Early Navigation and Power on the Appomattox River
Before the railroad era, shipping on Virginia’s navigable rivers via wooden river batteau was common. Navigation canals were constructed along difficult river passages to make navigation easier and more efficient. In this post, I’ll show and describe ruins of an impressive series of navigation locks and aqueduct on the Upper Appomattox Canal. Other canals, like the one appearing above and below left were constructed to power mills and (later) power generating turbines.
Monday, I had the pleasure of a guided tour with Steve Thomas, a Friends of the Lower Appomattox River (FOLAR) board member, master canoeist, and knowledgeable amateur historian, along a stretch of the Appomattox at Petersburg, Virginia. Folar is in the process of developing a public trail along this historic stretch of the Appomattox beginning at Campbell’s Bridge, a river crossing used by part of Robert E. Lee’s army during its retreat from Petersburg in 1865.
A number of former mill sites, canal ruins and dams are visible along the trail. One of the most impressive is the site of the Battersea Cotton Mill (above right) at the outfall of the former Battersea Canal. (The trail here follows the Battersea Canal’s unwatered bed.)
FOLAR plans to continue trail development and eventually place historical signage at important sites along the way. For more information and to support their good work, please contact FOLAR directly.
Our destination was the Indian Creek (now Rohoic Creek) toll locks and aqueduct on the Upper Appomattox Canal, the ruins of which are located on private property near the confluence of Rohoic Creek and the Appomattox River. (This is a sensitive historical site surrounded by active heavy industry and a rail line. Please do not trespass!)
The navigation canal, like other river canals, was created by diverting water from the Appomattox River into a human-made channel next to the river. Locks and dams kept the water level in canals constant and were used to raise and lower river batteaus. The four locks here lowered the boats 33 feet. These structures, an impressive example of 19th-century engineering, were completed by 1826 and used until the 1890s.
What does all this have to do with confluences? When a canal parallels a river, circumnavigating a tributary’s entry into that river presents an engineering challenge. At Rohoic Creek, a massive aqueduct carried the canal and its traffic over Rohoic Creek in the same way a highway bridge carries the road over a stream.
In the photograph below, massive stone abutments originally supporting the aqueduct appear at right; Rohoic Creek can be seen to the left. The aqueduct probably carried the canal toward high ground on the other side of Rohoic Creek, perhaps where vine covered trees appear in the background.
Sites like these along a river are reminders of how soon and how profoundly American waterways were changed to accommodate European settlement and economic development. As these old structures disappear into ruin and their dams erode or are blasted away, it may become easier to imagine the wild river again even as we continue to change it profoundly. What will our descendants reflect upon when they visit, in ruin, today’s transportation infrastructure?
Note: I am indebted to Steve Thomas and W.E. Trout’s The Appomattox River Atlas for factual information in this post.