RICHMOND, Va. — The mighty James. A watery wonderland drawing outdoor enthusiasts like a magnet. From kayakers to canoeists, it provides a river of relief from sizzling temperatures.
But 75 miles up river from Richmond two boaters see opportunity.
“This is the Cadillac experience of the James out here,” said Captain Will Cash.
Captains Will Cash at the bow and Will Smith at the stern helm the James River Batteau Company out of Scottsville.
”I think the middle James is about as special river than I’ve ever been on,” said Captain Will Smith. “More or less, this is smack in the middle of what is known as America’s Founding River.”
It's tour business nearly 15 years in the making.
”We’ve been talking about doing this forever so we said lets give this idea a try and here we are,” explained Cash.
Launched last summer, the friends from high school are riding a wave of success — at two miles an hour.
“So Batteau is the French word for boat,” said Smith. ”To start a business that is about a boat that 99% of the general public has never heard of it may have been a risky proposition.”
The Amherst County natives power their vessel and ply these shallow waters using a pole and old-fashioned elbow grease. Which is exactly the point.
“We get some steps that is for sure,” said Cash.
The Wills whisk their customers back two centuries to a time, when the Batteau ruled the river
”This has been an extremely looked over aspect of our history and unfortunately not a lot of Virginians know anything about,” said Smith.
Hundreds of flat-bottomed boats were fueling the Commonwealth’s economy for decades.
”Rivers like this, with the James River Basin here, this would have been this would have been the most important super highway really of the era,” explained Smith. “It is intricate to understanding the settlement of Virginia.”
Their business isn’t just about the bottom line. The captains pay homage to the forgotten boaters who toiled between Lynchburg and Richmond so long ago.
“It is a testament to their will and strength to be able to get these boats down the James,” said Cash.
The men are steering a tradition that began in the 1770s.
“The vast majority of men would have been enslaved African Americans, poor whites operating boats and a fair amount of freedmen operating boats as well,” said Smith.
The Batteau’s impact ebbed from the James River when railroads were introduced.
“The peak batteau year would have been 1830,” said Smith.
Gone are the cargoes of tobacco, sugar and tea. These 21st century Batteaumen entertain and educate customers offering tours by day and cruises at sunset along a stretch of the river dripping with natural beauty.
“Lots of wildlife out here. We’ve seen bald eagles, osprey bobcat and bear seen things like that out here,” said Cash. “So yeah this is one of the best places to come to and enjoy central Virginia and what it has to offer.”
Their ancient vessel is actually quite new.
“Most of the people just look and say ‘that is a gorgeous boat,” said Smith. “I don’t know what that is but I want to be on that boat.”
Last winter, the friends built their 45-foot boat christened Morning Dew by hand which was a months long labor of love. They created a craft unlike most others on James.
“When we first started doing it, we had people taking us for gator fishermen,” said Smith, laughing.
Potential customers like Sita Rose Young admire the captains’ conviction.
“It is so cool. We want to be part of the tour,” said Seta. “When you get synced up with nature to that level and know how to navigate a river like this. Priceless.”
For Smith, Batteau life has been part of family lore since he was born.
“I was afforded a front row seat to the resurgence of this watercraft and I consider that a privilege to bring that to the public,” said Smith.
Smith’s dad Ralph founded the James River Battaeu Fest in 1987. The same year Will was born.
“Clearly when my father introduced me to these boats he thought he was going to show me a special part of the world but I don’t think he thought it would be a career path but here we are,” said Smith.
Ralph’s son finds comfort following in his father’s wake.
“I see it almost as a sacred duty to be able to carry this on and I hope I’m making him proud,” said Smith.
Steering a hobby into a full-time calling with your lifelong friend.
“It is a story in Virginia that a lot of people don’t know,” said Cash. ”For sure. Will and I are lucky to do this.”
Will Smith and Will Cash, making a splash on the James River.
“We’ve spent a lot of hours out here in this water,” said Smith.
Captaining a new venture from stem to stern. A voyage that is also keeping the past afloat.
”We consider ourselves among the first full-time Batteaumen in about 150 years at this point so,” said Smith. “If people don’t talk about it or carry it on these things disappear.”