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As construction began for the James Center and Omni in 1983,remains from the Great Turning Basin of the James River andKanawha Canal were unearthed thanks to these persistent men. Photo courtesy of Valentine Richmond History Center
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Jimmy Moore (left) and Lyle Browning near the canal diagramon the floor of the James Center. Photo by Ash Daniel
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Anchors, boat medallions and pottery fragments from the early 1980s dig. Photo courtesy of Valentine RichmondHistory Center
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Lyle Browning with hull remains at Kittiewan Plantation. Photo courtesy of Valentine Richmond History Center
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MAP KEY:Dots = Richmond's canal walking tour developed by RIchmond Renaissance in 1994Stars = Canal Walk Historic MarkersMap prepared for The Virginia Canals and Navigations Society by W.E. Trout III,January 1997.
On August 8, 1983, scientist William E. "Bill" Trout III and classical musician James "Jimmy" Moore III stood like excited kids, trying to get a glimpse through a fence built to prevent passersby from falling into the construction pit of the James Center, a three-phase project of Charlotte, N.C., developer Henry Faison that would eventually deposit a trio of high-rises near Shockoe Slip.
They knew what few in the city administration either realized or admitted to: The properties under development by Faison and CSX had for more than a century earlier been the Great Turning Basin of the James River and Kanawha Canal. Before the advent of the railroad, the canal gave Richmond access to the wider world, and the city's 19th-century growth wouldn't have occurred without it. George Washington conceived of the project as a way to link Virginia to the Ohio River Valley, an ambitious plan that fell short in Botetourt County.
The Great Turning Basin, surrounded by factories and mills, allowed freight- and passenger-hauling river and canal craft to offload cargo and travelers. Once reloaded, the craft returned west.
Trout, who studied insects, and Moore, a guitarist, antiquarian and teacher, shared a devotion to the waterborne history of Richmond, and they knew that a treasure trove of that history might lie beneath this earth. Three broken bones in Moore's right foot from an automobile accident wouldn't keep him away. He persuaded Trout to join him.
During this summer of 1983, as part of an ongoing project, Moore, Trout and a group of fellow volunteers had already been tending to the canal's origination near the Byrd Park Pump House by uprooting trees and removing debris.
They dreamt of refilling the canal at its oldest end to bring tourists to Agecroft Hall and Maymont Park. They actually managed the latter, traveling by recreated batteau to Maymont's Japanese Gardens in order to spark visitor curiosity. The city's rising insurance rates thwarted further plans. "We weren't even taking people anywhere, just letting them get on board," Moore grumbles today.
Richmond was then preoccupied by the Downtown Expressway, Sixth Street Marketplace and shoring up downtown through whatever development that came along. The canal was viewed as an impediment.
The Man Trap
The downtown basin was the commercial heart of 19th-century Richmond. It was sometimes referred to as "the man trap" because occasionally a celebrant from one of the nearby Shockoe taverns, or even onboard a boat, fell in. They didn't always emerge.
The Great Turning Basin encompassed 16 acres, the better part of three blocks in length and a width of a block, bounded by Eighth and 11th streets, then Cary and Canal streets. The Basin's depth — at least 50 feet — made it a possible trove for sunken artifacts.
For vessels that required no more than 4 feet of water to float, the 50-foot depth is unusual. Canal engineers around 1800 determined that the best site to provide a place to turn around for river and canal traffic should exist within a natural valley. The canal makers didn't have to dig out the Basin. They built up a wall for its containment that stood by the present Omni Hotel and connected it to the canal. It filled like a bathtub.
Moore's certainty about the presence of canal-related material in the bottom of the hole came from the knowledge that pickers were already finding objects in the mounds of dirt.
"People were going through the spoil before we got there," Moore says. "They were finding stuff and taking it away. There wasn't anybody around to tell them not to. Who knows what got carted off before we came." An anchor hauled off was later purchased back by the diggers for $35. A perfect wine bottle Moore knew to have been found on the site was valued at $750.
