Virginians retrace epic 1812 river journey
TALCOTT, W.Va. -- When U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall and his survey crew arrived here 200 years ago in a 60-foot wooden boat on the way from Richmond to Gauley Bridge, the Greenbrier River was in drought stage.
"The labor of removing stones, and of dragging the boat over those which could not be moved, was so great that [we] at one time were enabled to advance only three miles in two days, even with the assistance of a horse and of many additional laborers," he wrote.
On Wednesday, a crew of six Virginians tracing the route of Marshall's epic 1812 voyage along the James, Jackson, Greenbrier and New rivers to identify an inland water navigation route to the Ohio River Valley, arrived in Talcott on a Greenbrier swollen with rain.
"We worked hard for a month, poling our way upstream from Richmond to Covington," said Lexington, Va., native Andrew Shaw, the captain of the 47-foot long, 7-foot-wide Mary Marshall, a white oak batteau of similar design to the vessel piloted by Marshall. "Now, we're reveling in being able to travel downstream. It gives us the time and leisure to see the country we're passing through and talk to the people we see along the way."
Like Marshall, Shaw and his crew carried their batteau overland from Covington to Caldwell, following the route of present-day U.S. 60. Marshall and his 20-man crew used an ox-powered wagon to make the shuttle, while Shaw's party made use of a mobile home trailer and a truck.
After arriving in Caldwell on Sunday, the crew of the Mary Marshall put more than 200 miles of upstream travel behind them when they shoved off on the Greenbrier River leg of their journey, which will end today with their planned arrival in Hinton, where the river flows into the New.
"It took Marshall ten days to get from Caldwell to Hinton," a trip that under prime conditions could be accomplished in one day, Shaw said. "He wanted to travel the river when it was at its driest and worst, so he would know what kinds of navigational improvements would be needed to make the route viable. That's why he made the trip in September, instead of May or June."
The crew of the Mary Marshall got a warm reception, as well as food and coffee, from residents of Alderson, as they passed through that Greenbrier River town earlier this week. In Talcott, crewmembers were greeted by members of Friends of the Lower Greenbrier River, a group of curious onlookers, and children from a kindergarten class at Alderson Elementary. The kindergarten kids climbed aboard the batteau to check out its onboard fire pit cooking system and its huge wooden steering oars and poles.
"The people in West Virginia have been so receptive to us, and so excited about what we're doing," said crewmember Dylan Schumacher. "But really, a lot of what we're doing is having fun."
George Washington was among the earliest and strongest boosters of the idea of establishing a water route to the Ohio Valley from Virginia's population centers. With French, British and Spanish influence spreading into the Ohio frontier, a new transportation route connecting the Ohio Valley to Virginia's agricultural and manufacturing base was needed to forge strong economic ties with frontier settlers, and link them to the new nation.
At Washington's urging, the Potomac Company and the James River Company were formed in 1785 to accomplish that goal. The role of the James River Company was to study the possibility of a canal route linking Richmond to the Kanawha River, which was already used to reach the Ohio River by boat. In early 1812, that company was given the funds needed for preliminary survey of the route by the Virginia General Assembly.
Marshall, who served as a lieutenant under Washington at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War, was an officer in the James River Company, as well as the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. At the age of 56, he agreed to serve as leader of the survey expedition, which would include the first recorded descent of the New River Gorge's treacherous whitewater section.
"Marshall celebrated his 57th birthday during the 1812 trip at Graham House, just a short distance upstream of here," said Shaw, who, with his crew, camped near the site on Tuesday.
Graham House, the still-standing log home established in 1770 by pioneer settler James Graham, is now a museum and community center for the Lowell area. The Graham House Preservation Society will host a birthday celebration dinner for Marshall at the historic site on Sept. 23.
Shaw said he found it inspiring that Marshall, given his age and status, "was willing to put himself at great personal peril to find a way to get through the Appalachians safely, link with the Ohio Valley, and claim that western territory for the United States."
Thanks in part to the outbreak of the War of 1812, work on the canal route did not begin until 1832, starting on the James River. A canal was completed between Richmond and Lynchburg by 1840, and extended to Buchanan, a short distance northeast of Roanoke, by 1851.
For many decades before that section of canal was built, batteaus were the main means of commercial transportation between Richmond and Covington. The wooden boats were also used extensively on the Kanawha River in the era that preceded steamboat traffic.
While canal work was going on in Virginia, channels were being dug and obstacles removed from the Kanawha River to improve navigation in present-day West Virginia. The Richmond-Buchanan canal continued to operate through the 1870s, but floods and competition from new railroads brought the James River & Kanawha Co., the canal company that evolved from the James River Co., to an end in 1880.
"Even though a completed canal was never meant to be, the route Marshall surveyed proved to be the right one to penetrate the Appalachians," said Shaw. "In Virginia, railroad line goes right over the canal's towpath, and then it follows the Greenbrier and New River to the Kanawha and the Ohio Valley."
Parts of U.S. 60 and Interstate 64 also follow the route, Shaw said.
From Hinton, the crew of the Mary Marshall will begin their voyage through the New River Gorge, a section they say they respect, but do not fear.
Marshall described his Gorge descent as "an almost continued succession of shoals and falls, from which the navigator is sometimes, though rarely, relieved by a fine sheet of deep, placid water."
Shaw and crewmember Kevin Ferrel are experienced whitewater kayak paddlers. The crew has consulted with the National Park Service and the staff at Class VI Mountain River to coordinate a safe run through the Gorge. Before running the New, crewmembers will make scouting trips to make sure they know the correct lines to follow when traversing the most challenging whitewater. Safety boats will accompany the Mary Marshall through the Gorge.
"We're approaching the New River section with caution, but we're fairly confident we'll get through OK," said Shaw.
A sheath will be added to the boat's bow to help the craft deflect waves during the Gorge descent.
Marshall and his crew made the descent unhurt, with their boat intact but leaking, when they arrived at their end point at Kanawha Falls. For many years, the rock formation at Hawks Nest State Park now known as Lover's Leap was known as Marshall's Pillars. Marshall is the namesake of Marshall University.
It took about 75 days for crewmembers and other volunteers to build the Mary Marshall, patterned after one of nearly 60 James River batteaus unearthed in the 1980s during excavation for Richmond's James Center Plaza.
A grant from National Geographic's Young Explorer's program helped make the trip possible.
To learn more about the 200th anniversary re-tracing of John Marshall's voyage, and follow the crew's progress, visit www.vacanals.org/marshall.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5169.