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The Pump House
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George Washington, president of The James River Company
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The remains of Boat No. 28
The Pump House Gang
In 1791, Washington made a ceremonial tour of the canal. He and his red-coated honor guard passed underneath its grand entrance called the Lower Arch to what was then called Dead Man's Hill, due to its tombstones. The arch provided a bridge over the canal's mouth and was equipped with gates to shut and protect the canal from periodic flooding. [That arch remains in today's Pump House Park.]
Restoration for navigation near the arch was made almost impossible when, against advice of canal enthusiasts, the city installed [WHEN] a big water pipe crosswise over the 1789 James River Canal, the 1820s Kanawha Canal and the 1883 Pump House Canal. The latter brought water from the river that was sent to the nearby city reservoir.
The 1882 Pump House was the concept of the industrious and creative city engineer Wilfred Emory Cutshaw. The Pump House combined the utilitarian with the aesthetic; the upper gallery provided for public gatherings, including dances.
Since the 1924 ceasing of operations, stewardship of the Pump House has passed back and forth between the city and private organizations. No single agency has been able to repurpose the great structure, though there has been no lack of ideas. Volunteers with the James River Outdoor Coalition, Friends of the James River Park and the James River Parks staff have kept the building accessible. Plans discussed since the 1980s have suggested that the building could combine uses as a canal history center and host events ranging from weddings to a variety of special events. Motorized "batteaux" might give rides on the Kanawha Canal to Agecroft Hall, Maymont Park, the Civil War museums, the visitor center at Tredegar and potentially to downtown. All that's needed is money.
Locking in Canal History
The James River Company, established in 1785 with George Washington as honorary president, opened the James and its branches to batteau navigation — for man-powered boats up to 60 feet long that shot down the sluices made for them and were laboriously poled back upstream. To take batteaux around the Falls of the James into Richmond, the company built two canals with locks that first opened in 1789, the first operating canal system using locks in the United States. This canal was soon extended through what is now Tredegar, into the Great Basin in downtown Richmond, which opened in 1800.
The James River & Kanawha Company, formed in 1835, replaced the batteau navigation with a canal along the James that was 197 1/2 miles long, reaching Lynchburg in 1840 and its terminus at Buchanan in 1851. This canal towpath enabled mules and horses to tow packet (passenger) boats and freight boats up to 93 feet long and 14 1/2 feet wide. It had 90 locks, altogether lifting boats a total of 728 feet.
The Tidewater Connection, with five locks and a Ship Lock, completed in 1854, connected Richmond's Great Basin with the James, lifting boats 107 feet. The Great Ship Lock was large to allow passage of ocean-going vessels into the Richmond Dock. The five Tidewater Connection Locks enabled canal boats to navigate down to the Richmond Dock.
"The James River & Kanawha Canal was a complex system in constant flux," says Jimmy Moore. The operation involved not only the packet and batteau craft, their crews and passengers, but the locks maintained by keepers who often lived on the canal, toll collectors and maintenance crews who traveled the length of the canal on houseboats. Canal people worked hard and played hard and the towns along the way benefited from their visits. "This is such a vibrant part of our story and it's so little understood these days," Moore says.
The Batteau of Dreams
The batteau served as the Conestoga wagon of the canal. The boats often featured covered-wagon-style awnings. In experienced hands, batteaux could travel the same places a whitewater canoe might, thus they traversed the James River before the canal's completion.
Once in the canal, however, out of concern for puncturing the canal bed, poling wasn't allowed. Some of the boatmen would jump into the shallow canal and pull the craft along until resorting to mule power to bring them in and out of town.
Archaeologist Bruce Terrell's thesis focused on one batteau, dubbed No. 28. The find proved fortunate. The open, double-ended 58-foot-long, 7-foot-wide boat may have sunk in a sudden rush. On the remaining cooking hearth, he found a three-legged iron skillet with a handle and a lid, pots and pans, and within the boat a shovel blade and an axe head with a broken handle. There also traces of slate that might've been the boat's cargo.