In Virginia, take an 18th-century-style river ride on a bateau

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, bateaux, flat-bottomed pole boats, navigated the tempestuous James, bringing cash crops such as tobacco, flour and later coal to the Eastern Seaboard. One of the first references to this economically transformative armada was written by Thomas Jefferson in 1775 when he noted in his diary that one bateau could carry 11 hogsheads or 11,000 pounds of tightly packed tobacco. An enormous shift from the costly and exhausting process of rolling hogshead barrels by land over bumpy roads behind oxen, bateaux would help open the Virginia frontier and fill the pockets of the farmers who stocked them.

Doing the heavy lifting, however, were crew members — usually enslaved people, freedmen or poor White people — extraordinary watermen who poled their flotillas to market in Richmond. In fact, between 1820 and 1840, some 1,500 bateaumen operated 500 boats along the river. Today, outdoor and history enthusiasts annually re-create their journey each June from Lynchburg to Maidens during the eight-day James River Batteau Festival.

But unless you have a close buddy who’s a bateauman or plan to stow away on a ship like the Mary Marshall or Lady’s Slipper, it’s hard to get a seat on one of these old-timey watercraft. That is until now. Thanks to Will Cash and Will Smith, James River Batteau Festival veterans, experiencing a bateau ride is available to everyone with the launch of their James River Batteau Company tour service next month.

James River Batteau Company will offer guests river tours, sunset cruises and private charters April through October on the Morning Dew, a period-correct reproduction that Smith built with his father and brother in 2011 and one of the only bateau floats of its kind in America. (There’s a motorized version in Lynchburg.)

“The boat we have now is the third boat that our crew has floated,” says Cash, who, together with Smith, has been crewing their own bateau in the festival since 2006. In fact, Smith was practically raised on a bateau thanks to his father, Ralph, the festival chairman for 15 years. “My mom was like, ‘You were crawling around in a bateau in 1988,’ ” Smith says.

Thirty-four years on, his zeal for navigating the river in a 45-foot-long wooden boat has only grown. It’s something Cash and Smith — who met in high school in Amherst before attending Radford University together — have long wanted to share with others. After college, the friends got a foothold in the tourism industry, driving Hummers on the Outer Banks for Wild Horse Adventure Tours, then used those funds to travel the world. It’s thanks in part to their journeys abroad that their teenage love of floating the James seemed a viable career option. “I went on this Kerala backwater tour in India and realized it’s not that dissimilar from bateaux,” Smith says.

The Morning Dew allows six passengers to watch Cash and Smith sweep through the river, carefully finding openings to allow the shallow craft passage between rocks and rapids. Beyond the lip of the boat as the sun sets, tourgoers will have a chance to take in the beauty of the river’s ecosystem, such as sycamores bowing and swaying along the shore, great blue herons, osprey and possibly the occasional bald eagle gliding by, accompanied by the sound of Smith on the guitar. The float will make port back in Scottsville, where guests can grab a post-cruise drink at the town’s lone fine-dining establishment named, naturally, the Batteau Restaurant & Wine Bar.

“We want to share the magic of bateauing with people, because it’s such a magnetic thing,” Smith says. “When people see the boats, they want to follow them and touch them. Then when it’s in the water, it’s just incredible. It’s in its natural habitat.”

A habitat that, in the 18th century, existed as a world apart for crew members. The work was seasonal and dependent upon the height of the water. Jefferson documents this in his journal, writing that a shipment could not go downriver until the harvest was finished, because “boatmen are all employed in that work.” But once out on the James, crafts operated with relative autonomy. The boats were typically crewed by three men who “propelled the vessel with long, iron-tipped poles while one steered from aft end with a long sweep or steering oar,” writes Bruce Terrell in his thesis, “The James River Bateau: Tobacco Transport in the Upland Virginia, 1745-1840.”

But arriving in Richmond meant little rest for the weary. Crews restocked their bateaux with freight for the return trip, which could take as many as 15 days upstream.

“It was a real battle,” Smith says. “There’s records of men getting stuck, bailing out, losing hogshead of tobacco. I mean it was not an easy journey.”

But it was a lucrative one. From 1771 to 1775, the amount of tobacco exported to England and Scotland increased by 40 percent over 1761 to 1765, some 102 million pounds, a figure attributed to the introduction of the bateau, Terrell writes. Lynchburg was declared the country’s second-richest city per capita by the 1850 Census, according to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. And that rank “was because of bateaux transporting tobacco,” says Brian Coffield, a historic interpreter at Pleasant Grove Park and president of the Virginia Canals & Navigations Society.

As one might imagine, documentation of bateau life and culture from the perspective of the bateaumen is nearly nonexistent. “Every quote we have is from a White landowning, probably slave-owning, or generally aristocratic White, right? So we don’t have a lot of their actual story to tell,” Smith says. “The only thing we can do is infer what the experience was. Imagine this river at two-and-a-half feet and bringing a bateau with 10,000 pounds on it? We want people to understand what these men would have been doing and showcase what an incredible role these people played in building Virginia into the powerhouse it would have been in that era.”

An era that swiftly vanished with the arrival of the locomotive.

There’s a quote Cash recalls from a 19th-century writer saying something to the effect of “the railroad is the killer of the picturesque.” “And that’s probably how it felt,” he says. With the development of the James River and Kanawha Canal, followed quickly by the Richmond and Alleghany Railroad, the bateau was usurped and made irrelevant.

But having experienced the 120-mile journey downriver during the James River Batteau Festival, with the tight turns, rocky shoals and swift rapids — something only exceptionally strong individuals with a deep understanding of the currents could manage — Smith and Cash hope to give nautical tourists a newfound appreciation for these brave and bold watermen who, for a time, made the James River a bustling world of interstate commerce.

“We owe them a debt of gratitude and should celebrate them for it,” Smith says.

James River Batteau Company

Canal Basin Square, 249 Main St., Scottsville, Va.

Tours are two-hour trips along the James River in the afternoon and evening, and they are available April to October, Thursday to Sunday. Book river tours ($65 per person), sunset cruises ($85 per person), and private charters (from $390) on the Morning Dew, a period-correct reproduction bateau. Children 12 and over only.

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.