Canal Basin Dig Wood Preservation Project

Boat 2 from the Great Basin Dig
Photo by Lyle Browning

Bill Trout and Jimmy Moore’s 1983 initial investigation of the James Center first block under construction showed canal boat remnants at the 23’ below street level. The James Center sat on top of and in the Great Turning Basin of the James River and Kanawha Canal. What followed was a massive volunteer canal boat excavation effort aided by Henry Faison, the James Center developer. From 1983 to 1985 three blocks of the James Center were constructed upon and we were there documenting and removing canal boats. Those canal boats sat in the Byrd Park Pump House turbine pits in fresh flowing water since that time. We were very leery of PolyEthylene Glycol (PEG) as a preservative despite its popularity in the conservation world. We felt it turned wood dark and above all it was hygroscopic meaning that every time the weather changed, it would bead moisture unless kept in a strict climate controlled area. And it ate iron, which was a severe problem as the boats were all nailed together.

Financially this was totally not happening. Bill discovered a company that produced a proprietary wood preservative that did the same thing as PEG but without the side effects. Both replace water in the cellular structure of the wood and then SP11 hardens upon full saturation and exposure to air. The treated wood is the same color as it was when recovered. It is easily reversible. It is environmentally neutral. And it is not hygroscopic. The cost was high for our budget but in the end Bill Trout generously donated funds so that we could preserve the wood.

Space to do the conservation had also been an issue. With my purchase of a lot next to mine in Middlesex County that had a garage on it, that problem was solved. Assuming the COVID-19 problem goes away in reasonable time, two tanks will be built in the garage. These will be using 4×8 sheets of plyboard 1” thick and 2×4’s plus a roofing rubber sheet liner. When it is safe to do so, we will remove the wood from the turbine pits, hose it off, photograph it on all sides and transport it to Hartfield for immersion in the preservative.

For that, we will have two separate operations but done multiple times due to tank space. The first will be at the Pump House to do the removal, hosing and photography and the other will be at Hartfield to unload the wood, put it in the tanks very carefully so that the nails do not puncture the rubber sheet with spacers between layers and then cover it with SP11. After 6 weeks immersion, the wood can be removed and air dried. At that point, it will need to be transported to Batteau House where again by Bill Trout’s generous funding, the preserved canal boat wood will be stored in a pole barn constructed for that purpose.

By Lyle Browning