Journey Down the James

James River Batteau Festival gears up for its 32nd trip downriver.

If on the morning of June 17 you happen to be in Lynchburg and pay a visit to Lynch’s Landing on the James River, you will encounter a flotilla of around 30 nearly 60-foot-long wooden boats—that is, handmade replicas of late 18th- and early- to mid-19th century shipping vessels known as batteaux—bobbing in the current, anchored just off shore.

Made of white oak and looking like a cross between a canoe and a barge, many have arched, canvas canopies. Looking closer, you’ll see names pyrographed into hulls (Rose of Nelson, Morningstar, Lady Slipper), and many outfitted with wooden cook-stoves, rough-hewn cedar benches, dinner tables, cases of acoustic instruments, racks of tin cookware, hammocks, and, in one instance, a gleaming eight-gauge cannon. And lounging on the vessels’ open decks, men and women (typically eight crew members per boat) are dressed in 18th-century costumes—white linen shirts, muslin skirts, straw hats, bonnets, rope belts and three-quarter length cotton pants. 

The tableau is the essence of the James River Batteau Festival, which is sponsored by the Virginia Canals and Navigation Society. “For going on 32 years, festival participants have come together to celebrate the experience and challenge of navigating what was, prior to the Civil War, the region’s most prolific shipping corridor,” says JRBF chairman Andrew Shaw. “We attract people united by their love of the James River and their love of the construction of these historic boats.”

Originally used to transport thousand-pound hogsheads of tobacco downriver to market, the boats are poled by their crewmen into the current, beginning a week-long 120-mile journey to Maiden’s Landing in Richmond. Floating 13-18 miles per day, participants will camp, feast and enjoy nightly festivities at river-fronting communities and stops along the way. Of these, Scottsville holds the biggest party Wednesday, June 21, with thousands gathering at the journey’s halfway point for live music and food, and a look at living history. VaCanals.org/batteau

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