03 September 2013

Virginia River Canals

One of the aspects of Virginia history and development that has always fascinated me is Virginia's canal system, along with its bateau and packet boats. The James River and Kanawha Canal system was important to Lexington, Virginia's history and was targeted during Hunter's Raid in June of 1864. During that raid, several barges and packet boats were loaded with stores with the intent of floating them down the North (now the Maury) river to keep them from falling into yankee hands. The attempt failed and the barges were destroyed and their contents captured.

Recently I, along with a close friend, took our kayaks on an exploring adventure in this area of the river. While on the trip, I took a few photos of some of the ruins of one of the canals and locks below Lexington. This one is known as Reid's Lock. As VMI's website notes:
The Canal at Reid's Dam - Looking Up River - Circa 1870

In 1851, the North River Navigation Co., later bought out by the James River and Kanawha (canal) Co., replaced the whitewater navigation with a flatwater canal system for large canal boats up to 90 feet long, towed by mules and horses from a towpath. This company was responsible for extending canal construction along the North River up to the Lexington docks, which included the construction of Zimmerman’s, Ben Salem, South River, and Reid’s locks and dams – the remains of which can still be seen from the Chessie Trail. Boats – including packet boats carrying up to 60 people with room for social events, a kitchen/bar, sleeping space, and toilets – started using the canal system on Nov. 15, 1860. Remains of batteaux and freight and packet boats are still found in the Maury riverbed.

The North River canal was important for developing the economy of Rockbridge County, allowing passenger and cargo access to the larger markets of Lynchburg and Richmond. Jordan’s Point (now the trailhead of the Chessie Trail at the Lexington end) became a manufacturing and storefront center for commercial activity in the county, housing stables, warehouses, flour mills, a foundry and forge, and many stores.  
The primary products shipped out along the North River included whiskey, iron, flour and wheat, leather, corn, and lime. During the Civil War, the North River canal became even more important for transporting supplies. So important, in fact, that U.S. troops under Maj. Gen. Hunter burned the Reid’s Dam lock gates and Jordan’s Point mill and warehouses in 1864.
The Packet Boat - The Marshall - Ruins of VMI in Background
The packet boat, The Marshall, used the canal system to transport Stonewall Jackson's body up river from Lynchgurg to Lexington for his funeral. Below are some images I took of the ruins of the same canal and dam (Reid's) pictured above, looking down river. Note the massive stones and the way they are cut in a curved shape. The labor and workmanship it took to build and maintain such a massive structure seems, to me, quite daunting.

If you're interested, there is even an organization which is centered around promoting and preserving the history of these Virginia canal systems - The Virginia Canals & Navigations Society.


Robert Moore said...

Great post and pictures, Richard! Looking at the construction of the locks, it strikes me how differently they appear than those that are on the C&O Canal. It seems the engineering would be about the same, considering the time period.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Robert - they are impressive structures - even in their current state.

ropelight said...

I grew up near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, the rivers there (The Lynnhaven, Little Creek, the Lafayette, the Elizabeth, the Nansemond, Chuckatuck Creek, and the James) were exceptionally broad and easily navigable by deep draft craft and of all of them were powerfully influenced by the changing ocean tides. How far salt water reaches up the James I don't know for sure, but my guess would be well past the Chickahominy.

I was aware of the C&O Canal from Cumberland, Maryland down the Potomac to DC, and George Washington's involvement in the early Patowmack Canal Company. But the James River Canal was news to me when I found old locks on a surprisingly narrow section of the James near Buchanan as I was stretching my legs near an 81 Freeway rest stop.

A canal route connecting the Kanawha and Ohio Rivers to the Chesapeake Bay, even one interrupted with surface roads over the Allegheny mountains, would have been an economic powerhouse. However, before it could be completed along came the railroads and made canals if not obsolete at least too expensive to build and maintain when rail was more reliable and less expensive.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hey Rope - yes, maintaining these structures was a big problem. Flooding was a constant problem and, even with the locks, the moving of the boats was still at the mercy of water levels.