But as Moore and Trout watched, expecting a historic revelation, all that they observed was snorting machinery lumbering around amid yards and yards of muck.
Jimmy Moore went down to learn why they weren't seeing what they expected to find at the bottom of the Basin.
By Permission of Diablo
The next day, Moore and Trout returned to the muddy maw. Moore, busted foot notwithstanding, limped into the hole. The machine drivers, surprised to see him, were also taken aback by his queries: Are you finding any parts of boats or artifacts? They didn't think so, but then again, Moore reflects, they wouldn't have known what to look for or how.
A backhoe operator named Joe "Diablo" Thomas allowed them entry after the two men retrieved hard hats they happened to carry in the car for their river and canal adventures. Another operator, Thomas Ruffin, told them that he thought one of the backhoe buckets had struck something metal. Moore, a fencing enthusiast, used an old foil with the protective tip missing as a rudimentary probe to see what might be stuck under the mud.
"So we were poking it in the ground," Trout says. "And we realized: This is the shape of a boat."
Close by, what appeared at first as a muddy chunk of plywood turned out to have wooden ribs attached. It was the dig's first batteau.
Laboring to pull away the muck, they determined that they'd also found an iron-hulled packet boat probably close to 90 feet long. These vessels transported passengers and small packages — hence, "packet" — between Richmond and points west toward Lynchburg. Probably only six James River and Kanawha Canal packets were fitted with iron hulls. One other example of the type existed: That hull was in a Lynchburg park, serving as a reminder that these craft plied the Kanawha Canal on a 33-hour journey.
Trout says that if the machines had dug a foot lower, the boats would've been hauled to the spoil pile never to be found.
One of the earthmover drivers retrieved from his cabin a wine bottle he'd picked out of the mud. He presented it to Moore, noting that it would mean more to Moore than it would to him.
Trout and Moore's excitement sometimes got the best of them in the heat of a Richmond summer. During the packet-boat reveal, Trout over-exerted, and Moore feared that his compatriot might succumb to sunstroke.
"A Smelly, Dirty Process"
"The whole thing evolved from a series of accidents, fortunate and otherwise," Trout says.
The Basin became the resting place of hulks sunk by storms or floods, burnt, or otherwise irreparably damaged. The water also received many accidental burials: from workingman's boots to ladies' parasols, from pocketknives to luggage tags. A massive amount of food also became evident: piles of watermelon seeds, chicken bones, cuts of meat including pork chops, and almost-fossilized catfish.
According to Trout, standard archaeological digging wouldn't have gone much past 15 feet. But the depth required for the James Center foundations and its underground parking got to 23 feet and deeper where canal craft and debris plummeted to the mud. When the railroad filled in the Basin for its yard, that process buried — and thus preserved — what was in the bottom, although pilings pounded into the earth to support the tracks sometimes went through the boats.
"It was a smelly, dirty process," Moore says of the dig that eventually extended through three full summers. "It was not like the Jamestown dig where you put in a spade and come up with artifacts. These things were way down deep in there. We came out every day soaked in mud and filth."
Soon it became obvious that there was more in the ground than anyone had anticipated. Trout in quick succession contacted Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Overton McGehee, and state highway archaeologist Lyle Browning. Browning volunteered for the Archeological Society of Virginia and had worked with canal buffs on studies of the Crofton Lock on the Rivanna River.
Though the James Center finds had nothing to do with Browning's state highway job, the work going forward required someone with expertise.
Browning, today a freelance archaeologist working with the early Colonial Falling Creek Iron Works site in southern Chesterfield, was in 1983 employed by the state highway division to see what new roads might be disturbing.
Browning figured that it was better in this case, if any boats were to be found and rescued from total destruction, to bring the finds first to the attention of the media rather than ask for permission to dig. A spokesperson was needed who could give a cogent story in frank terms. "Somebody who wouldn't just sound like some research guy," Browning says.
He soon received a call from the site's developer, Faison. "I guess you could call me the owner of your boats," Browning recalls him saying. The shopping-center magnate wanted to meet.
