Construction and Operation of the James River Batteau


Being a paper presented at the Annual Conference

Of the Colonial Maritime Association

October 1989


By Joseph W. Ayers

Founder and Former Chairman, James River Batteau Festival

The purpose of this paper is to give a general overview of batteau replication and operation. The information presented here is the result of four and a half years of research through the building and supervision of 21 batteaux and the navigation of 1,500 miles of Virginia’s and Maryland's inland waterways, being chiefly rivers of the James, Potomac and New River watersheds. For the James River, these would include the Jackson, Tye, Rockfish, Slate, Willis, Rivanna, Tuckahoe, Hardware and Deep Creek; for the Potomac, North Fork, South Fork, Shenandoah and Monocacy; and for the New, the Greenbrier.



A. Introduction

The information in this section will supply the reader with the basics of batteau construction by way of discussing some necessary and important features common to all with special attention to discoveries and observations relating to reproduction and actual operation.

B. General Dimensions


Length. Although there are occasional references to batteaux measuring up to 75 feet in length, most evidence points to a standard 58 feet for batteaux on the James. Three important sources point to this: (1) Archaeological data--the only complete batteau found in the Richmond Canal Basin measured 58 feet. (2) Thomas Randolph's order of lumber for building called for gunwales 48 feet in length. (Nose cones would add approximately five feet to bow and stern.) (3) A standardized measurement taken by the James and Kanawha Canal Company in the 1850's states that the common length of a batteau on the James was 58 feet.

Reproductions have been built ranging from 40 to 60 feet. There are no perceptible advantages to shorter boats in terms of navigability (perhaps some disadvantages), as there are no obstacles or difficulties present within the majority of water courses which limits a batteau to 40 feet.


Width. The beam measurement of batteaux has been given at six to eight feet. Thomas Jefferson described the "Rucker batoe" as having a six foot beam. Measurements from the canal basin were at or approaching eight feet. This information is compatible with actual operation which has indicated that for open river navigation between seven and eight feet is ideal for traversing ledges, there being gaps and depressions of this width in even severe drought conditions.


Depth. The depth of batteaux of the James is not over 24 inches and 18 inches has proven sufficient for hauling light loads. However, the lower the sides the greater potential for swamping; and a number of lower sided boats have swamped and one completely destroyed as a result. (This was largely a result of faulty gunwale construction and simple mishandling. Reproductions which are intended for recreational use on the James and Potomac watersheds certainly do not need the full

24 inch depth. In a heavier white water area such as the New River the higher side is an advantage, however.

C. Construction Materials

The woods used to build the James River Batteau reproductions have been limited to native varieties of the region. White oak is found in central Virginia, and the wood is one of the commonly used in wooden boat building around the world, especially for structural features. Therefore, white oak is used in all framing aspects and in some limited degree in the planking of the James River Batteau. The planking materials commonly used in replica building have been yellow pine and tulip poplar. The poplar necessary to produce 20 to 30 foot one-inch boards of clear, top grade lumber can still be found in the region; and has, as a result, become popular planking material, with pine a close second. Poplar wears out after three to five years of continual use, however. Pine has proven to be more durable and lasting. The use of oak planking throughout has proven to be undesirable chiefly due to its weight.

The chief fastening material is the boat nail. All of the original batteaux in the basin were nailed together with rough iron rosehead nails. The modern galvanized boat nail closely resembles the original. Builders can also use a waterproof marine glue on the rib joints, scarph joints, and in construction of a laminated gunwale.

Iron hardware consists of the sweep attachments (forks), both bow and stern, and eye bolts, bow and stern, for ropes.

D. Basic Approach to Building

There has not yet surfaced any accounts of procedure for building of the original batteaux. The first technique applied in replicating was to begin by building upside down, planking to the sheer line and then flipping the batteau over to finish the gunwale and interior. This is currently the most popular procedure though by no means conclusive evidence of original approach. It seems as probable that the boats were built right side up as this is the standard procedure for carvel planking.

