All About the Rose of Nelson™ Batteau

The Rose of Nelson has been plying the James, Rivanna, Potomec, Rockfish, and many more rivers in Virginia for 10 years in its current form as the fourth Batteau to hold the name. Besides the main annual Batteau event(The James River Batteau Festival), the Rose participates in many other river adventures.

In 2011, for example, it navigated in a Virginia Canals and Navigation Society event in partnership with the National Park Service at Harpers Ferry. The educational event was open to the public to tour the boat and learn about how these flat bottomed boats were used in the 1700 and early 1800's to supply much of the goods needed. They were the tractor trailers of a time past.

The 3rd Rose was lost in a re-enactment on the New River in West Virginia. Read the full story below.

The people involved with the boat are a group of friends who have a passion for the river and spending time on it.

What others are saying about us

KUDOS: Fantastic! So interesting to be in and even briefly steer a replica of the original batteaux. The boat's captain and Pete Runge do an excellent job of providing local history and showing us remnants of the old canal system. Truly an experience to remember and treasure for years. (Susan G)

KUDOS: Wow, what a neat idea! Pete looked like one of the crew! He and Captain Mike were willing to show and let us practice maneuvering le batteau whether by sweep or by pole. We didn't let a few sprinkles dampen the spirits. Not so many club members on the second day, so Gwen had room for a nap. Would do it again, but maybe not on the Upper Gauley. (Chad)

KUDOS: It was great.  I had a fantastic time on the James last weekend; many thanks to you and the crew of the Rose of Nelson. I hope your Sunday adventure went well, too!  (Kate)

Anticipating the James River Batteau Festival: A Brief History of the Rose of Nelson Batteau

By Mike Neal, Captain

Note:This article is in response to the request from the Editor in early 2004 to all Batteau Captains about their involvement with the Batteau Festival as a part of the Virginia Canals and Navigations Society.

I first became interested in the James River Batteau Festival and batteaux when my wife (Ellen) involved our boys (Kenny, Daniel, and Jacob) with the Edward Scott at the recommendation of one of our home schooling friends. After a half day of crewing (mainly bailing) on the batteau, my three boys and I had found a new passion. We were part of the crew on the Edward Scott until it was worn out, with the captain, Ed Barbour, making no plans to repair or build a new batteau. (The Edward Scott is now on display at the Canal Basin Square in Scottsville, Virginia.) My family then responded to an advertisement in the Nelson County Times asking for help with the Rose of Nelson III batteau.

The Rose of Nelson is named after the Reverend Robert Rose, a clergyman who owned a large plantation in the Nelson County area in the 1700s. Parson Rose modified the existing river craft, the large dugout canoe (30-60 feet in length), to avoid the long and dangerous road trip to the Richmond market and to increase the limited capacity of the single dugout canoe on the river. What he did seems simple now, but was a leap in river transportation, at least until the Rucker Family developed the Batteau. Rev. Rose basically lashed two of the large canoes together to carry the hogsheads of tobacco (the money maker of the colonies) down river to the Richmond market. With his modifications began the capacity for large scale freight transportation on the James River.

The first Rose of Nelson was built in 1988 for the James River Batteau Festival. She was 55 feet long and captained by the late V.L.Bailey until 1995. His boat was known as "a very wet and wild batteau." The Rose of Nelson II batteau was built in 1991 and was 43 feet long. Diane McNaught was captain from 1996 through 1999. This boat was now known as the "dry batteau." Of course these reputations are only about the spirits that were on board and consumed by its riders!

The Rose of Nelson III batteau was 43 feet and 6 inches long and was built in 1999. This boat was not completed in time for the Festival and was the first time the Rose did not participate in the James River Batteau Festival (JRBF) since 1988. The Rose of Nelson III was refurbished and made water worthy. In 2000, I took over as Captain one week before the Festival, and to my surprise I soon realized the many responsibilities required of the captain. Due to the surprise change in captains, I could only get off work for the period of time down to the Wingina site and had to then pull out the batteau. The Rose was no longer a "dry bateau," although it is dryer than it has ever been as far as river water in the batteau!

I have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to be a part of such a great historical reenactment and become more involved in the Batteau Family that participates in the Festival.

During the years I have been Captain, we have taken the Rose on many rivers: the Dan, the James, the New, the Rivanna, the Hardware, and the Slate rivers. We have been active in the James River Batteau Festival, Dan River Batteau Festival, New River Gorge Batteau Festival, the Revolutionary War Reenactment at Columbia (Point of Fork), along with supporting the VC&NS and its other events.

