar.
“We want to share the magic of boating with people because it’s such a magnetic thing,” Smith says. “When people see the boats, they want to follow them and touch them. Then when it’s in the water, it’s just incredible. It is in its natural habitat.
A habitat which, in the 18th century, existed as a world apart for crew members. The work was seasonal and depended on the height of the water. Jefferson documents this in his diary, writing that a cargo could not come down the river until the harvest was finished, because “the boatmen are all employed in this work”. But once on the James, the machines operated with relative autonomy. Boats were usually manned with a three-man crew who “propelled the ship with long iron-tipped poles while one steered from astern with a long sweep or steering oar”, writes Bruce Terrell in his thesis, “The James River Boat: Tobacco Transport in the Virginia Highlands, 1745-1840.”
But arriving in Richmond meant little rest for the weary. Crews were restocking their boats with freight for the return trip, which could take up to 15 days upstream.
“It was a real battle,” Smith says. “There are records of men stuck, bailed out, losing tobacco. I mean it was not an easy trip.
But it was lucrative. From 1771 to 1775, the amount of tobacco exported to England and Scotland increased by 40% between 1761 and 1765, or some 102 million pounds, a figure attributed to the introduction of the ship, writes Terrell. Lynchburg was declared the nation’s second-richest city per capita in the 1850 census, according to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. And that rank “was due to boats carrying tobacco,” says Brian Coffield, historical interpreter at Pleasant Grove Park and president of the Virginia Canals & Navigations Society.
As one might imagine, documentation of boat life and culture from the boatmen’s perspective is almost non-existent. “Every quote we have is from a white landowner, probably a slave owner, or usually an aristocratic white man, right? So we don’t have much of their actual story to tell,” Smith says. “The only thing we can do is deduce what the experience was. Imagine that river two and a half feet down and bringing in a boat with 10,000 pounds on it? We want people to understand what these men would have done and show the incredible role they played in transforming Virginia into the power it would have been at that time.
An era that quickly faded with the arrival of the locomotive.
There is a quote that Cash remembers from a 19th century writer saying something like “the railroad is the killer of the picturesque”. “And that’s probably how I felt,” he said. With the development of the James River and the Kanawha Canal, quickly followed by the Richmond and Alleghany Railroad, the boat was usurped and rendered useless.
But after experiencing the 120-mile journey downstream during the James River Batteau Festival, with the tight turns, rocky shoals and fast rapids – something only exceptionally strong individuals with a thorough understanding of the currents could handle – Smith and Cash hope to give nautical tourists a new appreciation for these brave and daring boatmen who for a time made the James River a bustling world of interstate commerce.
“We owe them a debt of gratitude and should celebrate them for it,” Smith said.
James River Batteau Company
Canal Basin Square, 249 Main Street, Scottsville, Virginia.
Tours are two-hour journeys along the James River in the afternoon and evening, and they are available April through October, Thursday through Sunday. Book river tours ($65 pp), sunset cruises ($85 pp), and private charters (from $390) on the Morning Dew, a vintage reproduction boat. Children 12 and over only.
Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.