The "nose cones" of these craft require detailed and intricate workmanship. It has been suggested that they were built separately by the master boatwright and added or inserted after the main hull was completed. This concept has been attempted and proven feasible in reproduction. There is no great advantage to this procedure, and its results are identical with that of laying the bow and stern stems at the same time as the king plank.

Another theory put forth concerning nose cones is that they were made to be replaced because they tended to suffer damage regularly. This is given some merit in a minstrel song of the period which deals directly with the operation of a James River Batteau. In that song, entitled "The Old Jim River," the boatman describes how "a log come down with a rushing din and stove both ends of the old boat in." If nose cones were replaced with any frequency, then the idea of attachable nose cones makes sense. It also would require some form of basic standardization of the style which the archaeological evidence points to as well. Over 60 batteaux were discovered in the Richmond Canal basin and they all displayed a basic uniformity of design. There appeared two basic styles defined simply as the tapered and the non-tapered batteau.

E. Important Structural Features

The king plank takes the place of a keel or keelson and is general of white oak one inch thick. A keelless hull is essential to navigation on rocky, shallow upland rivers like the James and the Potomac. An interesting structural feature of the king plank is its extension of up to twelve inches into the nose cone sections. It is the only hull plank which does this. All other planks break where the nose cone section meets the hull, forming a continuous line of butt joints. Iron straps were sometimes added at the sheer line of the nose cone and hull as reinforcement. An inner gunwale system can bridge between nose cone and hull and run as far back as the second rib for additional strength at the sheer. It is this plus the king plank extension which structurally ties the two sections together.

- Note: Although there have been a few reproductions which employ an inner keel by using a plank of extra thickness and notching of the base rib to allow for inset, this practice appeared nowhere in the originals and produces no important advantage in operation. Reasons for the original builders not doing so may have been the desire to maximize hull flexibility and fear of weakening frames.

- Note: One piece gunwales are an integral part of a batteaus structure and are the chief feature which prevents the hogging of its long slender design. Although originally carved from one solid plank up to 48 feet long, the exact same look is better accomplished through building a laminated gunwale which will have even more strength and flexibility than one board (and not waste so much lumber). All of the rib arms lock into this gunwale system which provides for maximum strength and flexibility in one package. The importance of this laminated gunwale system has been amply demonstrated by the excessive hogging and breaking in half of the batteaux which do not use it.

- Note: The aforementioned nose cones are a curious feature of the James River Batteau. Following the center line of the king plank in keelson fashion their stem extends approximately two feet beyond the bow and stern frames and notching through these and butting against the following frame. Two half ribs, or cants, are added to the extension forward of the two end frames, bow and stern, being set at an approximate 451 angle to the stem. These cants provide strength and backing, being the midway point between the last full frame and the stem. The king plank -is the only exterior plank which extends past the last full rib. It does so by ten or twelve inches, forming an isosceles triangle whose apex ends on the center line of the stem.

In operation these nose cones undergo great stress from the heavy steering oars located on the end of each stem. This area tends to be the leakiest in the batteau; but so far, no nose cones have dropped off, contrary to initial fears expressed upon their discovery.

F. Care and Preservation

Some of the original batteaux showed evidence of painting, but most did not. The common treatment of linseed oil and turpentine was probably used also. The use of modern marine sealants has surprisingly had adverse effects. But this is probably more the fault of using kiln dried wood. On rocky upland rivers it is especially difficult to seal the wood from water for long, and boats using high tech sealants in combination with kiln dried wood have developed rot and dowdiness. Another aspect of preservation being studied is that of storage in or out of water. Many boats which have been stored out of water have developed dry rot; whereas boats stored in water, especially in the river, show less sign of rot.