In 2004, the Rose of Nelson and her crew tried to complete the reenactment for the National Park service in West Virginia on the New River Gorge. The New River Gorge Batteau Festival was a reenactment of the survey trip taken down the gorge in 1869 for the development of the railroad along the river. Our first years’ participation was captured on the cover and inside the Wonderful West Virginia Magazine, November 2003. The National Park Service also filmed a documentary of the event for use in the Sandstone, West Virginia Visitor Center and other promotions. Our 2004 trip was featured in The Tiller article, "The Demise of the Rose of Nelson III." A photograph of The Rose and crew was printed in the National Geographic Magazine on-line issue about the Batteau Festival in 2000.

The fourth Rose of Nelson was built of 30 foot white oak planking and a one piece gunwale as in boat # 28 from the Richmond dig. The batteau is 43 feet, 6 inches long and was completed in May of 2005 in about 485 man hours.

I was asked, what are the things that you like the most about being captain and what attracts you to the Batteau Festival and its activities? First you must understand that I love to be on the river and in, on and by the water. I grew up in California, 30 feet from the north fork of the Kings Canyon River. I fished and played in the water in all my spare time. As a history enthusiast and a person that likes and greatly appreciates the "hard and rough old days and old ways," the Batteau Festival and the Virginia Canals and Navigations Society provide me the outlet for some of my deepest interests. The many hours of work fixing and making boxes, poles, sweeps and gear as well as camping and enjoying the challenges of the river are only a few highlights of the Festival. Reenacting the period of river transportation on the James and other rivers allows me to relive the time in history that was so instrumental to the building and growth of the colonies and our great Nation. It is such a rewarding feeling to be able to help keep this small piece of history alive and growing. Also, the association with the lively people that are involved with the Batteau Festival and the VC&NS is like having a great big overextended family of friends, even if I only see them once a year. See you on the River!!!

Just Around the River Bend

by Jacob A. Neal 2008

       Surely we have all read or heard that stress is dangerous and unhealthy, it can not only make you much more vulnerable to sickness, but also prevent you from thinking clearly and making sound decisions, or keep you from sleeping well at night, or even cause you to age more quickly and die younger. However, there is something we can do to help reduce stress and restore some natural perspective in our busy lives. While it isn’t a complete solution and isn’t a miraculous cure, it is a huge step in the right direction of reducing your stress level, even if just for one week out of the year. It is an experience which can be at times physically exhausting, yet it is extremely relaxing and revitalizing. It is an experience unparalleled by any other, one of its own class. It is the James River Batteau Festival, and it is fun! A few days on the river could change your outlook on life.

       My older brother is a seasoned crew member of the Rose of Nelson™ Batteau boat. Every summer, he takes a week off, packs a few important items and leaps back in time into the 18th century. He crews on this historic replica boat in period costume for many reasons, such as to spend time with family and friends, to enjoy the indescribable beauty of the natural world, and to relax and have the stresses of the modern world melt away nearly immediately. In what seems merely a flash, he has journeyed 120 miles along the James River and had a great time, but sadly and reluctantly, the journey is over and we all have to crawl back to modern reality. At least when the trip is over, there is always next year to look forward to for inspiration; a light, distant it may be, at the end of the tunnel. This tunnel is surrounded by the complications of the 21st century, where technology is everywhere; from internet enabled MP3 phones that can play movies to ‘smart’ refrigerators that have built in video phones, email, instant messaging, calendars, shopping lists and recipes, and sometimes even an ice dispenser. Even though all of this technology can make us more efficient and productive, it keeps us engaged at all times. This gives us almost zero time to not do or not think about anything at all, something that really helps relieve stress. I can’t speak for everyone, but when I stay continuously engaged and stimulated by technology, I get stressed out.

       After graduating from the University of Virginia with a degree from the McIntire School of Commerce, my brother started working for an environmental firm as a network administrator. These two concepts, the environment and a corporate firm with a huge IT infrastructure wouldn’t seem to go hand in hand. Apparently they do, as the basis for most environmental regulations are based on immense digital databases. In the winter, when Daylight Savings Time is in effect, it is just barely light when he leaves for work in the morning, and completely dark by the time he gets home. He works in a luxurious cubicle, and only has the opportunity to go outside for an hour during the day during lunch. Other than lunch, he is constantly overloaded because of his extensive to do list. He stays busy fixing broken computers, managing the network infrastructure, and dealing with IT related issues. Of course he has the weekends to himself, at least what is left of them after you subtract the time he spends doing laundry, running errands and shopping, cleaning the house, cooking and maybe watching a movie. He doesn’t even have any kids yet, and he barely has any free time. This is one story, which may seem unique, but in reality, is one of a million like it. One thing that differentiates my brother from the many people who have similar life stories is the James River Batteau Festival: the experiences, the memories, the appreciation of nature and the stress relief it has given him.

