A hard life on the water / Exhibit recounts history of blacks on state rivers

Richmond Times-Dispatch, Sunday, September 26, 1999 (http://www.gatewayva.com/rtd/special/canal/bateau0926.shtml)

Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

While the waterways of Virginia are rich with history,
scant light has been shed on the slaves who built the canals;
only recently have black bateaumen emerged from the shadows.
IN TRIBUTE. This statue of a black bateauman dominates the terrain of Brown's Island along Richmond's Canal Walk.
Their history is written on the James River and its tributaries.

But black bateaumen are largely shadows in the annals of Virginia history.

That could be changing.

From Roanoke to Richmond, efforts are under way to bring the history of bateaumen into the light.

The efforts parallel a resurgence of interest in that period when bateaumen plied the James and other Virginia waterways.

From the 1820s through the 1840s -- the high point of trade on the James River -- accounts suggest that as many as 500 bateaux worked the upper James from Richmond to Lynchburg, employing 1,500 men in the risky, high-adventure enterprise.

Those who have studied the period have said most of the river workers seem to have been black, either slaves or freedmen.

The bateaumen navigated rapids and used long poles to push their bateaux around rocks and through shallow water.

Those bateaux, usually 40 to 60 feet long, carried crops, finished goods and, occasionally, passengers.

In some ways, bateaux were cutting-edge transportation in those years when much of Virginia could be reached only with horses along wilderness trails.

LeRoy Lowe, a 56-year-old Roanoker, is one of those who hopes to bring new emphasis to the role of black bateaumen and to blacks generally who worked on Virginia's rivers.

"The lives of African-Americans were not amply covered in my history class," Lowe said wryly.

"We need to know what happened. When we talk about Virginia history, we're talking about American history, because Virginia is ground zero."

. . .

Lowe is part of a budding African-American interpretive program at Explore Park, a recreational and educational destination that unfolds over 1,100 acres just off the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The bateau exhibit, which opened last month, enables visitors to take short bateau rides on the Roanoke River, using a secure cable system.

As tourists feel the river under them, or stand on shore, Lowe will talk about the lives of the men who worked the river.

"I will try to represent accurately the hopes and aspirations of the people of that time, in terms of what it meant for them to get to a place where their labor would be paid for," Lowe said.

"I want to represent to the American people what that history was like. It's not a movie, it's a living thing. And I would like to create a sense of that."

Black bateaumen, Lowe said, were known to save the money they made from working on the river so they could buy freedom for themselves and for their families.

Roger Ellmore, executive director of Explore Park, said the interpretive program was developed in conjunction with the Harrison Museum of African-American Culture in Roanoke.

"I think we're going to surprise people with a lot of this information, because it hasn't been told," Ellmore said.

One noteworthy item came from a check of the Census records of the 1830s and 1840s for the Roanoke Valley.

"Twenty-five percent of the population was African-American. It was a pretty significant population," Ellmore said.

Today, about one-quarter of the school population that visits Explore Park is black, and, Ellmore said, the bateau exhibit "is something they can identify with."

. . .

One unexpected development already has occurred as the interpretive program has begun taking shape.

"In the African-American communities, people are coming forward and telling me about their history," Lowe said.

"I think African-American visitors who come here will see a nexus between what happened here and what happened in their past."

Dr. Reginald Shareef, associate professor of political science and public administration at Radford University, helped develop the African-American interpretive program at Explore Park.

The program was funded by the Horace Fralin Charitable Trust, a longtime supporter of Explore Park, which wanted to reflect the African-American experience in western Virginia.

"One of the things I was interested in," Shareef said, "was the history of how free blacks lived and contributed to economics in this part of the state in pre-Civil War Virginia.

"They were so important that a separate set of laws was drawn up for them. That happens in free-market economics where people contribute."

Shareef added that bateaumen, whether slave or free, had an especially important role in society, because they were heavy contributors to the economic system.

Both freedmen and slaves could earn money on the river, and their spending habits directly affected river communities.

Although bateaumen often were everyday heroes as they struggled with the vicissitudes of river life, only one in Virginia has achieved a measure of historical significance.

