William Trout III and James Moore III have skulked through more underground tunnels, waded hip deep into more muck and uncovered more hidden stone constructions than anybody in Richmond. They started working together in the late 1950s as students at Thomas Jefferson High School. Their common fascination is the James River and Kanawha Canal.
Trout and Moore helped bring greater attention to the potential of the canal, and Richmond sees now the sense they made. With their late partner, George D. Rawls, they collected their research into books, including the must-have for canal enthusiasts, The Falls of the James Atlas.
The authors say now is time to think about following the canal westward—the real canal, not a refitted millrace—from the former Harvie's Mill Pond or the Upper Basin, past Hollywood Cemetery to Bryan Park and the old Pump House, to Dead Man's Hill and to yet another natural basin, Sydnor's or Pollard's Pond beneath the Powhite Bridge.
Harvie's Mill Pond basin, or Penitentiary Pond, began as a turnaround for canal boats immediately prior to 1800. "The Upper Basin seems to have been in use even before the Great Basin was finished downtown, which we lost to the James Center," says Trout. He, Moore and other canal devotees found dozens of canal boats and batteaux buried deep in what became the parking garage for the Omni Hotel and James Center. At certain points, the Great Basin may have been 30 to 40 feet deep. The Upper Basin came into use earlier but didn't have such depth.
Moore says that without a city archaeologist it is difficult to determine what bounty of artifacts a construction site might offer up. Further, there's no official mechanism by which an independent dig can begin, aside from abject pleading.
The Upper Basin designation lends a utilitarian dignity to the quaint, personal description of Harvie's Mill Pond, named for Col. John Harvie who died in 1810. Harvie owned considerable acreage in that section of town. Harvie Street in the Fan is named for his family.
The Upper Basin was a center of activity. Around it was a tanning yard, a coal yard and a gauge dock for determining canal-boat tolls. "Tolls were the only way the canal company made money," Moore explains. "But, getting the exact weight doesn't appear to have been their great concern; problem was the canal only had a 3-foot depth. The boat wouldn't get through if it weighed too much."
For the record, the speed limit on the canal was between 5 and 6 miles per hour. Virginians, game for wagering on anything, would occasionally pay the tolls in advance to race ahead another boat. During the 1840s the Basin Master warned boat owners who left their small craft in the water there that they would be sold at auction because of the stagnant water they collected. By the 1880s railroads overran the basin, and the new name was the Second Street Yards. Today it is a parcel of green, rolling ground between the Virginia War Memorial and the Ethyl Corporation campus.
Trout and Moore eagerly await a day when the Upper Basin can be dug up and utilized again as the revived canal continues west. "The canal needs a terminus point," Moore explains. "It's always been the goal to get the canal closer to people and this would be a way to do that. People could embark there, take a little motorized boat up to Hollywood [Cemetery] or the Boulevard, get a shuttle, link up with the museums there."
Trout emphasizes the natural majesty of the setting, of the canal coiling around Gamble's Hill, the seat of Ethyl Corporation's international headquarters. "We commend Ethyl for preserving it, that is, not building on it," Trout says.
Ethyl originally opposed the idea of a restored section of the historic canal coming across its property. During the mid-1980s Trout recalls an official describing the canal as "a stinking ditch." Until the sewer interceptor was installed, and Upper Tuckahoe Creek purged of stench, the canal indeed carried a pungent odor along with the brown water.
Moore recalls, "Bill and I rode in the canal in 1976 and I remember rounding that hill, and, let me tell you, the view of Richmond at that point is unforgettable."
Ethyl sought to shield itself from the "stinking ditch" by building a temporary dam in 1985. The dam remains and the basin is beneath the topsoil. Moore and Trout want to discover what canal treasures are in the earth. Photographs taken around May 1865 show workers repairing boats in the basin. There's also a stone wall defining its edge.
"I bet you that stone wall is still there, underground," Moore says. "We could find it and from that determine how deep the basin went."
Until they receive permission to explore the Upper Basin, Moore and Trout continue their self-appointed mission to amass as much information and as many artifacts about the James River and Kanawha Canal as they are able. If you want to see their handiwork, stroll to the old hydroelectric plant at the base of 12th Street where they've put on display pieces of canal boats they've found. And visit the canal itself.