       The James River Batteau Festival was started in 1985, when remnants of the original 1770s-1850s river boats were discovered in the canal basin in Richmond, VA. A small but strongly dedicated group of river and canal enthusiasts from the Virginia Canal and Navigation Society saw and took the opportunity to start a legacy. They built replica boats and started the annual festival. They built and encouraged friends to build their own replica batteau. The boats were made from solid white oak planks and are usually between 45-60 feet long, 7-8 feet wide, have flat bottoms, and have symmetrical pointed ends called nose cones. James River Batteau were originally designed to carry cargo, namely tobacco, down river from plantations along the riverside to market in Richmond. They were designed in a time when there were no major roads, no railroads, and the only reliable means of transportation of cargo was via dugout canoes which the Native Americans had used. These heavy, sturdy boats were man powered, with slave crews of 3-5 men using long wood poles to push the boats along, and large paddles at both ends of the boat, called sweeps, to steer.

       The first few years were rocky for the James River Batteau Festival as it grew and stabilized, with the original founders bringing more people, more boats, and more publicity. The Festival gained popularity and continued to grow, reaching nearly 28 boats participating at its peak. In the mid 90s, the core group of founders began to separate from the Festival, some burnt out from keeping the Festival on its feet and some too old to carry on. This caused the Festival to slowly decline for nearly ten years. With a wave of new, younger participants, the Festival is being rejuvenated, and picking up speed again. In 2008, the Festival consisted of about 18 batteau boats, nearly 200 crew members, and hundreds upon hundreds of members of the general public who come to watch the boats leave in the morning and arrive in the evening. Many of these people have been involved for years, but many are new to the river. River folk of all kind all find common ground along the river, from students and teachers to construction workers to mortgage adjusters and investment bankers. Every year, batteau crew can’t resist the draw of genuine physical labor, camping out on the gently rocking boat, the smell of coffee percolating and bacon and eggs cooking over a small cooking fire as the boat is poled gently downstream early in the morning, or the adrenaline of navigating through fast paced rapids. It may seem difficult to rough it and be a primitive batteau crewman for a week, but every year, both new and old participants learn that the draw of the river is far greater than all those unread text messages and phone messages.

       Each year, the journey begins in the historic city of Lynchburg, VA on a Saturday in June, right around Father’s Day. The boats and gear will have been brought and put into the river the night before or early that morning upstream at the boat ramp. From there the crews bring them down to prepare for the launch at Percival’s Island. The island is connected to Lynchburg by an old railroad bridge that has been converted to a footpath and bicycle trail. All of the boats and crew, in full period costume, prepare their boats for the journey as a crowd gathers on the top of the hill to watch them depart. Looking down at the boats, they are full of cargo, barrels, wooden boxes, crates, canvas tarps, knapsacks, lanterns and cast iron cookware. There are crew members rushing around arranging things and making sure they have everything for the journey. At high noon, all is ready, and crews prepare to shove off. A husky bearded man in colorful colonial garb calls out the names of the boats in a deep, gruff voice as they embark on their journey. Each captain and his crew man their stations, four or more taking wooden poles to propel the boat, two taking the sweeps, and one or two people to lift the heavy rock anchor into the back of the boat. The captain calls out “four poles downstream side, lets go!”, and with that the crew push the boat backwards into the swiftly moving current. The front and rear sweeps turn the boat downstream and so it begins. In the distance, you can hear the applause of the crowd as the names of the boats are being called out: The Rose of Nelson™, The Brunswick Belle, The Virginia Creeper, The Maple Run, The Lady’s Slipper… This all becomes more and more distant as the sounds of the river and the fast approaching rapids envelop you. Before you know it, the only thing you can hear are the groaning of the iron sweep brackets, the clinking of the poles as they are dropped into the water to push the boat forward, and the murmur of the river.

        Later on that lazy afternoon, half of the crew is resting, some seeking cool shade underneath the canvas canopy, others basking in the sun on the wooden gunwales. There are only two polers working at this point, and one person steering with the rear sweep. The sun is shining, there are no clouds to be seen, the birds are chirping as the boat drifts silently past a large rock. Looking into the water just behind it, a large gar fish can be seen, chasing a school of minnows. A few hundred yards downriver, you see a tall dead tree along the river, and as you get nearer to it, you notice a large bird resting on one of its branches. When you are almost to the tree, the bird stretches its wings and leaps off the branch, soaring gracefully, silently above you. The captain points out that it is an American Bald Eagle, nearly extinct at one point, but seen along the river every year. There is a loud jarring thud, and everyone standing nearly falls over as the front of the boat noses up on a large rock. A few jokes are made about the rock being a ‘sleeper’, meaning the person in charge of steering wasn’t paying a bit of attention to where they were going, in stead they were looking at the large eagle. Three energetic crew members rush to the front of the boat and hop into the water, a good excuse to go for a quick dip while they try to push the heavy boat back off the rock. The captain counts to three and everyone pushes the boat backwards, either by hand or with a pole. One of the boat nails makes a deep scraping noise as the boat eases back off the rock, becoming silent as the boat floats freely. Those who jumped into the river clamber back into the boat, soaking wet and feeling refreshed in the warm summer sun.

