200 years ago today Chief Justice John Marshall, along with a crew of boatmen, completed a river survey through Appalachia aimed at determining the feasibility of a canal that would connect Richmond with the Ohio River Valley. A canal would drastically improve the movement of goods and people through the Appalachian frontier and would facilitate economic development and political unity in our fledgling Nation. In 1832 construction on just such a canal began, and though it was ultimately outpaced by railway technology, Marshall’s path continues as a vital transportation corridor through Appalachia – now home to CSX railroads and Interstate 64.
In tribute to Marshall’s vision and courage my crew and I embarked on our own journey. Marshall traveled in a James River Batteau – the primary cargo vessel of the day and we spent two months meticulously constructing our own batteau. Following in Marshall’s footsteps, the 43’x7’ Mary Marshall would be our home for nearly two months as we traveled 225 miles upstream on the James and Jackson Rivers, then descended 130 miles on the Greenbrier and New.
Our journey began on April 5 just upstream from Richmond, VA on the James River. The learning curve was steep as we left Richmond, but with five men on poles and one on the rear sweep steering, our crew quickly fell into a rhythm as we learned to fight the current upstream. Working long days that often lasted well into the night, we traversed 140 miles through the gentle rolling hills of the Virginia Piedmont to Lynchburg in ten days.
After arriving in Lynchburg we portaged around 23 miles of dams and put back in at Snowden. From there we pushed directly into the James River Gorge, where we fought through the most significant rapid on the James, Class III Balcony Falls. Beyond Balcony the crew reveled in the beauty of Appalachia, and while the James was noticeably steeper in the mountains, our attitude was generally more relaxed. In the last 25 miles on the Jackson River we gained over 200 feet of elevation, battling for every foot through virtually non-stop whitewater. On May 5, we arrived in Covington, VA completing our upstream journey.
After trailering the boat across the Alleghenies, we launched into the Greenbrier from the exact spot Marshall did 200 years ago. The next week was a true joy, as we rode a swollen river from one welcoming town to the next. Gone were the long days of poling upstream; instead we daily enjoyed West Virginia hospitality.
After a carefree 50 miles on the Greenbrier, we entered the New River and got back in the zone. The New is a high volume river with massive whitewater unlike anything we had seen to this point. Each rapid we ran on the New brought us closer to the climax of our Journey- the New River Gorge. The Gorge is home to a five mile series of huge III-IV rapids; a place where even the slightest error could spell disaster.
After a week of scouting we launched into the Gorge on May, 18th with a sizable entourage of NPS safety and private boaters eager for carnage. The day was cold and rainy, but rapid by rapid we worked our way through the technical whitewater of the New River Gorge, our confidence building every step of the way. Crashing through massive 8-10 foot waves in a 43’ long wooden boat was one of the greatest rushes of my life, and by three o’clock that afternoon we had become the first Batteau crew in 125 years to successfully descend the New River Gorge, and had completed our journey.
Over our 225 miles upstream and 130 miles downstream we were able to experience firsthand the rivers and craft Marshall traveled 200 years ago, giving us a glimpse into his vision. Appalachia is still a rugged region, and the rivers we traveled are still for the most part wild and beautiful. Marshall’s willingness to step out into the unknown is a testament to the lengths our founders were personally willing to go to in order to effect development in our Nation.
For more information on the Marshall Expedition you can check out our detailed blog at www.vacanals.org/marshall
Our National Geographic Geostory is a more succinct storyline. If you haven’t checked out Geostories, be sure to take a look!
The trailer for our forthcoming movie with Amongstit.tv can be viewed here.