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March 28, 2014 / Joanne Yeck

Buckingham County: Batteaux Days


Dr. George W. Bagby

In 1879, Buckingham-born Dr. George W. Bagby published a short memoir entitled, Canal Reminiscences: Recollections of Travel in the Old Days On The James River & Kanawha Canal. He recalled the time, in 1835, when the days of the batteau, poled by African-American slaves, came to an end, giving way to the mighty James River & Kanawha Canal.


Fleets of these batteaux used to be moored on the river bank near where the depot of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad now stands; and many years after the “Jeems and Kanawha” was finished, one of them used to haunt the mouth of Blackwater creek above the toll-bridge, a relic of departed glory. For if ever man gloried in his calling, – the negro batteau-man was that man. His was a hardy calling, demanding skill, courage and strength in a high degree. I can see him now striding the plank that ran along the gunwale to afford him footing, his long iron-shod pole trailing in the water behind him.

. . . They lived well. Their cook’s galley was a little dirt thrown between the ribs of the boat at the stern, with an awning on occasion to keep off the rain, and what they didn’t eat wasn’t worth eating. Fish of the very best, both salt and fresh, chickens, eggs, mill: and the invincible, never-satisfying ash-cake and fried bacon. I see the frying-pan, I smell the meat, the fish, the Rio coffee! – I want the batteau back again, aye!

George W. Bagby

For more about Dr. Bagby, see: Buckingham Notables: Dr. George W. Bagby

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