A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Two canal boats buried a century ago in an abandoned arm of the James River & Kanawa Canal have been unearthed in Richmond, Virginia. The discovery was made by archaeologists from Gray & Pape, a cultural resources firm, who were digging in advance of a sewage line project in 1997. One boat was known to be buried at the project site, but its remains were found to be nearly disintegrated. Unexpectedly, the archaeologists found a second boat whose entire bottom, parts of whose sides, and rudder were intact. Project funding and time constraints limited work that year to an initial investigation.
This past August, the Virginia Canals & Navigation Society (a local group of historians and canal enthusiasts) and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources backed a brief study of the site in which Gray & Pape archaeologists collaborated with canal specialists. Several period artifacts were found in the second boat, including a bottle and coin of pre-Civil War date, two corn knives, a singletree (used in hoisting loads), horseshoes, and leather goods. It is possible that the boat was built as early as 1840 and was simply left to sink in the canal when boat traffic stopped, but it may have been filled with earth and sunk purposely to close off the branch of the canal.
Promoted by George Washington as a commercial link to the Ohio Valley, the canal opened in 1789. First made for freight boats called bateaux, it was upgraded between 1840 and 1850 to accommodate larger boats towed by mules and horses. It closed in 1880 after a railroad was built alongside.
Plans call for the boat remains to be reburied in place. When the engineering firm installing a sewage pumping station there goes to work, it will dig through them. The Virginia Canals & Navigation Society and the Archeological Society of Virginia, however, have been offered the opportunity to conduct additional investigations after the Department of Historic Resources declares that Gray & Pape has completed its work. They plan to document the methods used to construct the boat and scan the woodwork for initials or other graffiti carved into it. If possible, they will remove some elements of the boat for curation, study, and display.
William E. Trout and Harry A. Jaeger are with the Archeological Society of Virginia.