In 1985 while I was working downtown and construction crews were digging the foundation for the James Center, a batteau from the 1800s was uncovered in what had once been the turning basin, way below the current ground level of Richmond! It was a sensation – daily at lunchtime everyone went down to check progress of the excavation. From that discovery grew the Batteau Festival, held now for 31 years! Homemade 50′ or so batteau constructed by enthusicastic crews are poled for 5 days from Lynchburg to just above Richmond. The first couple of years it was billed as a ‘race’, but the James River can be harsh at the best of times. After multiple damages to boats and humans, it evolved to a ‘festival’, a week-long fun float with some hard work thrown in! Injury still happens, but there’s less stress.
I discovered this spring that my cousin Tad, a master carpenter, led construction last year of the Seven Islands, one of the more recent entries in the batteau fleet. They were just getting ready to raise it from the bottom of a pond where it had been since last year’s festival in preparation for the 2016 event. They sink it to preserve the wood and keep it swollen tight. Tad would be one of the crew! So yesterday four of my cousins and me met in Scottsville to welcome the boats to their fifth night berthing! Another of our cousins who lives just a ways downriver from town joined his buddies with their kayaks to escort the batteaus in.
Tad said 22 batteau left out of Lynchburg on Saturday accompanied by so many canoes and kayaks that navigation was a challenge! We saw a few c&k’s coming into Scottsville, but mostly the batteaus, with crews of anywhere from 4 to 14 folks! Some were in period attire, several included canine assistants. A few crews set off on board cannons as they passed under the Scottsville bridge! This was the middle of the week long festival. They’ll take out the long boats at Maidens Landing near Gouchland Courthouse on Saturday, onto trailers made from the chassis’ of motor homes.
Tad’s boat was the last one in – 3 1/2 tons of white oak construction with popular wood planking, poles, and decking. He said they started out with six 14′ poles, using 4 at a time, along with the long oars at bow and stern for steering. They broke three poles yesterday! So they were picking up more yesterday evening. Most of the river was between 3 and 4 feet deep, but he said they passed thru a couple pools where the poles wouldn’t reach the river bed!
We took a picnic with us, but there were food vendors and the barbecue smelled delicious! We were between the railroad track and the river about even with the Scottsville Museum and Canal Park. Maybe a couple hundred people – not crowded, very laid back. Everyone greeted the boats as they came in and once they’d all arrived folks began trickling away.
We plan to go again next year! Pencil it in on your calendars!