        From around the next river bend, laughter and muffled voices drift upstream towards you. As you come around the bend, you see three other boats tied together in the middle of the river, drifting along slowly. Wanting to join them, a few more crew pick up poles, and the chase is on. The other boats see you and cry out to greet you and invite you to join them. Once you have caught up with them, you tie up with them and relax. It is getting late, so food and drinks begins appearing from boxes, barrels and crates. A large, cold watermelon gets cut up and pieces are passed around. The air is filled with pleasant chatter and friendliness. People move between boats, catching up with old friends and meeting new ones, warmly welcoming new members of the batteau family. Before you know it, someone is yelling to untie the boats, and everyone scrambles back to their boats and they separate. Looking ahead, there is a small rapid, and just beyond it is camp. Traversing single file through the narrow channel, the batteau speed up in the fast moving water. The front sweep points the boat towards the bank, lined with a small crowd. There is a large splash as the anchor is thrown out the back, and the boat gently comes to a stop in the soft, muddy riverbank. The boarding plank is set off the bow of the boat, and the crew steps onto land to begin setting up camp.

        The crew is hungry, and there is an ideal place to set up camp, so the decision is made to cook and camp on land in stead of staying on the boat. The crew separates; a few working on building a fire and preparing dinner, a few working on setting up the large canvas canopy to sleep under, and the rest head back to the boat to tidy up and arrange things, making the launch the next morning less stressful. After everyone has finished, they might go for a swim, wander around other boats campsites and socialize, sit around the fire and help with dinner, or just go sit on the boat where it is quiet and peaceful. Dinner tonight consists of cornbread and savory, hearty beef stew with potatoes, carrots and celery. After everyone has eaten their fill, you might sit around the fire and tell stories or talk before you go lay down for bed, tired from the days work.

        Early the next morning, you are gently shaken awake, and are told it is time to get ready. You reluctantly leave the warm blankets in the cool morning mist; the sun has not quite risen yet. You pack up your bed roll, help break down camp, and get everything on the boat. Today is a long day, so you leave earlier than normal. After everyone is on board, you push off. The batteau glides silently through the morning mist which is covering the river and wrapping around the rocks along the bank, like a soft, white blanket. At the back of the boat, the morning chefs have started the small cooking fire, and a few people are cutting up onions, potatoes and peppers. The large cast iron frying pan sizzles when the bacon is put in. After it is cooked, most of the grease is poured off, and the potatoes, onions peppers are added. When it is almost ready, the eggs are added and it is all scrambled together. The food is relatively simple, but is always delicious and the smell drifting along the river is marvelous. Boats behind us try as hard as they can to try and catch up to us and see if there are any leftovers, for they have been following the scent for miles.

       The rest of the weeklong journey goes much as the first few days, and this story has been a realistic representation of a typical day on the river. One interesting thing to note is as you progress throughout the week, the nature of the river changes visibly and geologically. It starts out much shallower and with more rapids and gets deeper and slower and it approaches Richmond, due to the large dam just above the city. The types of rock, the colors, shapes and sizes change throughout the day. It is so easy to get caught up in the journey, that before you know it, the Festival has ended, and you have to crawl back to modern life. Yet even just a few days on the river can change your outlook on life, and very few people who try it don’t want to come back the next year. Perhaps this is because you are almost completely separated from technology for the whole time, perhaps it is just the experience of spending time in nature along the peaceful river, perhaps it is the effects of rewarding physical labor, or perhaps it is the idea of living the live of an 18th century batteau crewman. Whatever your strongest connection to the river is, on thing is for sure: the James River Batteau Festival gives you the great opportunity to experience the world from the perspective of a historic batteau crewman, to make interesting and exciting new friends, to create lots of memories, some of which you will never forget, and finally it will give you a better appreciation of the natural world, and the stress relief of spending time enjoying mother nature.

       In addition to the festival, some boats make other trips throughout the year, usually just open to the current and most dedicated crew. In September, there is usually a river cleanup along the river in Nelson County, where batteau are loaded to their maximum capacity with trash and discarded tires. At the 2007 river cleanup, the most authentic modern replica batteau, the Rose of Nelson™ IV, proved how functional these boats actually are, even by today’s standards. During this volunteer trip, over 4 tons of tires and trash were removed from the James River and loaded onto the boat. Even with a tremendous load of waste tires, a pile nearly 40 feet long and mounded to over 6 feet tall, the Rose of Nelson™ only drafted a mere 13 inches in the water, and could still nimbly navigate through the shallow, rocky river. Aside from a few specialized military craft, there are no other boats that would be able to manage a task such as this. The James River Batteau is a unique boat that is incredibly capable.

       If this story has been compelling and you think you would enjoy trying to crew a boat during the James River Batteau Festival, don’t hesitate to visit the following websites for further information and to contact a captain to get involved:,, and

James River Batteau Throughout Central Virginia

by Jacob A. Neal 2008

        James River Batteau boats were responsible for the rapid growth of Virginia’s economy during the late 1700s and 1800s, allowing new plantations to take advantage of fertile new land along the James River in the new frontier. These boats were the fundamental backbone of cargo transportation for almost a century. Without these inexpensive, sturdy, man powered wooden boats, expansion to the west into the new frontier would have been minimally beneficial. They allowed goods such as tobacco, cotton and peanuts to be transported downriver to Richmond, a major port town, and much needed supplies to be hauled back up river to the plantations. Unfortunately, far too few people know about this important aspect of Virginia’s history, as they were largely forgotten until the early 1980s. Without knowing this history, we can not accurately frame our perspective of modern Virginia, nor can we know how and why it has become the way it is today. This article will discuss the history of the James River Batteau, from its predecessors to its discontinuation, near complete disappearance, recent discovery and modern James River Batteau Festival.

        Tobacco was the major cash crop since the settling of the Virginia colony in 1607. As the colony flourished and expanded along the coast and inland to the fall line, they continued to use more land to grow tobacco. Over the next century and a half, this land had become depleted of nutrients and fertility. Less productive farming caused pioneers to move further west of the fall line into the new frontier. West of the fall line, in the Piedmont region, there was untouched fertile land, especially along the James River. New tobacco plantations in the Piedmont were flourishing by the late 1700s. Fertile lands and a reliable workforce, consisting mostly of black slaves, allowed for tremendous crops of tobacco to be grown. These plantations had a problem; they could not reliably get their tobacco to port in Richmond. At that time, there were no major roads, no railways, and navigation of the James River was difficult, because of its shallow and rocky geology and many rapids.

        Plantation owners initially used horse and mule teams to transport their tobacco crop to the port-town of Richmond, where the majority was loaded onto ships and sold to the English and the rest of the world. This method of transportation was expensive, slow, unreliable, and very vulnerable to raiding and robbery, not to mention the rough roads damaged the packed tobacco leaves. In addition, this had to be done during the spring planting season when all hands were needed to start planting. Virginia tobacco was considered some of the finest available in the world, and was extremely profitable for the plantation owners. One of the early plantation owners, Parson Robert Rose, was one of the first to try and use an Indian dugout canoe to carry hogshead barrels packed tightly with tobacco to market in Richmond. He quickly found out that the dugouts were neither large nor stable enough for the job. By the 1940s, after much consideration and significant trial and error, Rose had devised a method of lashing two dugout canoes together with a platform made from sawn lumber. This made them relatively stable and capable of carrying nine hogsheads of tobacco. These double dugout canoes became known as tobacco canoes. Once they reached Richmond and the tobacco had been sold, the platforms were disassembled and sold as lumber, and the canoes traveled separately back upriver. Some of the houses along the river were constructed completely from this platform lumber.

        Tobacco boats were used for about thirty years, until the great flood of 1771. It was mid May, when torrential rains slammed the Blue Ridge mountains for sixty hours. The James River rose at a rate of fifteen inches per hour, causing a flood stage reaching 45 feet above normal levels. Property losses were disastrous, all of the last year’s stored tobacco, four to six thousand hogsheads, was washed away. Houses, sheds, docks, tobacco boats and most of that year’s young crop were all destroyed. This devastating flood sent the Virginia colony to impoverishment. All of the dugout canoes were destroyed or missing, and large trees had been depleted for miles and miles inland from the river to support the developing colony. Because of this, it was not possible to rebuild the large fleet of tobacco boats. Without tobacco boats, plantation owners again had few options to get their dismal post flood crop to Richmond. Anthony and Benjamin Rucker provided a much needed solution to the increasing problem of reliable transportation. They designed and constructed what we know as the flat bottomed James River batteau boat in 1775. They were constructed from sawn lumber, had flat bottoms, and two pointed ends.

