This year, a group of young Virginians under Captain Andrew Shaw retraced Marshall’s journey in a long flatbottomed wooden boat, called a bateau, that they built themselves. In part 3 of our series on the history of bateau in West Virginia, The River Road of Sand, producer Catherine Moore learns about what happened after Marshall’s survey but before the New River Gorge became a center for whitewater recreation.
The opportunity to draw a straight line from the bateau era to commercial
rafting today—from John Marshall in the middle of the war of 1812 to John
Dragan in 1969 starting Wildwater—was really cool.
Young. I wrote a book called ‘Come on In the Water’s Weird,’ about commercial
rafting on the New and Gauley rivers.
line unfortunately doesn’t really exist, at least not in a straight passage,
and it’s not unbroken.
It can be a
little confusing. And at least once, that line flowed backwards. I’m proud to
say that in 1869, one of Fayette County’s own,
James Dempsey, managed to pole a bateau UP the rapids of the Lower New in a
bewildering act of bravado. But it was another run that year that the history
books like to remember.
John Marshall’s expedition. There are a few other bateau survey expeditions.
Then there’s the famous Collis P. Huntington expedition. He went down
specifically to survey for the possibility of building a railroad, liked what
he saw, built the railroad, and that’s the commerce way we see there even now
African American boatmen shuttled supplies as the railroad was built through
the gorge in the 1870s.
batteaumen drowned while shuttling supplies to railroad crews, underlining the
danger of river travel through the gorge.
brought boats and used them until several men were drowned and so treacherous
is the river that it was presently found necessary to absolutely forbid the men
to bathe in it.
wrote. In 1873, the dream of a mountain canal way comingled with the new
railroad as the Army Corps of Engineers surveyed and then built part of a canal
in the Upper New. But Congress cut funding for the project ten years later.
And as Jay
and I sit in my yard near Route 60, the sounds of traffic remind us that roads,
as they improved, would also chip away at the dream.
continued to pole parts of the New and its tributaries into the 1920s. But a
canal, alas, never materialized.
J.Y.: If Marshall’s vision is
to have a water commerce way in the New River Gorge then
yeah, it obviously failed miserably. But if we look at Marshall’s vision is
simply opening up Virginia to Ohio and Ohio to Virginia, then it
was wildly successful. They did build the C&O canal along the Potomac and that
was the main commerce way for a long time.
and if you think about it in a certain way, we call them commercial trips.
There’s commercial rafting going on. So in a way the New River in the last
50 years in some sense has become that commercial waterway.
that’s a very good point. Obviously we call it commercial rafting, it’s a
commercial enterprise. If Marshall’s vision is just to use this resource for
commercial ventures, then that vision is very much active today, it’s happening
right now. I mean, I think of what Marshall would have
thought if he saw a crowded Fourth of July weekend with rafts so dense you can
almost walk across the river.
But at least
one person back then saw a glimmer of what was to come. In an 1873 article for
Scribner’s Monthly, Jed Hotchkiss writes:
“The adventurous and enterprising tourist if hereafter there may remain
such a being may make the tour of the New River canyon as
voyages by canoe are just now fashionable we do not doubt that some romantic
voyagers will make this attempt. They are hereby warned that it is an exciting
and in some parts even perilous passage through a long succession of rapids for
which even the passenger needs good nerves.”
and excitement. That’s exactly what whitewater pioneers in the 1960s were
banking on when they began to lay the groundwork for the multimillion dollar
tourism industry we see in Fayette County today.
We pick up
the story on May 23,
2012, as a crew of young Virginians prepares for the biggest moment of
their 300-mile journey from Lynchburg. Today, the
bateau Mary Marshall paddles the whitewater of the Lower New
River in the Chief Justice’s wake.
MEMBERS: We ain’t no punks, so we’re not worried about it. Yeah, bottom line is
we’ve been training real hard, eating lots of bacon and eggs.
their bateau as the great great great grandmother of today’s whitewater
rafts—more rickety, more fragile, and more cantankerous. But Captain Andrew
Shaw and his crew have been scouting the river for days, and they’ve waited
until the water level is just right.
It’s gonna be fast, so basically what we’re going to be looking for is the
straightest, cleanest line possible we can plug into at the top and just ride
it out because once we get into that water that boat’s gonna be like a rocket
and it’s going to be pretty difficult to maneuver.
other modern bateau to attempt the Lower New, the Rose of Nelson, was crushed
at a rapid called Dudley’s Dip. Did
the Mary Marshall fare any better? I was lucky enough to be along for the ride,
and the best I can do is offer this summary. Squirrel, a raft guide at
Adventures on the Gorge with thousands of river trips under his belt, gives a
play by play…
A WHOLE BUNCH OF CELEBRATORY, CRAZY SOUNDING ‘WOO-HOO!!!!’S FROM
ANDREW AND HIS CREW]
Marshall’s crew whooped, paddled, and bailed their way through the raging
rapids of the Lower New like the seasoned sailors they, by that time, were.
know, I think that if anybody takes anything away from this recent expedition…
A survey of the headwaters of the James River and the
Greenbrier and Jackson’s River…
these guys build their own bateau and bring it down the river in utterly
AS: I really
think Marshall’s trip is a
testament to the lengths that our founders were willing to go to affect
development in this country.
JY: …what it
should be is the connection between themselves and everything that’s happened
in the Gorge previous, and everything that will happen in the Gorge going
CRAWFORD: …she said, ‘Son, your people worked the river,’ is how she said it…
JY: I don’t
think anything else can drive home that point of connection home to people more
thoroughly and more succinctly than seeing something like that happen.
Hey, we should say what’s next—the Lower
Gauley, the Upper
Grand Canyon, here we come!
information about the history of bateau, and the Marhsall Expedition, visit the
Virginia Canals & Navigations Society website, vacanals.org.
are you feeling your oats, do you want to Thread the Needle?
Special thanks to Squirrel,
a raft guide among raft guides, who saved this piece by having double-AA
batteries lowered into the New River in a bucket.
The National Park Service is holding some events this weekend commemorating John Marshall’s expedition on the New River. On Friday, park rangers will present “The John Marshall Expedition: An 1812 Survey Through the Virginia” at 7:00 p.m. at the Summers County courthouse. And on Sunday, 200 years to the day of Marshall’s journey past Sandstone Falls, there will be a presentation by filmmaker Jon Averill entitled “An Extraordinary Expedition into a Wild and Wonderful Land.” That will be held at three o’clock Sunday afternoon at the Visitors Center at Sandstone. Both events are free and open to the public.