Photo by John Henley
No trout ― man or fish ― has mapped and charted as many Virginia rivers as William E. "Bill" Trout III has.
Locally, he's best known for his seminal publication The Falls of the James Atlas. His latest project is The Holston, Clinch & Powell's Rivers Atlas, which he compiled with his late wife, Nancy. Its completion was announced last April.
Trout's passion for rivers dovetails with his interest in canals. A past president of the Virginia Canals & Navigation Society, he was a co-founder of The American Canal Society.
Both passions were cultivated in Richmond during Boy Scout hikes along the James River that highlighted remnants of The James River and Kanawha Canal.
For the past decade, Trout has had one foot in Edenton, N.C., where he and his wife, Nancy, had a house, and one foot in Richmond, at his family's home near the University of Richmond. At age 76, he's now preparing to return to Virginia full time.
RM: How many rivers have you mapped and charted in Virginia?
WT: We've done about 20 so far. The only one we haven't done is the Chickahominy River, and I'm working on that one now with my brother. It's going to be fun, because we'll be working with the Indian tribes. Our Atlas on the Chickahominy will complete the Virginia Atlas series.
RM: Do you have any plans for mapping rivers beyond the Virginia series?
WT: We hope to do one on the Potomac, which is not technically in Virginia. We also are working with a proposed Carolina River History Association to publish river atlases on the Cape Fear, French Broad and Yadkin rivers in North Carolina.
RM: It seems like you have your hands full. Anything else?
WT: Another upcoming booklet is on the James River and Kanawha Canal and the cornerstone of the Virginia Washington Monument, about the cornerstone donated by the canal company in 1850. We've also got an article coming out soon in the Tiller (a publication of the Virginia Canals & Navigation Society) on The Great James River Batteau Robbery, about the theft of Thomas Jefferson's papers in 1809.
RM: In 1983, you were involved in one of Richmond's greatest archeological digs, when canals boats were discovered as excavations were being made for the James Center. Can you tell us about that?
WT: They were digging in the mud of what was the Great Basin (where canal boats would come to unload goods and discharge passengers). They had bumped into some metal and didn't dig it out. We looked down and looked at it. It was the shape of a boat. It turned out to be iron hull of packet boat, a passenger boat. That's when it got exciting.
RM: Were any other boats found?
WT: We found six boats after where they had stopped digging in the canal basin.
RM: What happened to those boats?
WT: We took the metal boat and stored it. The wood parts we put in the Byrd Park pump house in standing water to preserve them. They've been there since 1983. We want to get the wood out of there and try to put some of the boats back together.
RM: The annual James River Batteau Festival is now a big event in Virginia. Did the canal discoveries have anything to do with that?
WT: I don't think the first batteau would have been built if we hadn't found the boats in the canal. Today, [the bateaux] go from Lynchburg to Maidens, almost all the way to Richmond. One day, we hope the canal will be open all the way to downtown Richmond.
RM: The James River and Kanawha Canal was surveyed and mapped by George Washington, so it has a lot of history behind it, doesn't it?
WT: Washington became honorary president. They wanted him to be president but he was already president of the Potomac [Canal] Company. He gave his James River Canal stock to [what is now] Washington & Lee University.
RM: How would you describe your lifelong fascination with rivers and canals?
BT: It's nice to have a hobby, and you don't want a hobby nobody else has so you can discover things for yourself.
- Trout holds a master's degree in zoology and a Ph.D. in genetics.
- He has published more than 200 articles and notes on canal archaeology, history, parks and preservation.
- Trout has business cards describing himself as "a consulting canal detective."