Poling on the River

Batteaux were once the lifeblood of Virginia commerce; now locals celebrate those bygone days

Perched atop the leafy bluffs beside the James River, in Lynchburg, Virginia, a crier dressed in an 18th-century costume shouts out to several hundred spectators on the bank below: "From AmherstCounty, the Anthony Rucker!" It’s the signal for me and my six crewmates to go to work. We shove our long poles into the sand and push off. Our vessel, a replica of the sturdy batteaux that once hauled goods on the James, is named after one of the two Virginia brothers who invented these craft around 1770. Oak-planked, flat-bottomed, 46 feet long and 7 1/2 feet wide, batteaux navigate, fully loaded, in a foot of water.

The Rucker is part of a colorful flotilla of 16 batteaux bound for Maidens Landing near Richmond, eight days and 120 miles away. Ours is the first. I look back as the crier calls out the others: "From ChesterfieldCounty, the Lord Chesterfield! From Cartersville, the Lady’s Slipper!" Then the cheers fade, the city skyline disappears and we’re on our way.

This nostalgic scene plays out each June during the James River Batteau Festival, a funky celebration of the days when hundreds of the little barges connected upstream farms and plantations to Richmond’s market center. Of course, the originals weren’t manned by singing, bass-fishing reenactors, accompanied by their children and dogs, plus several dozen high-spirited canoeists and kayakers. Most batteaumen were slaves (although freedmen and white laborers worked on the boats too), and their cargo consisted of tobacco, iron and flour.

Modern-day batteaux on the James are authentic reproductions built, in most cases, by their owners. A true batteau is about two feet high amidships, and its bow and stern are pointed. A 12- to 15-foot-long steering oar, called a sweep, is mounted fore and aft. Polemen stationed along the gunwales do most of the steering in quiet waters; the sweeps are used to help maneuver through rapids.

For the better part of a century the James teemed with batteaux, which were also used on many other rivers throughout the South. They were stable, cheap and hauled enormous loads. And unlike the ponderous flatboats favored by farmers and merchants along the Mississippi, batteaux could be poled upstream.

Even Thomas Jefferson was impressed by the "Battoe," as he misspelled it, employing the French word commonly used to describe boats with pointed ends. But like many of his fellow planters, the master of Monticello complained about pilfering, by batteaumen, of cargo that included molasses and wine. One 19th-century writer described fleets of batteaux tied together under sycamores while their crews stole geese, eggs and sweet potatoes from nearby farms.

By 1840, a canal constructed alongside the James allowed mule- and horse-drawn packets easy passage. After the Civil War, railroad tracks were laid on top of the towpath, and the old boats were forgotten. Then, in 1983, a developer started excavations for an office building in downtown Richmond on the very site where batteaux once unloaded their wares. It wasn’t long before two local canal buffs, William E. Trout III, a retired geneticist, and Jimmy Moore III, a classical guitarist, were leading an effort to photograph and salvage the remains of five batteaux, the first of 48 discovered there. "Nobody had ever seen one before," Trout told me the night the festival began.

Inspired by the discovery, Joe Ayers, FluvannaCounty’s longtime recreation director, cajoled some friends into helping him build a batteau and, in 1984, pole it to Virginia’s capital city. Two years later, Ayers organized the first batteau festival. Since then, more than 55 replicas have gone downriver. Along the way, at state parks and small towns, hundreds of local citizens turn out to welcome the crews with bonfires and bluegrass bands, delicious barbecues and heaping bowls of spaghetti.

This is the Rucker’s maiden voyage. Her owner, 48-year-old Ralph Smith, a strapping man in a battered felt hat, runs a business that prints logos on shirts and hats. His laid-back crew consists of friends and employees, augmented by several other acquaintances wearing Colonial-period muslin pants, and me.

Our first test occurs at JoshuaFalls. The James boils over the remains of an old stone dam as we drift toward them a quarter-mile upstream. Clay Atkins, a tall, mustachioed man, is gripping the front sweep with both hands, and his knuckles are white. "We’re running it on the right, see?" he shouts to the rest of us. "Then we’re going into that vee, and hard left! Did you hear me? Hard left!"

Atkins’ sweep groans as he bears down, prying the bow away from rocks. Finley Almond, Smith’s burly production manager, is pulling on the rear sweep. The rapids churn alongside until suddenly we’re in the clear. We all whoop and cheer.

I forsake the Rucker one morning to visit David Haney’s batteau, the Pride of Campbell County. Haney’s wife, Barbara, tells me the going is not easy in low-water years. "You’re in and out of the boat all day, prying it off rocks," she says. Floods are worse. "When you see dead horses and boat docks floating past, it’s time to call it quits," says David.

Back on the Rucker, I find Ralph Smith sitting in a wood-slatted chair rubbing his feet. The festival has reached a turning point, he says. Some boosters want to keep it local. Others want to make it a major tourist attraction to appeal to folks as far away as Washington, D.C. He shakes his head. "Ten thousand people would turn it into a carnival."

Next morning, we come to the ramp where my truck is parked, and I reluctantly jump ship. Not for me the swimming hole below Perkin’s Falls or the meatloaf dinner at Cartersville. I hear the Rucker long after the river carries it away—the splash of water against hull, the thunk and clank of a sweep in its metal swivel, the echo of history.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.