Faison, who died at age 78 in 2012, "was basically a great guy," says Browning. Besides constructing a business, he had built a reputation for generosity.
Faison's project tripped no wires of city, state or federal regulations in terms of the site's historical importance. Richmond then as now had no city archaeologist. By contrast, the city of Alexandria added a staff archaeologist 30 years ago, and Fairfax County has one, too.
By Faison's Largesse
The James Center land was Faison's to do with as he wished, as well as the property along it, under the supervision of CSX. As Moore says, "Bill called Lyle, and then the media got wind of it, and everybody descended. Those who couldn't stood on the brink and watched."
Visiting Browning at his VDOT office, Faison entered at 5:15 p.m. on the dot, when Browning's workday ended, sitting down amid the corrections-department-created solid oak furnishing.
Faison recognized the value of good publicity, and he agreed to allow the canal enthusiasts to explore the site and preserve any findings as best they could — this translated into three summer digs, both due to the suitability of weather and the participants' schedules. Browning's job was to keep overexcited volunteers from injury or worse as they ducked the buckets of massive earthmovers. Browning knew something of machinery, having grown up on a Charles City County farm and, working for Virginia Department of Transportation, getting familiarized with construction sites.
Faison paid the state highway department for use of its high-tech aerial camera to take large-format stereo photographs that documented every detail of the uncovered boats. This allowed archaeologists to create scale drawings. For a time-is-money businessman, Faison made great allowances and later commemorated the canal history through art and design in James Center buildings. But the construction plans were final; the Great Basin would vanish.
Browning couldn't take state time for the excavation, thus for three summers, he went before and after hours and during weekends. The work began between 10th and 11th streets, and as development went along, the two blocks to the east. Browning took the role of lead archaeologist and controlled the news flow from the hole. The dig became a joint project of the Archeological Society of Virginia and the Virginia Canals and Navigation Society.
"All the television stations sent people down," Browning recalls. Reporter Marguerite Bardone caused a stir by descending into the mudpit dressed to the nines all in white. Gov. Charles S. Robb came to see the progress. "I was asked by his press people if I wanted to give a statement," Browning says, laughing at the memory.
A Matter of Time
The 1983-1985 dig identified the remains of more than 100 vessels. The press of construction schedules and a shortage of helping hands constricted the opportunity to study and save them.
Due to the lack of official intervention, the team — not without heated arguments — rescued the parts of six boats that were deemed to be in the best state of preservation, in addition to a wide variety of artifacts. How much more the mud might've yielded remains unknown.
The dramatic finds created interest. Schnabel Engineering Associates, the subcontractor that stabilized the pit's walls, paid for water taken from a fire hydrant to wet the boats' exposed wood. Radio station WRXL FM 102 raised money. Other contributions included surveying, lifting equipment, temporary storage and even aerial photography for 3-D measurements. Trout's mother offered her washing machine, yard and cellar.
Site supervisor Mike Stanley of E.G. Bowles (now Interstate Construction Co.) played diplomat to ease tensions. Browning recalls how the diggers received more time for searching when the equipment was stilled on weekends. Machine operator Tom Ruffin once brought his family into the hole after church in their Sunday best to see the jutting remnants of boats.
Ruffin, says Trout, "quickly became the world's only expert on batteau excavation by backhoe." He'd use the bucket for the delicate task of outlining the sunken gunwales and scooping out enough of the interior mud to allow the diggers to go in with shovels and trowels.
Among the craft identified were varieties of the batteau, a long, narrow craft used as the primary carrier of freight on the river until the 1840 opening of the canal between Lynchburg and Richmond. Tobacco was the primary cargo. Prior to this excavation, only a few drawings and one photograph taken from a distance depicted these boats. By studying The Great Basin batteaux, historians learned how they were put together and the evolution of the construction techniques.
Boat No. 28
The course of Bruce Terrell's life changed during the second summer of the James Center dig.
The Richmonder was in a graduate student at East Carolina University studying underwater archaeology. That program began largely due to work in the recovery of the remains of the ironclad Monitor. He'd previously studied anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University. While working at the downtown Cokesbury bookstore and playing in punk bands such as Boys From Skateland and Ricky and the White Boys, he looked for volunteer projects related to his academic interests.
