Despite the prominence of batteaux during their heyday (between about 1771 and 1840) and the fact that they remained in-use in some deep pockets of Appalachia until the turn of the 20th century, no construction plans survived to the present day. In 1983, the opportunity to reclaim this critical piece of Virginia history presented itself in a Richmond construction site.
Construction workers were breaking ground on the James Center Office complex, laid over what had been the terminus of the James River and Kanawah Canal. Buried in the mud were the remains of various vessels, including 5 batteaux. Dr. Bill Trout, then President of the VCNS, recognized the significance of the boats, the likes of which had not been seen in at least 80 years, and was responsible for negotiating with contractors to allow the VCNS to oversee construction. Between August of 1983 and January of 1985 a series of excavations revealed enough about the structure and style of batteaux to spur the construction of modern replicas.
In 1986, the first James River Batteau Festival, initially organized as a race, featured batteau crews making the historic journey from Lynchburg to Richmond. Over the last 27 years a strong community of batteau-builders and canal enthusiasts have both perpetuated the festival and an appreciation for this pivotal piece of our history in central Virginia. Each year the James River Batteau Festival provides batteau men and canoeists the thrill of stepping back in time, as crews in period clothing skillfully guide these amazing vessels 120 miles, through countless rapids and ledges along this historic route.
I became involved in building and navigating batteaux three years ago, and owe a tremendous debt not only to the individuals who have personally assisted me as I have learned to build and captain these vessels, but all those who have researched and built boats in the 29 years since batteaux were discovered in Richmond. This project could not have been conceived were it not for their work.
To learn more about the James River Batteau Festival, please vist www.batteau.org.
For more on the history of the batteau era, see Bruce Terrell’s thorough masters thesis, available online through ECU: