Southern essayist and former Lynchburger Dr. George W. Bagby (1828–1883) described departure of one of the bateaux on a trip from Richmond to Lynchburg on the Kanawha Canal, while he was then a lad, in a short piece titled “Canal Reminiscences”:

At last we were off, slowly pushed along under the bridge on Seventh Street; then the horses were hitched then slowly along till we passed the crowd of boats near the city, until at length, with a lively jerk as the horses fell into a trot. Away we went, the cut-water throwing up the spray as we rounded the Penitentiary hill, and the passengers lingering on deck to get a last look at the fair City of Richmond, lighted by the pale rays of the setting sun.

The Kanawha Canal, even though it proved to be, as many critics thought it would prove to be, a mistake, had its glory days.

On December 3, 1840, there was a significant crowd in Lynchburg, Virginia, in spite of winter weather, near the freshly completed lower canal basin beyond the end of Ninth Street. The sound of a loud horn from an arriving boat signaled to the crowd, frenzied with excitement, that something magical was about to happen. A large freight boat, General Harrison, drawn by horses, was soon in sight. It was the first to arrive in a race between itself and another freight boat from Richmond to Lynchburg—a course of nearly 147 miles. The proud president of the James River and Kanawha Canal Company, Charles L. Mosby, stood atop a cabin of the boat to deliver a speech to the anxious crowd of Lynchburgers. At some point in his speech, Mosby lost his balance and fell into the frigid waters of the James River on that winter’s day. James Dolan presumably said to lighten the situation: “Neighbor, you have changed your religion—quit the Presbyterians and turned Baptist.” Baptisms were only infrequently done, but when done, they were done at the bank of the James River by Little River, near the southwest tips of Daniel’s Island where the dam for the waterworks sits.

The life of a bateauman was generally rough and draining, both physically and mentally, but the glory days of the Kanawha Canal were to many, after its demise, days of a paradise lost. Writes Kanawha Canal historian, Langhorne Gibson, Jr.:

Over the years a body of romantic legend and song has developed around the stalwart, adventurous bateaux men, who with strength and skill maneuvered their slight craft piled high with hogsheads and battles through treacherous rapids and slippery currents. The picture is of self-reliant, brave men, far from home, struggling with the vicissitude of the might James during the day, than gathering around campfires at night to eat and sing plaintive songs.

There is not better illustration than this lengthy reminiscence of Bagby, many years after the bateaux had gone:

Those were the “good old days” of batteaux—picturesque craft that charmed my young eyes more than all the gondolas of Venice would do now. True, they consumed a week in getting from Lynchburg to Richmond, and ten days in returning against the stream, but what of that? Time was abundant in those days. It was made for slaves, and we had the slaves. A batteau on the water was more than a match for the best four or six horse bell-team that ever rolled over the red clay of Bedford, brindle dog and tar-bucket included.

Fleets of these batteaux used to be moored on the river bank near where the depot of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad now stands; and many years after the “Jeems and Kanawha” was finished, one of them used to haunt the mouth of Blackwater creek above the toll-bridge, a relic of departed glory. For if ever man gloried in his calling,—the negro batteau-man was that man. His was a hardy calling, demanding skill, courage and strength in a high degree. I can see him now striding the plank that ran along the gunwale to afford him footing, his long iron-shod pole trailing in the water behind him. Now he turns, and after one or two ineffectual efforts to get his pole fixed in the rocky bottom of the river, secures his purchase, adjusts the upper part of the pole to the pad at his shoulder, bends to his task, and the long, but not ungraceful bark mounts the rapids like a sea-bird breasting the storm. His companion on the other side plies the pole with equal ardor, and between the two the boat bravely surmounts every obstacle, be it rocks, rapids, quicksands, hammocks, what not. A third negro at the stern held the mighty oar that served as a rudder. A stalwart, jolly, courageous set they were, plying the pole all day, hauling in to shore at night under the friendly shade of a mighty sycamore, to rest, to eat, to play the banjo, and to snatch a few hours of profound, blissful sleep.

The up-cargo, consisting of sacks of salt, bags of coffee, barrels of sugar, molasses and whiskey, afforded good pickings. These sturdy fellows lived well, I promise you, and if they stole a little, why, what was their petty thieving compared to the enormous pillage of the modern sugar refiner and the distiller? They lived well. Their cook’s galley was a little dirt thrown between the ribs of the boat at the stern, with an awning on occasion to keep off the rain, and what they didn’t eat wasn’t worth eating. Fish of the very best, both salt and fresh, chickens, eggs, mill: and the invincible, never-satisfying ash-cake and fried bacon. I see the frying-pan, I smell the meat, the fish, the Rio coffee!—I want the batteau back again, aye! and the brave, light-hearted slave to boot. … The world was merry, butter-milk was abundant; Lynchburg a lad, Richmond a mere youth, and the great “Jeems and Kanawha canell” was going to—oh! it was going to do everything.

Bagby’s reminiscences of the old days—“Ah me! those were the days of the gods. … I have outlived my time”—included the “great estates that lay along the canal in the old days.” He recalled:

Here were gentlemen, not merely refined and educated, fitted to display a royal hospitality and to devote their leisure to the study of the art and practice of government, but they were great and greatly successful farmers as well. The land teemed with all manner of products, cereals, fruits, what not! Negroes by the hundreds and the thousands, under wise directions, gently but firm control, plied the hoe to good purpose. There was enough to spare for all—to spare? aye! to bestow with glad and lavish hospitality.

