Off the “warpath”, and on the river

Posted on July 17, 2011 by


This morning being the way it is today (almost early September-like), I find my mind in other places than working toward the First Battle of Manassas/Bull Run, or focusing on some aspect of war, whether that be the Civil War or the First World War. Rather, I’m in the mindset, today, of the Valley before “THE wawar”.

Specifically, thoughts turn to Harper’s Ferry, and the Shenandoah River leading up (down, actually) to it. Now, I’ve focused, from time to time, here in this blog, on the C&O Canal, and, I think, at times, folks might be under the impression that canal systems were the only way to work through the waterways in this general area (whether that be at the northern edge of the Shenandoah Valley, with the C&O Canal, or, further south of the Valley proper, along the canal system that ran along the James River).

What’s amazing is the way in which people and businesses of the Shenandoah Valley actually used the river to get their produce and other items (including pig iron from the local furnaces) to Harper’s Ferry. After all, the Valley didn’t begin to see a turnpike system (and, no, the Valley Turnpike/today’s, more or less, Rt. 11, was not the only pre-Civil War turnpike system in the Shenandoah) until the early 19th century… and even then, the advantages of the turnpike systems were limited.

Now, of course, George Washington, being totally into the whole river navigation and canal thing, was all for looking into using the South Fork of the Shenandoah to Harper’s Ferry. In fact, in 1784, Washington wrote about it in his diary (while visiting at the home of Gabriel Jones, near present day Port Republic). Certainly, it would mesh well with the idea of Washington’s visions of the Patowmack Company… though he wouldn’t live to see them through.

Still, by 1814, other people had taken the idea to reality, and the New Shenandoah Company was established by Act of the General Assembly. Dredging being out of the question, the idea was to use flat-bottomed boats, known generally as “gundalows”. The following abstract from an article, written by Seth C. Bruggeman for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, sums up the purpose of the “gundalow”:

View from the ruins of the old Kauffman Mill, just west of Luray. From mills such as this one, grain was loaded on boats headed to Harper’s Ferry. The South Fork of the Shenandoah River is in the background

Amid a burgeoning wheat economy, entrepreneurial Virginians organized the New Shenandoah Company in 1814 to ensure a reliable river trade throughout the Shenandoah River Valley. Farmers and boatmen risked dangerous journeys along the turbulent Shenandoah for an opportunity to access the wealth of eastern markets. At the center of this system was a cheap, disposable boat known locally as a “gundalow.” Thousands of gundalows traveled from such towns as Port Republic to Harpers Ferry, where they were broken down and sold as scrap lumber. Consequently, gundalow lumber found its way into buildings along the river, including some that still stand today. Although the gundalow’s impermanence has long obscured its place in Valley history, this essay suggests that historians stand to benefit from reconstructing the unusual life of this unassuming boat. Specifically, the gundalow’s story promises to shed light on the development of the Valley’s mixed economy during the early nineteenth century and particularly on the role of slavery therein.

James Huffman

One of those to leave an account of boating on the Shenandoah in a “gundalow”-type boat was cousin James Huffman. Ironically enough, the account comes from his book, Ups and Downs of a Confederate Soldier. Huffman “had considerable experience boating down the river and made good many trips,” usually hauling lumber to Harper’s Ferry.

We could take on one boat from six to ten thousand feet of lumber – according to the tide and the weight of the lumber.  With good tide and good luck, as it is called, we could run down in three or four days.  On a low water it took longer and it required a day or a day and a half to come home.  Sometimes we would raft heavy timber.  I never boated for anybody but ourselves, although I dearly loved the business.  Some of the boatmen were rough people, but not all.

Two men were required to a boat; one to run and the other to hold the stern.  Sometimes we would double at extremely bad places where there was great danger of breaking and sinking, by tying some boats to the bank and three or four men getting on each boat and then walking back and forth, bringing the others through.  Sometimes the boats would break and sink in spite of all that could be done.

Rare image of a flatboat navigating the rapids of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River; likely in the early 20th century.

Another view of the South Fork of the Shenandoah from Kauffman’s Mill.

I was going down one time with three big loads.  The river was good.  I had ten thousand feet on my boat.  As we were crossing a little navigation dam, a rock somehow caught the side of the boat and took a bottom plank off, five feet long.  I was close to the bank and saw at a glance the boat was going down.  I pulled to the shore, ground hard against the bank and stopped just in time to save going over a rough set of falls.  By this time, the boat was filled with water.  We had to unload every plank, wheel the boat around, draw it out on the bank where the broken place could be reached, bale the water out, prize it up, put on another plank, calk it, reload and run down to the others that evening, by a little after dark.  Our boats were 72 and 78 feet long, 9 ½ feet wide.

Of course, as Huffman pointed out, there were perks to flatboating…

The best of the story, I have not yet told.  A very large spotted sucker (stone-toter, I called it) came in through the hole.  This fish made a good meal for the six of us.

Though it’s a fading memory of the past, every once in a while, you’ll find someone in the central and upper Shenandoah Valley who will recount, not from memory, but from stories, of how Valley men would take their boats to Harper’s Ferry, sell their goods, break-up their boats, and sell the timbers, before finally returning home on foot.

In addition to selling-off goods and gundalow timbers, a stop at one of Harper’s Ferry’s stores might also be in order, to make a few purchases prior to returning to the central Shenandoah on foot. Philip Frankel’s clothing store (men’s clothes “ready to wear”) was one of the stores offering such conveniences, between 1858 and 1860.