From the Richmond Times-Dispatch, 5/9/1948, p. 53, c. 1
Some Still Remember the ‘Good Old Canal Days’
‘No Smoother Form of Transportation Is Imaginable,’ Says One Who, at Age of 9, Adventured to Columbia
By Jim Jenkins, Jr.
EVEN before the last echoes of the mournful old packet horns had been absorbed by the hills, Virginians from one end of the canal to the other were talking about the “good old canal days” – they still are. The James River and Kanawha Canal had served them in many capacities, it had been a way of life, a life filled with pleasant things. With its passing a whole era was gone – only the memories are left.
If the murmuring language of the canal could be understood, many fascinating tales of romance, grief, scandal, death and laughter would be heard. Fortunately, the retentive minds of those who were children during “canal days” have recorded for us a few of the more poignant memories. Mrs. Charles L. DeMott, of Lynchburg, whose father was the beloved Dr. William E. Hatcher of Fork Union, remembers vividly a trip she made on the canal when she was a little girl. It was a memorable excursion for a 9-year-old and the indelible stamp of adventure imprinted the journey forever on her mind.
“My mother and two sisters and I left Richmond at 2:30 in the afternoon and arrived at Columbia, (55 miles up canal), at noon the next day. The white packet boat with its green trimming shone in the June sunlight as we crowded aboard. There was an air of alertness about the boat, lying there waiting while we piled our suitcases, telescopes, bandboxes and the like on the spotless deck.
“No smoother for of transportation is imaginable,” Mrs. DeMott says, “the boat gliding along the water, towed by the ropes attached to horses on the tow-path. But a terrifying feature of the ride was the locks, where the dipping boar, riding on the poorly controlled waters, made many passengers, fearful of accident. I remember one old lady, dressed in black alpaca, wailing at each experience!”
Winter-time brought altogether a different picture on the canal. Mrs. Lutie Page Ramos of Richmond, recalls with fond affection her childhood and young girlhood spent at Scottsville, where her father, John M. Page, operated a line of freight boats on the canal, Mrs. Ramos, who is now a very youthful eighty-nine, remembers what a hard time the boats would have when the canal froze over.
“The boats would have to stay just where they were when a big freeze came. There they were, frozen in place I the canal until the weather moderated and the canal thawed,” recalls Mrs. Ramos.
“The children and young people were the only ones who really enjoyed the freeze. We would go to the first lock above Scottsville as soon as the Canal was frozen. Oh! What skating parties we would have.
“But the freight line men were not so enthusiastic. A freeze meant long delays and a complete break-down of their shipping schedules. One year,” continued Mrs. Ramos, “just before Christmas, the weather turned bitterly cold and my father was afraid the freight boats could not get through with their precious Christmas cargo. I recall how he cautioned us to carefully hoard our small supply of nuts for fear the ones intended for the holidays would not arrive in time if the canal froze.”
Scandal rode the canal waters, too. In 1851, William P. Adcock, cap’n of the packet, “General Scott,” was arrested and tried on a charge that he had “embezzled one box containing sheeting, shirting, linsey, tweeds, etc.” which had been delivered to him to be shipped to Buchanan. The box had been sent by Word, Ferguson, and Barksdale Company, of Richmond, to Ayres and Company, of Buchanan, but it had never reached its destination.
When the canal boat was searched, a part of the contents of the box was found in the captain’s cabin! “Sheetings, osnaburgs, fringe, spool cotton, and other articles bearing the private mark of the shipper” were found in his quarters. Captain Adcock claimed that the goods had been stolen from the boat but he was judged guilty and sentenced to a year in the penitentiary.
Wilkes Jones, ancient colored man of Buckingham, is another who has told of the delights of riding the packet boat, “When de win’ was in de east you could hear dem horns migh’ nigh half a day ‘fore dey got here. De longer de horn, de better you could blow. Sound pretty, too, on de water. Ef you got on dat packet boat – you wouldn’t know ‘twas movin’ twel you looked out de window. Easiest ridin’ in de world.”
Perhaps the saddest function the James River and Kanawha Canal was ever called upon to perform was when its waters bore the packet boat, “Marshall,” with the body of “Stonewall” Jackson resting in his last long sleep, up through the hills from Lynchburg to Lexington. John M. Daniel, editor of the Richmond Examiner, expressed the thoughts of thousands of Jackson’s admirers who lined the canal: “Jackson is dead. When that austere ghost entered the realm of departed spirits, Ceasar, Hannibel, Alexander, and all the great warriors of antiquity arose and humbly bowed in reverence.”
The canal still serves useful purposes. In times of drought, Richmond drinking water flows down it and it is a source of water power for the Richmond pumping station, the Albemarle Paper Company and the Tredegar Iron Works. The Virginia Electric Power Company takes water from the canal for cooling steam condensers and when the water is high uses canal power to supplement the regular power. The municipal power plant below Hollywood cemetery gets its power from the canal, too. The city dock, part of the old canal system, forms a harbor for small boats and its lock at Twenty-sixth Street still is in operation.