A more nuanced and somewhat less syrupy assessment Rosa Faulkner Yancey (1885–1936), author of Lynchburg and Its Neighbors, offers.

Although slow, they [the bateau] offered a charming mode of traveling, and were said to have been like a delightful house party where one met all one’s friends, had plenty of time to talk to them, and to hear all they had to say in return. The food on these boats was very fine, and although the inconvenience of sleeping, washing, and dressing, must have been considerable, travelling on a packet boat was on the whole a very agreeable experience.

The experience was not so roseate for them transporting goods and for landowners on the James River. The batteauxmen pilfered from their cargoes and stole goods—hens, pigs, and corn—from the landowners they passed to make money as they traveled. Says Bagby, “From time to time the boat would stop at one of these estates, and the planter, his wife, his daughters, and the guests that were going home with him would be met by those who had remained behind [on the boat], and how joyous the greetings were! It was a bright and happy scene, and it continually repeated itself as we went onward.” The happiness was interrupted only by frequent shouts of “braidge” or “low braidge.” Adds Bagby, “No well-regulated packet-hand was ever allowed to say plain ‘bridge’; that was an etymological crime in canal ethics.”

There were less mawkish accounts.

Lynchburger Joyce Christian (b. 1836), who lived over 100 years and married Camillus Christian in 1915, talked about taking a packet boat to school in 1850.

As a young lady I went to school in Richmond, making the trip down on the packet boat. I usually left Lynchburg about dark, having supper on the boat. Meals were good and it was always an interesting trip. Passengers sat about on the deck watching the scenery as the vessel glided through the canal. Bridges were low and as we approached one someone in authority would cry “Bridge!” We knew what that meant and immediately every head was ducked for safety. Two horses were required to tow the boat and these were changed frequently.

Most of those working the canal or James River were Blacks, both freemen and slaves, but almost all of their stories are lost. We offer two illustrations of persons about whom we do know something are Frank Padgett and Dick Parsons.

After heavy rains in 1854 had made passage on the James River parlous, slave Frank Padgett was bidden to help rescue persons stranded on a wrecked bateau near Glasgow, some 20 miles up the river to the northwest of Lynchburg. While Padgett with the help of others heroically managed to rescue several passengers, he drowned in the process.

In 1891, an anonymous correspondent to The News wrote of Captain Richard “Dick” Parsons (1790–1868)—a black freeman who owned a farm and “a line of boats on the river and the canal,” hence he was called Captain. To help with his farm and business, he had some 20 slaves. Parsons ran his affairs so smoothly that he “gained the respect and confidence of the business men of the town, who gave him large credit and uninterrupted prosperity.”

There were of course many notable events on the canal in the course of its 40-year history. Perhaps the largest event on the canal for Lynchburgers was transport of the body of Confederate hero Lt. General Stonewall Jackson from Lynchburg to Lexington after the Battle of Chancellorsville during the Civil War in 1863 Jackson’s body was conveyed to Lynchburg via railroad. Lynchburgers showed up en masse to pay their respect to the fallen icon. The body was thereafter sent via the packet boat Marshallthere was no railroad to Lexington—to Jackson’s final resting place in Lexington. Writes Warren Shindle of the event:

On the afternoon of May 13, Jackson’s body arrived at Lynchburg via the Orange & Alexandria Railroad from Charlottesville. At 5 p.m., a funeral procession carried the casket down to the canal landing where the Marshall awaited, passing the loyal citizenry of Lynchburg and approximately 1,500 Confederate soldier convalescents from local hospitals.

Members of the procession that boarded the boat for the night trip to Lexington included the late general’s wife, Anna, his infant daughter, Julia (nicknamed “Little Miss Stonewall”), Virginia Gov. John Letcher, Jackson’s staff doctor, Hunter McGuire, and Lt. Col. Scott Shipp, VMI’s Commandant. Also on board were the remains of Confederate Brig. Gen. Elisha F. Paxton. A Lexington native, Paxton suffered a mortal wound at Chancellorsville the day after Jackson was shot.

The Kanawha Canal was never completed. Money was always an enormous issue. There were also the problems builders encountered with maintenance and repairs from freshets. Moreover, the rapid growth of the railroad, cheaper and quicker, made the demise of the canal inevitable.

The canal remained for a number of years, after disuse, as a water supply to businesses near the James River. The picture below shows the canal, far left, by the railroad lines next to Glamorgan Pipe and Foundry Company in the 1920s near Downtown Lynchburg. The bed of the canal in downtown Lynchburg near Jefferson Street, except for the bridge near Amazement Square, has been filled. The dam to the south of Daniel’s Island continues to be functional. So too is Judith Dam, now Reusen’s Dam. Still, one has to look circumspectly today to notice many other traces of the canal.


M. Andrew Holowchak

M. Andrew Holowchak, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and history, who taught at institutions such as University of Pittsburgh, University of Michigan, and Rutgers University, Camden. He is editor of Journal of Thomas Jefferson and His Time and author/editor of over nearly 60 books and over 200 published essays on topics such as ethics, ancient philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, and critical thinking. His current research is on Thomas Jefferson—he is acknowledged by many scholars to be the world’s foremost authority—and has published over 160 essays and 23 books on Jefferson. He also has numerous videos and a weekly series with Donna Vitak, titled “One Work, Five Questions,” on Jefferson on YouTube. He can be reached at [email protected] 

Leave a Reply