        James River batteau were first historically recorded by none other than Thomas Jefferson, in his account book. The date was April 19, 1775 when he watched the maiden launch of the first official batteau. Anthony Rucker’s heirs patented the design much later, in 1821. Although designed primarily for the transportation of tobacco, there were many variations upon the design to accommodate passenger transport and the transportation of other goods such as cotton and peanuts. During their peak, from 1820 to around 1840, there were over 500 boats running the river each day during the transportation season. The abundance of these highly capable boats made the business of growing tobacco more profitable by decreasing the labor, cost and time of transportation dramatically. Each loaded boat, weighing around 15,000lbs, was generally manned by a crew of only three men. These men consisted mostly of black slaves, although there were a number of Scotch-Irish slaves as well. The strongest and most reliable slaves were sent to Richmond, as they were being trusted with a very valuable boat and a load of cargo worth a small fortune. The journey of 120 miles was accomplished in just 3 days, and the return trip going against the current of the river took only 5 days. Today, the James River Batteau Festival reenacts the same journey without cargo over a period of 8 days.

        James River batteau varied in length and width, but were commonly about 60 feet long and 7 feet wide. These were flat bottomed boats without a keel and thus did not draft more than 12-15 inches in the water when fully loaded. The two pointed ends, called nose cones, came to a point as a triangle and were symmetrical, and have no distinguishing differences in construction. The batteau were pushed down the river by hand, using long sturdy wood poles. The crew steered the boats either by poles or by long, thick paddles on each nose cone called sweeps. These boats could carry over ten wooden barrels known as hogsheads, which contained around 1,000lbs of tightly packed tobacco each. The batteau were made from solid oak planks nailed onto curved oak ribs. A batteau weighs around 3,500lbs when its oak planks are dry, and over 6,000lbs when wet. These boats could easily carry over four times their dry weight in cargo.

        Navigation through the rocky rapids was tricky and dangerous. The falls were improved for navigation by using the sluice navigation technique of building wing dams across most of the river to divert a portion of the flow to form a single navigable channel. The James River had the best sluice navigation system in the country. These improvements started closest to Richmond and progressed up the river, eventually reaching 220 miles upstream by 1816. This allowed for smoother transportation, though it was still a difficult and risky business, and not every batteau that set out made it downriver to Richmond.

        While the James River batteau served a very important role in the economic development of central Virginia, they did not always have the best association among the residents and farmers along the river at the time. Batteau crewmen often carried a poor reputation, and rightfully so. Even though they were provided with salt pork and corn meal for the trip, they were often accused of stealing chickens or pigs and other items from framers along the river. The batteau crews would gather around at night around a campfire, cooking, telling stories, even playing music, singing river songs and dancing to pass the time. When there were low on food or wanting a fresh meal, they would sneak onto nearby farms, taking what they could carry, and making a quick dash back to their campfire. The life of a batteau crewman was neither glamorous nor easy, but they made the best of what they had. There were occasional reports of crewmen being shot for trespassing. This type of action was not limited to batteau crewmen though, and was a relatively frequent occurrence in this new western frontier.

        In 1785, George Washington came before the Virginia General Assembly to further his plans for internal improvements in the Commonwealth. At his insistence, the James River Company was incorporated and he was voted the first president. The Company was authorized to begin clearing the falls in areas and constructing a navigation canal with a lock system. After raising the necessary funds, they began their work of improving the riverbed. They blasted through rock ledges, deepened channels, cleared downed trees and built a seven mile canal around the incredibly dangerous falls above Richmond, continuing up another twenty miles to Maiden's Adventure. This was the first operating canal system with locks in the United States.

        In 1832, the James River Company became the James River and Kanawha Company, and was chartered to construct a canal between the Ohio River and the tidewater of the James River, and to extend the James River canal further upstream to Lynchburg, and then later even further to Buchanan, 196 miles away from Richmond. Eight years later, the canal was completed to Lynchburg, and ten years after that it reached Buchanan. The project cost $8.25 million dollars to complete. This began a transition from James River batteau to larger, more stable canal boats. With the advantage of the deep, calm, slow moving canal system, James River batteau would quickly become obsolete. Instead of smaller man powered boats, the towpaths on the side of the canal allowed much larger boats to be pulled by mule teams through the calm water.

        By 1860, the forward surge of the railroads caused the James River and Kanawha Canal to fade out of the picture. This expensive waterway, the dream of George Washington, had surrendered to the new, faster, higher capacity railroad. The C&O railroad company, now CSX, purchased the canal system. As the railroads pushed to the west along the river, its tracks were laid directly on the canal’s tow path. The infrastructure was already built, so the tracks would extend westward quickly and easily. The few James River batteau that remained and persevered through the development of the canal system would disappear very quickly. Many were abandoned in Richmond’s Great Canal Turning Basin, where they sunk to the bottom only to be covered in silt and debris for over a hundred years. The basin was filled in and used as a rail yard.  Many of today’s railroads that follow the James river still follow the canal and are on the towpath, and some even still use the same original beautiful stone masonry bridges.