"I was fishing around for a master's thesis topic at the time," he explains. "It converged — my need for a topic and a site that was easy to get to. It wasn't underwater. It was part of Richmond's maritime heritage."
The excavation amazed Terrell. Down in the mud, four boats underwent study prior to their partial removal. The diggers had found the major classes of river vessels — packet boats, freight boats and batteaux.
Terrell's thesis, "The James River Batteau: Tobacco Transport in Upland Virginia 1745-1840," published by ECU in 1992, became a defining document not only of these craft, but also of the dig that revealed them.
Every bit of material culture — the pocketknives, the jugs, the plates and the ceramics — should bave been dated. But the James Center dig was more of a triage situation, rescuing as much as possible from the ground before destruction. Terrell says, "It was an amazing place to work because almost every day they were finding something new."
Terrell is now an Arlington, Va.-based historian and archaeologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He says that these days he's as much concerned with cultural resource management as archaeology.
"CSX, Ethyl and other corporations actually enabled what little work was done," he says. "There's the problem: I doubt the city is ever going to provide any kind of preservation for these kind of sites if the public does not demand it. I'm afraid the public will never be focused enough on historic preservation no matter how much education we put out there. There's too much competition from the multitude of media in our time."
The Ending Is the Beginning Again
On the last day of the dig's third summer, someone brought a bottle of champagne — perhaps it was Browning; memories differ — and once emptied, the bottle was buried and remains underneath the Omni Hotel, awaiting the day when perhaps it, too, will be brought out and puzzled over.
Many of the unearthed materials stayed in Bill Trout's basement for quite some time. Some of the larger vessel sections were for a while placed behind a chain-link fence at the 12th Street Hydroelectric Plant. These were then displaced when city officials told Browning of imminent impending development — that never happened. These cumbersome pieces are now stored at the Kittiewan Plantation headquarters of the Virginia Archeological Society on Route 5.
Another assortment of wood, many leather boots and other items lay in water, a rudimentary means of preservation, within a former machinery well at the Old Pump House behind Byrd Park. These haven't been catalogued or dated. The original tags identifying how the wood pieces connect floated away years ago. "Somebody could earn their doctorate degree just studying those shoes," Browning says. To return these items to dry land, Browning needs six months and upwards of $200,000. "That's been the shoal upon which our boat has wrecked every time," he says.
Browning says the materials could be temporarily preserved by pumping pentacryl, a nonstaining wood-stabilizing chemical, into the water to be absorbed by the remnants. Once stabilized, the objects would go into secure storage tanks. Scholars could analyze the trove. And then … "We don't have a place to take them," he says. He covets a dilapidated VDOT building called the Fulton Depot at the edge of the city off Route 5.
The Basin dig settled debates about the construction of batteaux and their appearance and opened the opportunity to study the commercial life of that important period. It ignited a batteau fever in some river folk.
Columbia, Va., resident and Fluvanna County recreation director Joe Ayers built a batteau based on the Great Basin findings. The construction became a town effort for tiny Columbia. In May 1984, Ayers and crew brought the batteau Columbia downriver into downtown Richmond. It was the first voyage of its kind in at least a century. The James River Batteau Festival launched on May 31, 1986. The 29th annual event occurs this year from June 14 to 21. Towns up and down the river have made permanent commemorations of their part in canal history.
The city of Richmond flag features a poling batteau man. Sculptor Paul DiPasquale's sculpture The Headman, depicting a similar subject, was placed on Brown's Island in 1988 and recast in bronze in 1992. The Basin dig prompted the publication of various books and scholarly papers. An article about the modern batteaux appeared in National Geographic. Invaluable guides and atlases, some of them written by Trout, Moore and George Rawls, detail almost every cranny of the canal and river.
"I hope this article might generate interest and funds to complete the task of cataloguing and preserving everything we found then," Trout says. "It'll be a huge and expensive project."