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Sunday, October 09, 2005

Batteau Day brings back canal's history

PETERSBURG - Once upon a time, there were people called batteau men. Rugged and adventurous by today's standards, they braved the waterways of Virginia to transport goods and agriculture from one city to another.

Their history may seem something of a legend. In modern times, it's hard to envision two men poling an 8,000-pound "batteau," or the French equivalent of a boat, from Petersburg to Farmville. Load that batteau up with a cargo of tobacco or hogsheads and you have a mighty fun 120 miles to cover.Celebrating the legacy of the long-forgotten batteau men is what yesterday's 16th annual Batteau Day festival at Appomattox River Park was all about."Some people re-enact the Civil War. We like pretending to be boat men," said William Trout. "It's a little more civilized."And quieter. Dressed in period garb from the 1800s, batteau enthusiasts spent the day floating passengers up and down the peaceful, man-made canal of the Appomattox. Until the railroad came along in the late 19th century, the same canal bustled with batteaux from Petersburg. Their deliveries fueled the area's economy."[Batteau Day] is a way to bring history back to this part of the country," said David Haney, a batteau enthusiast. "So much of history is forgotten. It's also to bring people back to the community to let them know they do have a canal here."Trout, a member of the Virginia Canals and Navigations Society, is a local expert on Virginia waterways. He's studied the Appomattox canal in depth and even published an atlas on his findings."This is one of the few canals in Virginia that you can actually take a boat on," he said. "[Batteaux] bypassed the dangerous part of the river so there could be commerce."The batteau way of life is unique in American history. Many batteau men were slaves who were permitted to travel hundreds of miles from their homestead. Some were freed blacks. Special laws allowed them to cross state lines several times in one trip.The batteau itself is a long, narrow, flat-bottomed water craft that is poled through the water. The largest batteaux could carry up to 12,000 pounds of cargo. Because of the batteau and the canal system, new cities came about and Virginia became linked to the global economy. But at Batteau Day, the main focus is the pioneering spirit of the batteau era. The festival featured a museum of Appomattox history and photos provided by Larry Holt, a Colonial Heights resident whose ancestors were batteau people in Matoaca."Batteau people could do anything," Trout said. "Even the modern batteau people can do almost anything."

* Julie Buchanan may be reached at 722-5155. ┬ęThe Progress-Index 2005

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