        After the railroad came through, James River batteau were largely forgotten for over a hundred years. Then in 1983, a developer began excavations for an office building where batteau once unloaded years and years ago. They soon found the remains of the James River batteau, and quickly two river and canal experts, William E. Trout III, a retired geneticist, and Jimmy Moore III, a guitarist, began an effort to photograph and salvage the remains of the first of nearly 50 batteau that would be discovered there. These were unique boats that, according to Trout, nobody had ever seen before.

        By 1986, the James River Batteau Festival had been established, with a group of eager young men and women who had built replica James River batteau. Since then, over 60 replica batteau have gone downriver from Lynchburg to Maiden’s Landing, the last stop before the dam just above Richmond. The trip is 120 miles long, and takes 8 days to complete. Each night, there is a small festival at each stop with various activities, authentic camping, and the smell of salt pork stew and corn cakes cooking over an open fire, with the sound of river songs and music drifting through the air. From State Parks to a generous landowner’s riverside property, the festival moves each day, and hundreds of local citizens turn out to welcome the batteau crews in each evening.

        Just last year, in September of 2007, the most authentic modern replica batteau, the Rose of Nelson™ IV, proved how functional this boat actually is, even by today’s standards. During a volunteer river cleanup trip, over 4 tons of tires and trash was removed from the James River and loaded onto the boat. Even with a tremendous load of waste tires nearly 40 feet long and mounded nearly 6 feet tall, the Rose only drafted a mere 13 inches in the water, and could still nimbly navigate through the shallow, rocky river. Aside from a few specialized military craft, there are no other boats that would be able to manage a task such as this. The James River Batteau is a unique boat that is incredibly capable.

        Traditionally, the James River Batteau Festival kicks off the Saturday morning of Father’s Day weekend from Percival’s Island in downtown Lynchburg. In 2009, there should be at least 2 brand new boats, along with about 15 or so returning boats and crews. If you find yourself wanting to know more about the James River Batteau Festival, please visit and

Oh Captain My Captain

by Jacob A. Neal 2006

        When it comes to the Rose of Nelson™, both the 3rd and the 4th, I have been there for almost everything. I was there when they were both built, and I was right there when the 3rd Rose, bless her soul, met her timely demise at Dudley’s dip in the Upper Gorge of the New River. I still have the scar from where a boat nail “found” me while the boat exploded beneath me and I was pulled through the bottom, between the ribs and out into the current. I was there when we pulled the remains from the bottom of the river and removed all of the nails and made the wreckage safe for river goers. I was also there when we started cutting logs and taking them to Bob Shortridge, the kind man behind Dreaming Creek who helped get them milled. Using full length planks and ribs made with curved grain wood, we started construction and assembly of the 4th Rose of Nelson™. Following tradition, the boat was only completed about a week before the 2005 festival, after approximately 480 man hours of labor.

        Well, this year my parents had to go to Minnesota for a family wedding, something my dad was quite torn about, considering that it directly conflicted with the best river festival of the year. This left him with the decision to either leave the boat in my brother Kenny and my hands, or have it not go at all. Being the great father that he is, he of course let us take charge of the boat until his return. Having planned the food and taken a lot of responsibility in previous years, taking the job of captain was not excessively difficult for me. Certainly, there was a lot more responsibility on my shoulders, something that certainly was tiring, but it was manageable. I think that the single most difficult thing about being captain is the fact that you are always “on”. For example, imagine that you have to make sure that everything happens in camp before leaving, and then having to keep everyone in line on the boat all day long (only occasionally did we use the whips), plus having to direct everyone when bad or potentially dangerous situations arise. On top of that, when you arrive at the days’ destination, everyone still looks to you to figure out what needs to be done. There is certainly no rest for the weary…

        The best thing about being an 18 year old captain for 7 days during the 2006 festival was, without a doubt, the excellence of my crew. They were definitely troopers and everyone worked as a team player, we were able to navigate skillfully through the rapids and rock gardens, and have a great time relaxing and occasionally, when the wind was right, sailing in the open waters. Everyone on my boat maintained a good attitude when the going got rough, something that seemed to happen a fair amount this trip. My crew was, except on one occasion, completely at my back. The excepting was when I made a navigational choice that my crew strongly disagreed with, taking the boat through a fast paced channel that could not have been an inch narrower, as the steel brackets for our walk boards went “clink… clink… clink….” on the large rocks around the boat as we drifted through with no problem, everyone holding their breath and some people on the bank cheering us on with great enthusiasm. I think they were especially enthusiastic because just before entering the channel my entire crew was yelling loudly about how we would never make it and would surely get terribly lodged on a rock. Mission accomplished, the Rose lived to float another day.

