The following article is reposted in the public interest and is from:
The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia
May 24, 2012
Group navigates New River in batteau boat
By C.V. Moore
LANSING — It was an old-timey day on the New River Wednesday, with a historic descent of the lower section of the river by a crew of modern batteaumen from Virginia.
“We had a good crew, we bailed a lot, and had some pretty tight lines, but it was awesome. Everybody’s safe, and the boat’s intact,” said Andrew Shaw of Lynchburg, captain of the Mary Marshall, after the boat anchored safely to shore at Fayette Station.
Batteaus are wooden, flat-bottomed boats used to navigate shallow waterways in the southeastern United States from the nation’s earliest days through as late as the early 20th century. Well before the railroad, the country’s founders dreamed of a navigable canalway from the Atlantic Ocean over the Alleghenies to the Ohio River.
Their dream never materialized, but on Wednesday the Mary Marshall’s six-person crew became the first known group to successfully navigate the lower New in a batteau in at least a hundred years.
In doing so, the crew finished the most perilous section of their 320-mile journey to retrace the route taken by Chief Justice John
Marshall during his 1812 survey to assess the viability of a water route over the Alleghenies.
Shaw and his crew built their boat from scratch and, thanks in part to a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, began the Marshall Expedition at Richmond in April.
They have been camping at Thurmond since May 15, scouting the gorge to prepare for the class III and IV rapids that lay ahead.
The 14-mile journey began at 9:30 a.m. and ended at 3 p.m.. River levels were at approximately 7,500 CFS, with rain falling most of the day.
In the early days of commercial river navigation, batteau went down the gorge to Batteau — now Batoff — Mountain, above Thayer, where cargo was wagoned out of the gorge above the worst falls. Slaves or free blacks made up the majority of the boatmen.
Collis P. Huntington is known to have made the descent from Hinton to Hawk’s Nest in 1869, surveying for the railroad he would later build.
“I don’t think you can watch what went on today without thinking about what it was like 200 years ago,” says Dave Arnold, co-owner of Adventures on the Gorge rafting company.
“This boat is not an easy boat to run the river. Our equipment today makes it so much easier, so the amount of respect for the boatmen of 200 years ago had to be on all the professionals’ minds today.”
Brian “Squirrel” Hager, a raft guide with Adventures on the Gorge from Smithers who has 3,500 New River floats under his belt, hugged tight to the Mary Marshall on her journey and offered his input, rapid by rapid.
At Whale Rock in the Keeney’s rapids, the crew was prepared to go left of the giant rock, but after further scouting and consult with Hager, they decided to shift their plans. A wrong move could have cost them their boat, or worse.
“If one of these boats does hit the rocks it’s going to go bad fast,” says Mason Baston, owner of James River Float Co., who rode on board the Mary Marshall for the Wednesday leg. “These boards, when they start snapping, it’s a serious amount of pressure and force. Then you’ve got guys in the water and features out here that you don’t want to be swimming at this level.”
In addition to Adventures on the Gorge, the National Park Service offered safety and navigational support during the day.
Crews of raft guides in training, video boaters, and curious onlookers from the river community also stood — or paddled — by to offer cheers of enthusiasm after challenging maneuvers.
Mary Marshall’s crew lit up during difficult rapids, and came out screaming their heads off for joy.
In 2004, another Virginia crew attempted the feat. Their batteau, The Rose of Nelson, cracked in half and sank at Dudley’s Dip rapid. Piloted by Mike Neal, it was apparently in disrepair and Neal made the gesture as a kind of honorable send-off for his boat.
Besides the Rose of Nelson, several other crafts have navigated part of the New in the modern era. In 1989, The Appamattox ran part of the gorge to Thurmond.
According to the Virginia Canals and Navigation Society’s New River Atlas, their boat was laden with cargo and became swamped in a class III rapid. The crew was swept overboard, swam to shore, and hopped a train to salvage their boat.
The end point of Appomattox’s journey was the beginning of Mary Marshall’s leg on Wednesday. They put out at Fayette Station, where they will camp and wait to see if the river rises enough to navigate The Dries of the New River and bring their journey to a close in GauleyBridge.
“Marshall’s trip is the story of our founders’ vision for establishing reliable trade through Appalachia,” says Shaw. “It is a testament to the lengths our founders were willing to go through to affect development in this country.”
You can follow the progress of the Marshall Expedition at their blog, http://www.vacanals.org/marshall/.
Shaw says he is in talks with the National Parks Service to possibly build a batteau in Fayette County.
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