He is Frank Padget, a black bateauman and a slave who was immortalized when he gave his life trying to rescue a group whose boat had been swept over the dam at Balcony Falls in Rockbridge County.

According to one account, about a dozen crew members from the Clinton, a large, covered freight boat, were stranded on a mossy rock on the icy night of Jan. 21, 1854.

When the sun arose the next day, Padget and a group of other volunteers braved the flood-swollen, turbulent James to mount a rescue.

Most of the men were rescued in the first attempt, but one remained on the rock.

Padget again volunteered to try to reach him. But his boat was crushed, and Padget drowned.

A local landowner, Capt. Edward Echols, witnessed Padget's bravery and commissioned a monument to mark his heroism.

Over the years, the 900-pound stone monument fell into obscurity. Then in the mid-1990s, Tom Kastner, a retired chief test pilot for the U.S. Navy, persuaded CSX Corp. to give the monument to him and help move it.

It now rests in Centennial Park in the Rockbridge County community of Glasgow, and Kastner has conveyed ownership of the monument to the county.

Plans call for it to be moved to a more prominent position in a 1½-acre park along the confluence of the James and Maury rivers.

"I was interested in seeing that Frank Padget got his due," said Kastner, 73.

He also has petitioned Rockbridge to establish Jan. 21 as "Frank Padget Day" on the school calendar.

"That way the kids will learn about him," Kastner said.

. . .

In Richmond, the role of the black bateaumen is recalled in a sculpture next to the city's renovated downtown canal.

For the most part, the historic record of the lives of bauteaumen on the James River is spotty and replete with what researcher Bruce G. Terrell describes as images that portray them as caricatures.

Terrell did his research on bateaux and bateaumen as part of a master's thesis in maritime history at East Carolina University.

He now is a marine archaeologist with the national marine sanctuary program operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Bateaus and the men who operated them were often romanticized in contemporary literature," he wrote in his thesis.

"The boatmen were not so much characterized as the grizzled thugs who plied the Mississippi, as they were romantically portrayed as a gang of rascally chicken thieves.

"In reality, 19th-century navigation on the upper James was a grueling endeavor performed primarily by slave labor."

Terrell said that one contemporary author, Alfred Percy, considered white bateaumen to be "a class of toughs," while black bateaumen received less harsh treatment.

George Bagby, an editor of the prestigious Southern Literary Messenger, was one of the best known chroniclers of the James River & Kanawha Canal.

In his book "Canal Remembrances," Bagby painted a stereotypical view of black bateaumen as "a laughing, humorous set, liked by everybody."

Another 19th-century writer, David Hunter Strother, noted that the music of the black bateaumen had a unique character, according to Terrell.

Strother, who wrote and illustrated for Harper's New Monthly Magazine, described it this way:

"The music and manner of singing were thoroughly African, and as different from the negro music of the day as from the Italian opera."

The themes, Strother said, were based on the events of plantation life and the melodies were "wild and plaintive, occasionally mingled with strange, uncouth cadences."

Terrell said that one day he would like to explore the role of bateaux on the development of "all the towns and cities on the Tidewater, because of the growth in the economy brought on by river navigation."

The bateaux, Terrell said, preceded the development of canals and for years were the lifeblood of river towns.

When the bateaux disappeared, one of the most ruggedly colorful group of characters in early American history -- the bateaumen -- did, too.

Getting there

Directions: Explore Park is along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Roanoke. Take Interstate 64 west to Interstate 81 south. At Roanoke, turn off I-81 onto Interstate 581, which becomes U.S. 220 south, then intersects with the parkway. Head north on the parkway to milepost 115. Then, following the signs, turn onto the Roanoke River Parkway into the park.
Hours: Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.
Admission: $8 for adults, $6 for senior citizens and $4.50 for students ages 6 to 18; children younger than 6 are admitted free.
Where to eat: Brugh Tavern at the park serves lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner from 5 to 10 p.m.
For details: Call (540) 427-1800.

© 1999, Richmond Newspapers Inc.