       While being captain was an excellent experience for me, I think that I can comfortably say that if it weren’t just a week long trip, I would have given my two weeks notice. I was very grateful to be listened to and treated with respect by not only my crew, but other boats as well, I sincerely thank everyone involved with the festival for that. If I were given the same opportunity again, I must say that I don’t think I could turn it down, especially if it meant that if I didn’t do it, the boat wouldn’t go!

The Demise of the Rose of Nelson™ III

by Mike L. Neal, Winter 2004

       On September 4, 2004, the brave crew aboard the Rose of Nelson™ (III) attempted to complete the reenactment of the Collis P. Huntington’s 1869 survey trip down the New River Gorge in West Virginia. We started at Dunglen where we had to leave off in 2003 due to high water. As with Mr. Huntington’s trip our goal was to navigate the river and reach Hawk’s Nest.

       A skilled crew was selected, due to the serious and dangerous class 3, 4 and 5 rapids that lay ahead of us. This dangerous part of the river is used by kayakers and white water rafters because of its exciting nature. The batteau crew for this risky adventure included Bryan Hunter (National Parks Service Ranger & river guide), Jacob Neal, Daniel Neal, Kenny Neal, Pete Runge, and Co-Captains, Mike Neal and Dewey Wood.

       The New River Gorge National Park Service arranged for special use permits for our three nights of authentic encampment. We were supported by land crew members Ellen Neal, Anne Curtis (Ellen’s sister) along with her two daughters, Kayla, and Jessica, Roger and Mary Sutherland (Ellen’s parents), Howard Williams, and Sara Wood.

We managed fine through the first half of the day from Dunglen to Cunard, where we stopped for lunch. During the second half of the day we traveled through the most technical part of the river. Shooting Class 3, 4, and 5 rapids in a 43 foot long Batteau was a blast!!!! However, we were forced to stop and make needed repairs. The batteau was again pulling apart in the middle, as in 2003, and two times the stern dropped down onto the lower ledges pulling on the nose cone as we slipped through lower Warm-up and middle Keeney’s rapids. At the end of Lower Keeney’s, a class 5 rapid, the batteau was in serious state of needing repairs again and was swamped due to leaks and water coming over the gunwales from the three Keeney’s rapids. The repairs took about two hours to complete. The crew replaced and reinforced boards being pulled apart, and spliced boards on to the stern main rib, not to mention repacking oakum and the necessity to use a few shirts once we ran out of oakum!

       The captains and crew remained cautiously optimistic, but prepared for possible breakup. Crew members moved the most valuable gear to a NPS raft and we again set off with life vests secured. With water coming in and the day leaving us fast we knew full well that we were not going to get far as Fayette Station (our day’s camp). We had gone through 15 major rapids. With 9 more to go before night fall and only 4-5 hours left we were a little rushed.

       The Park Service tried to speed our progress between rapids by pushing the Rose with a NPS raft while our crew bailed water as we went. As we got to Dudley’s Dip, a class 3 rapid, we did not get to slow down fast enough prior to entering the trough.

       I had scouted out the rapid earlier while the crew was doing repairs and we were planning to go right of an enormous bolder in the middle of the river. As we came over the top we were too far left. I yelled “This is it!”

       Within a second over half of the batteau was past the right side of bolder but that was not enough. The Rose hung up just past mid-ship, turned sideways with the left side of the batteau against the boulder, and the right side facing upstream, and water started to run over the gunwale. We then heard a loud, “POP“. That was the last thing heard by the crew as the weak and leaking Rose of Nelson™ batteau exploded into pieces. Each man choose his escape path jumping away or grabbing floating boxes as splinters and shards of wood with boat nails spiraled around us. Bubbling frothy white water swept Dewey, Brian, Daniel, and Pete right of the boulder and Jacob, Kenny and Mike to the left.

       Since the NPS rafts were up stream we counted heads and made sure everyone was OK while we waited for the rescue. We were all safe and in good spirits. Miraculously, the only injury was a small laceration on Jacob’s arm, probably from scraping an exposed nail while passing through the bottom of the boat as it shattered around him. But, in the excitement the cut wasn’t noticed until later.

       Immediately the required salvage of boat parts and gear started. We worked for two hours then decided we would come back the next day by NPS rafts to recover the rest of the boat, and remove all the nails and metal to make it safe for river rafters.

       A NPS raft and white water rafter’s kayak passing by brought us back to camp. The individual stories were abundant and fascinating as we tried to recreate the wrecking for our land crew. The trip has been an incredible learning experience and memorable adventure for all.

       We still believe the river is doable in a batteau. We just need to take our time, have one foot higher water, and a better built batteau. We will try again!!!

       As of this writing the new Rose of Nelson™ Batteau (#4) is floating and ready for the 2005 James River Batteau Festival and other upcoming adventures.