The 19th annual James River Batteau Festival celebrates the boats that made Lynchburg famous.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, trade on Virginia’s James River depended on a fleet of bateaux-40- to 50-foot flat-bottomed boats that could carry more than four tons of tobacco and merchandise over the river’s shoals. Now, Lynchburg, Va., celebrates those days with its annual James River Batteau Festival. (They spell it batteau, with two t’s, because that’s how Thomas Jefferson spelled it; we prefer bateau, because that’s how our dictionaries spell it.) This year’s festival is scheduled June 18 and 19 at a riverfront island, the prelude to an eight-day voyage downriver almost to Richmond on replica boats.
The bateaux “brought a great deal of prosperity to our region,” says Janet Rose, coordinator of the land-based events in Richmond. “There was a time when Lynchburg was the wealthiest city in the country. We want people to walk away with a sense of that history.” The boats flourished until the mid-1800s, but gradually disappeared after the railroads and the James and Kanawha Canal came along, making it easier to move goods back and forth to the developing interior. They reappeared in the early 1980s, when construction crews working on the Federal Reserve Building in Richmond unearthed the old canal turning basin and the remains of some 90 bateaux, says Jeff Taylor, one of the festival organizers.
That piqued interest in the old boats at about the same time Lynchburg officials were planning their town’s bicentennial celebration and led to the first festival in 1986. Taylor, who has been making the annual trips since 1988, says they have had as many as 24 boats, but usually average between 12 and 15. They stop at different communities along the way, where local groups set up dinners and other events and residents come to see their boats, he says. And they get to see a lot of the river and its creatures. “One year we started counting geese, but when we got to five hundred, we stopped. We’ve seen bear and turkey and a whole lot of wildlife. We modified the old golf saying that a bad day on a bateau is better than a good day at the office.”
The voyage ends at Maidens Landing, a few miles upstream from Richmond, where their passage is blocked by a dam. “We hope that some day we can raise enough awareness that we can get the old canal fixed there,” says Taylor. “Then we could go the rest of the way down the river into Richmond and have a whale of a festival there.”