By C.V. Moore
TALCOTT — Today, most floats down the New River happen in a rubber raft, and they’re all about the thrills. But it wasn’t always that way.
Wednesday in Talcott, local school children got a taste of what river transport used to be like, when they boarded the Mary Marshall, a wooden batteau boat that has come all the way from Richmond with a six-person crew to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Chief Justice John Marshall’s expedition to survey a canal path across the Allegheny Mountains.
The flat bottomed batteau boats were designed to navigate the shallow waters of the Piedmont and Appalachian southeast for mainly commercial purposes, hauling tobacco, pig iron, whiskey and other goods. Most often, they were operated by slaves or free blacks, who poled the boats upstream and steered them back down again.
In 1812, batteau routes between Richmond and Lynchburg were pretty well established, but would it be possible to build a canal across the mountains to the Ohio River? The federal government wanted Marshall to find out.
And so he and his crew poled their way from Lynchburg to Covington, crossed the Alleghenies — surveying what would become U.S. 60 on the way — and put back in on the Greenbrier River near Caldwell. They then floated to Hinton, joined the New, and made it all the way to Kanawha Falls.
Marshall turned 57 years old at the Graham House near Talcott.
Two hundred years later, a group of young men led by Andrew Shaw of Lynchburg, Va., have determined to retrace that route, and though they’ve come a long way, the New River Gorge still looms ahead.
Shaw, a recent University of Virginia graduate who majored in history, was awarded a Young Explorers grant from National Geographic to undertake the expedition, which began in April. He grew up boating on the James River and is no stranger to the world of river navigation. A community of batteau enthusiasts in the Virginia Canals and Navigations Society has supported the expedition along the way with food and assistance.
If there’s any “message” of the trip, Shaw says its to raise awareness of America’s unique early history and to encourage people to take advantage of rivers as a recreational resource.
“Frankly, I think recreation was just kind of a foreign thing to people back then, and if it didn’t have a practical application they would probably look at it and say — ‘What the heck are you guys doing?’
“Marshall probably took it more seriously than we do because he was viewing it basically as an interstate, a commercial artery, whereas we are just trying to get ourselves up it, and then down it.
“But I would like to think Marshall would respect our spirit of adventure. I think that’s something that’s in a lot of ways uniquely American and an integral part of our national character.”
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The New River has always been a corridor, but it’s also been a challenge to navigation, says David Caldwell, a historian at the New River Gorge National River. People love to come today to ride it, but not because it’s a good means of transportation.
The canal from Richmond to the Ohio River envisioned by Marshall never came to be, largely because the railroad eclipsed it in efficiency.
“If the railroad had not come along, they probably would have done it, and it would have been like building the Panama Canal,” says Chris Chanlett, president of the Friends of the Lower Greenbrier River.
“An important continuity between the John Marshall expedition and the railroad is that it followed the same corridor. The railroad was really following in the tracks of Marshall."
“And still today the CSX railroad follows the river all the way through the gorge and many, many times a day the coal trains and freight trains come through,” says Caldwell. As if on cue, a trail rolls by the put-out in Talcott and the school children on the batteau squeal.
Kevin Ferrell, another Mary Marshall crew member, says this is the first time the public has come to check out the boat, and that West Virginians have given the expedition a warm reception.
“When everyone gets behind it like this it makes us feel good about what we’re doing,” he says.
Today they will meet the public again in Hinton on Batteau Beach at 1 p.m., and some time next week, the crew will attempt a descent of the New River.
They will spend several days scouting lines and waiting until the river reaches optimum level. Then, rafts with guides from Class VI Mountain River will accompany them through the gorge. The only other time this was attempted, the batteau sunk at a rapid called Dudley’s Dip.
“They know this is a challenge,” says Dave Arnold of Adventures on the Gorge, a fan of batteau history himself.
But Arnold reminds us that back in Marshall’s day, running the gorge in such circumstances was not altogether unusual.
“It’s definitely dangerous, but it’s definitely feasible as well,” says Shaw. “It’s going to be fun.”
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