The story below is an excerpt from our Jan./Feb. 2016 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
Why would the U.S. Chief Justice, at age 57, take on the treacherous New River in a batteau? And why would somebody do it again in the same kind of vessel, 150 years later?
Imagine 57 year-old John Marshall—who, in 1812, just so happened to be the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court—poised at the stern of a 60-foot-long wooden batteau. Picture his arms braced about the rudder’s wooden handle, shouting commands to his crew as they crash through the New River Gorge’s wildly churning 10-foot waves, seeking to guide his vessel through the treacherous, class IV rapids. That’s preposterous, you say. Could never have happened.
And yet, astonishingly enough, it did.
And why would the Chief Justice be out risking his noteworthy neck adventuring in what was then a largely uninhabited wilderness area?
“Into the early 19th century, the mid-western territories were highly contended,” says Bill Trout, founder of the Virginia Canal Society. “To control those territories, the U.S. needed to establish strong economic ties with its settlers.”
In other words, the fledgling nation had to find a way to make transporting goods to and from the eastern seaboard easier. Which, prior to the advent of the railroad, meant connecting the Ohio River Valley (via the Kanawha River) with the James River by means of a network of canals.
Hence the purpose of Marshall’s expedition: to determine the feasibility of such an endeavor.
Now, fast-forward to the year 2012.