A. Introduction

This section deals with the function of the batteau in its natural habitat, the upland rivers which are in this case rivers above the major fall line of the eastern seaboard. Again, this is not to be a manual; but within a brief time frame, the most basic features of batteau operation, especially those which shed light on the capacity of these vessels to transverse the river and against the flow, will be discussed.

B. The River

Both the James and Potomac Rivers were principal navigation systems during the batteau era, and both have many identical features from the batteau point of view, chief among these being their shallow, rocky natures during significant extended periods. Once past their fall lines (Richmond and Great Falls), their climb in elevation becomes largely gradual and steady so that travel against the current (flow) becomes possible for long distances into the interior. In lower water these rivers become composed of a series of placid lakes separated by rock ledges which create a difference in elevation of a few feet or less. Also, gravel shoals of 100 yards or more separate slack water areas, forming a gradual but steady climb. During high water periods or freshets, these rivers rise as much as six to nine feet or more and can retain that volume for months, depending on weather conditions and rainfall. Using this natural, somewhat unpredictable cycle, the batteaux hauled bulk produce down river during freshets and returned with lighter loads of finished goods at low water periods.

C. The Craft

The batteau is designed to be shallow draft and still have the capacity to haul a cargo of several tons. Empty, a good batteau draws three to five inches of water. As the reproductions have been used primarily for recreational purposes, tonnage capacity limits have not been completely explored. (The "Minnie Lee" on one occasion transported a cargo of approximately 3,800 pounds upriver with ease.) The batteau is extremely flexible on the water and can endure surprising amounts of rough treatment. This flexibility allows the craft to bounce, spring and bend to adjust to various conditions of stress which it encounters.

D. Personnel Requirements

Requirements vary somewhat with direction of travel. On a down river run historical references indicate three-man crews which are adequate. Even two-man crews can make down on much of the river. If the sections happen to include heavy white water like the Potomac River at Harper's Ferry Gorge, then a crew of four is not too many. When returning against the current, four to six men is the advisable number of crew (although I have done considerable amounts of upriver navigation with a crew of three).

E. Propulsion, Steering and The Tools

The pole and sweep are the primary tools of the upland river boatman. The poles vary in length from ten to fourteen feet. The best material for poles is hickory although cedar can make a good light-use

pole. The importance of having a dependable pole cannot be over emphasized, especially in upriver travel. There are many moments during a day of upriver travel when the poleman has his entire weight thrust against the pole as the batteau climbs through a ledge. Were his pole to snap, the chance of his being run through are great, not to mention his being thrown from the boat amid rocks and strong current. The resulting loss of control of the batteau could easily find him crushed between the boat and the ledge. Poles measure two inches or more in thickness and should be iron tipped. These poles are the primary means of propulsion for the batteau in upriver travel and are also important in steering on downriver treks.

The sweeps, or steering oars, are located at the bow and stern stems of the batteau. Their function is one of steering, and they are essential when batteaux travel on swollen rivers or freshets where the use of a pole is all but impossible except for fending off snags and rocks. These oars are roughly 16 feet in length and three to four inches thick with a blade length of two to three feet and width of six to eight inches. The proper use of these oars make keelless boats surprisingly maneuverable. (On upriver journeys the front sweep is replaced by a poleman, the stern sweep is retained. See "Technique.")

Other methods of climbing involve the use of hauling by rope from a bank; bushwhacking, which is the use of overhanging tree limbs to pull the boat up; and by grappling hooks where short snatches are required.

