Written by Rachel Mahoney and edited by Bill Trout
The frayed, rusty remains of a canal packet boat that provide the ghost of a glimpse of Virginia’s historic canal system now sit on display at its own exhibit next to the canal society’s Batteau House – a sight better than the muddy burial grounds it emerged from.
Referred to as “Boat 1,” the iron hull was the first thing to be rediscovered during the excavation of the Richmond canal basin in 1983-1986. If not for this discovery, there would probably have been no “Basin Dig,” no discovery of James River batteaux, and no Batteau Festival.
Originally a hub for canal commerce and transport, the canal basin property was sold to the Richmond & Alleghany Railroad – which would later become CSX – in 1880, shifting it from one era’s commercial nerve center to the next. The Great Basin, three blocks long and almost a block wide, was filled with gravel and vertical pilings to support a rail yard in 1923, and was used as a parking lot later in its life.
In 1983, Faison Associates started converting the yard to an underground parking deck for the Omni hotel and the James Center, digging down 23 feet for the project and clawing into a treasure trove of discarded historical detritus.
At least, that’s what it was to canal and history buffs.
There, Bill Trout recalled peering in through the fence to see what was going on and what the backhoe had revealed. He and Jimmy Moore both lived in Richmond at the time and they slipped into the site, asking crews if they had dug up anything. Even once pieces of the ship emerged, they were coated over with mud that had to be cleared away to see what they were.
So began a three-year excavation that’s provided key firsthand historical information on what life was like along Virginia’s waterways.
Groups with the Virginia Canals & Navigations Society and the Archeological Society of Virginia descended on the site to sift through the sticky mud after the backhoe had cleared away and see what they could find. Lyle Browning served as the dig’s site director, though he said he found himself on the phone setting up donations most of the time. As leader of what was initially an unsanctioned operation, he recognized that optics surrounding the dig were important and tipped off members of the media to see remnants of Virginia’s history revealed once more to the light of day.
“All of the sudden it was off to the races,” he said.
It worked – the dig attracted national news attention and was, in Lyle’s words, “quite an amazing business.” Some 2,000 lookers-on would gather outside the fence at times as the crews extensively catalogued their findings with photos and drawings, using specialized equipment from VDOT thanks to Lyle’s connections.
The boat’s remains were one of three large canal boats unearthed at that dig; the remains of another iron-hulled packet boat, and a wooden freight boat were examined before they went to the dump. Alongside them, digging crews found pieces from what they figured to be 76 different boats. Likely a wreck even before it sank, Boat 1 was stripped bare of anything people could salvage before it was abandoned. It was probably about 83 feet long. Half of it was removed; the other half (and who knows what else) is still buried deep in the mud under 9th Street.
Over the years the boat’s ribs have rotted away, but the wooden keel at least partially remains. It bears several mangled holes made by wooden pilings driven through it when the railyard was built. Your eye also might be drawn to what’s left of the women’s toilet – a hole through the bottom of the boat.
As a packet boat dating from around the mid-1840s or later, it would’ve carried small parcels, mail, and passengers along the river, including 33-hour journeys between Lynchburg and Richmond. Men and women had separate compartments and separate bathrooms, and it was equipped with a communal comb and toothbrush for passenger convenience.
Boxes upon boxes of artifacts from the dig and Boat 1 went to a barn for years of storage, at Historic Kittiewan Plantation, courtesy of the Archeological Society of Virginia. On April 24, the boat was trucked out to what should be its final resting place at the Batteau House in Madison Heights, near Lynchburg, in a newly built Boat Barn with an open porch specifically for viewing the packet boat skeleton.
Though Richmond was the birthplace, terminal and graveyard for these boats, Lyle said there’s no real dedicated space for them there. Figuring Tredegar Ironworks was likely where the iron hulls were produced, Bill said he’d contacted them years ago about any interest in displaying the packet boat, but they didn’t bite.
So much can be divined from those artifacts, down to the bright colors of peach and lime green paint that decorated the packet boats. Still awaiting in-depth analysis are over a hundred boxes of pottery shards, utensils, baggage tickets, chains and dog collars, tannery leather, animal bones from meals that reveal extensive dietary information, and hundreds of worn out leather shoes.
An unusual set of grindstones are of particular interest to Lyle, slanted on the edge for what could’ve been grinding octagonal or hexagonal gun barrels.
“A huge amount of information came out of that dig that needs to get done,” he said.
For now, at least, that treasure trove has a permanent home where it’s neatly organized, catalogued and ready for perusal, with a wealth of stories to tell.
For more details see The Falls of the James Atlas and The James River Batteau Festival Trail, published by the Virginia Canals & Navigations Society.