Rafting the New River in the 1800s

new river gorge scenic view

More than 100,000 people raft the New River every year, challenging some of the East Coast’s biggest rapids.

As a guide, sitting in the back of a raft, I often wonder what it must have been like to challenge these same rapids more than a hundred years ago in a Bateau Boat.

It must have been hard, backbreaking work! The wooden boats were up to 70 feet in length. That’s five modern rafts tied together end-to-end. There was no turning those boats – line them up and go!

They were 10 feet wide, several feet deep, with rounded ends, usually with small decks on both ends – not to mention they were loaded down with thousands of pounds of freight. They used two rudders on both ends for steering and were propelled by 12-foot poles. Crews of up to four men were used to pole the boat along the river.

They didn’t have life jackets back then. Mistakes often proved fatal. And they didn’t have duct tape back then, either – if you hit a rock and cracked the wood, you were in trouble!

They used thick Ring Bolts (some of these bolts can still be found along the river), driven into the house-sized boulders along the shore to which heavy lines were attached in order to draw the boats through the more difficult chutes. You must realize that they traveled upstream as well as downstream. Could you imagine trying to get a fully loaded boat up Double Z Rapid? It would have been torturous work.

How many of you have ever even seen a wooden boat? (I’ll talk more about those bateau boats in my next post, too.)

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