F. The Techniques of Operation

There are two separate technical approaches necessary to the operation of a batteau. One involves running downriver, the other climbing upriver. It is important to know both, but it is the knowledge and ability to climb up a river that really develops control and makes one a master of batteau operation. Therefore, we begin with some basic upriver climbing techniques. The first rule is to retain forward momentum. This requires at least one pole in the water thrusting forward at all times. (There are exceptions, such as ferrying.) The second rule compliments the first: Keep the boat straight or else forward momentum is close to impossible. This is not as easy to do as it sounds, for the keelless batteau is being continually affected by any and all changing surface currents of the river, and the thrust of the polemen. Currents are often times very subtle and difficult to see, but a good stern man reads them and responds with his oar and instructs the polers where and how much to shove to keep running as straight as possible. In water that is slack two polers can walk alternate shifts down the full length of the plank, one beginning at the bow while the other finishes at the stern. As the current becomes swifter, it becomes necessary for polers to shorten their walk and take more actions in unison. When current is very swift, it becomes necessary to stand and pole in position using quick short strokes to keep forward momentum up. Such effort is occasionally required for more than 25-50 yards at a time before.another slack water plateau is reached.

When climbing through rock ledges, all of these techniques are brought into play and a standard maneuver can be used varying according to the terrain. The pilot approaches the ledge searching for eddy flows which he guides the batteau into. Here the resistance dies and on occasion the eddy action will actually pull the boat upriver. In areas where there are many boulders and ledges it is possible to hop from eddy to eddy by ferrying the batteau across swift water. At the top of the ledge area there is usually a significant last climb. The key here is to find the smallest (not the largest) flow which will accommodate the batteau and head at an angle into it. (The angle depends upon the width of the open ing. If the opening is small, then it is necessary to run it straight.) It is important that the batteau maintain its momentum as it heads into what is generally the largest flow and strongest current of a climb. A bow man will work vigorously from the downriver side to hold the bow up (keep it from washing down) while the stern man will sweep his stern out into the flow. In this maneuver the batteau is almost pivoting on a ledge or rock as the poler on the upriver side plants a pole firmly behind the rock ledge and walks the full length of the plank. The bow and stern men work to keep the boat straight as the batteau pivots around the poleman/polemen taking the long walk. The bow man must also be on the lookout for counter currents which could reverse flow and wash the batteau over sideways on the ledge. By working with the river's currents in this and similar ways many of the supposed arduous tasks of poling are greatly eased.

Downriver operation primarily involves use of the steering oars (sweeps) with pole propulsion optional, depending upon the depth and speed of the river. Customarily boatmen would wait for freshets to make down river runs; since, fully loaded, their draft would be twelve to fourteen inches. The term freshet does not represent a uniform standard of depth but rather it signifies that the river has risen to a level adequate for transport. In the case of very high, fast moving water, poles are of little use except for fending off debris and as support in narrow, rocky channels. In lower water poles can be used to increase speed.

It is the combination of steering oars, bow and stern, and a keelless, flat bottom design which give the batteau its amazing maneuverability through rocky ledges. The sweep men work in tandem, with the stern man taking his cues from the headman at the bow. This is essential as the stern is a full 50 feet from the bow and even with some elevation the stern sweep man cannot see the details available to the view of the headman. Both will agree on a general direction, the particulars of which are then directed from the bow. The batteau's ability to slide in a sideways direction in response to both oars pulling in the same direction is a crucial maneuver in rock strewn areas which offer no direct passage. Where channels are deep and fast but curve and hook, the action of the oars keeps the batteau from being smashed against the outside of the curve which is always either a rock, cliff, or overhanging trees. In stretches of back water where the depth is too great for poles and the current tediously slow to make time, the batteau may be rowed sideways using the bow and stern sweeps called "bending to the sweeps." There are a number of other subtle combinations of sweep movements which time does not permit us to discuss here. All are dependent upon both sweep men working together as a team and being familiar with each other's signals and motions.




From our experiences at building and operating batteau reproductions on the James, the following conclusions have been reached:

(1) Batteaux built close to the authentic patterns have proven the most successful in operation and surprisingly more durable.

(2) The ability of these craft to travel upstream has been highly underrated. They do so quite easily with far less exertion than imagined.

(3) The knowledge gained through active operation of batteaux in their natural environment can greatly assist in interpretation and understanding of the written records of the era.


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