Rafting the New River in the 1800s Part 2

west virginia's new river gorge

In my last post, I was talking about what a wild ride it must have been to go down the New River in the wooden bateau boats of centuries past. Here’s a great anecdote that describes the experience:In the summer of 1869, Collis P. Huntington (a C&O Railroad Executive) hired a bateau for $10 to take him and a group of railroad executives from Hinton to Hawk’s Nest (now a West Virginia State Park) to oversee the proposed route for the planned railroad. Bateaus were used early on to survey the route and to supply the work crews building the railroad.

In 1870, John Dempsey, said to have been the most experienced boatman in the county, took his bateau with three young C&O engineers, trailing a small yawl (a 12′ to 15′ longboat, used by the engineers to cross and re-cross the river). Somewhere below Cotton Hill near the “narrow falls” (possibly Landslide Rapid), the three young engineers attempted, under protest, to follow Dempsey down the river in the yawl. Unfortunately, they capsized and drowned – thus ending the practice of using bateaus for the railroad.

With the completion of the C&O Railroad in 1873, a much safer and easier form of transportation, it marked the end of their use on the Lower New River. But bateaus were used on the Upper New River sections, the Greenbrier and Lower Gauley River until the 1920s.

I have a thousand questions about this subject: Who was the first person to attempt this feat? What water levels did they attempt this at? How many men lost their lives? Are there any old boats still stuck out there somewhere? How long did it take to go from Thurmond to Fayette Station?

I can’t imagine there’s any old bateau boatmen out there, but maybe you’ve got some ideas?

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