John Marshall Expedition
by Belinda Anderson
It could have been a scene from another century—six men poling a batteau of pine and white oak down the Greenbrier River.
Indeed, it was a scene from another century, the travelers paying tribute to an expedition led by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall two hundred years ago, in the hope of establishing a waterway transportation route from Virginia all the way to the Great Falls of the Kanawha at Gauley Bridge. These six men began their journey April 5th in Richmond, making their way through Virginia without much fanfare. That changed when they reached Alderson. Folks there dangled a welcoming banner from the pedestrian bridge. Margaret Hambrick, Alderson Main Street treasurer, called from the riverbank,
“If you have time, we have free hot coffee.” Unable to resist such a hospitable invitation, the travelers pulled to a stop by a riverbank, where curious citizens clambered aboard to check out the Mary Marshall. Several of the expeditioneers left the vessel and made their way to the newly opened Greenbrier River Interpretive Center. Kevin Ferrell became the center’s first customer, buying a fishing pole and Tshirt. Relaxing and drinking coffee, expedition leader Andrew Shaw marveled at the reception. The expedition has received shows of support along the way, Shaw says, but “nothing like this.”
The bridge welcome was organized by Friends of the Lower Greenbrier River, which provided food and rest stops, arranging for the crew to stop in Talcott to speak to elementary school students, and to visit Hinton. AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers Renee Hemmelgarn and Amanda Sandidge boarded in Talcott, thrilling at the ride over Bacon Falls—and then helping with the bailing of water.
“It is such a momentous and inspiring occasion, not only because of its historical importance, but because it shows the dedication of one group of men,” says Sandidge. “They built this batteau by hand and have shown great determination in tackling the journey. They are so in love with history and this process that it can’t help but rub off on everyone they meet.”
Shaw, a kayaking enthusiast, was a history major at the University of Virginia when National Geographic visited the campus. At a workshop, he and buddy Wesley Andrews, an environmental science major, learned about the possibility of a Young Explorers Grant. But Shaw didn’t wait for funding to begin—he committed all his savings to lumber and other supplies before receiving financial assistance.
“I couldn’t see myself getting a real job,” he says. “I’m not done having adventures.” It was the perfect adventure for Shaw, who already had helped build a squareshaped vessel for the annual James River Batteau Festival in Lynchburg, Virginia. But he wanted to construct a new boat for the expedition. “Given the task at hand, we decided to build a tapered boat,” offering better water displacement, so that the boat would slide through the water, rather than pushing it. Still, the journey presented challenges. Even following the path of least resistance, sticking close to the banks, at times, Shaw says, “We clawed our way, grabbing one tree after another.”
Here’s one of his blog entries about a harrowing section in Virginia: (Unlike John Marshall’s boat, Shaw’s vessel carries a laptop computer and an iPhone.) … we tucked behind Wreck Island, a route none of us had seen but that allowed us to skip Wreck Island Falls, named for numerous batteaux destroyed there … The path behind Wreck Island was difficult and we were unsure if we would actually be able to make it out at the top. We dragged the boat through several ledges, and only narrowly made it through a series of log jams at the head of the island back into the main flow. The challenges just heightened the expeditioneers’ appreciation for what their forbearers accomplished 200 years ago. “The vision that our founders had, what they were willing to do, I think about that a lot,” Shaw says. “It’s a real testament to the lengths our founders were willing to go to make this country great.”
Today it’s hard to imagine a canal system for trade, accustomed as we are to trucks and trains carrying cargo at great speeds. But at the time of the expedition, even though trains were in use, canal transportation still seemed a viable option. Shaw says trains chugged along at a pokey 20 miles per hour and “caused a ton of fires.” Now, he says, railroad tracks, Interstate 64 and Route 60 follow Marshall’s path. “CSX does what the canal was intended to do.”
The experience on the river, and interactions with people along the way has heightened the commitment of crew member Wesley Andrews to environmental science. “It makes you feel more strongly about the river and how it’s important.” Andrews, Shaw, Dylan Schumacher and Ford Prior are 23. Dylan’s brother, Isaac, at 20, is the youngest of the crew. He didn’t hesitate to give up working at a Chinese restaurant and attending community college for this adventure. Now he knows that he wants to study river ecology and river geography. Ferrell, 33 is the elder of the crew. He’s a commercial fisherman with useful knowledge about such matters as knots and pulley systems. When he first heard about Shaw’s idea, his response was, “He’s crazy.” The next response: “I can’t turn him down. I was honored to be invited.”
One of the most satisfying aspects of the experience, he says, is “getting a team together and doing more than you can do by yourself. When someone is problem solving, we listen and do our best to back him up.” It’s the antithesis of our current television culture, with its recurring theme of getting ahead by reputation trashing, sabotage and conflict.
“We’ve not had one fight,” Shaw says. “Everyone has a good attitude.” The crew grew up on the James River, so each member brought experience to the expedition. “This crew is awesome at executing. Everyone is here to work. “No one person could have made this trip happen,” Shaw says. In addition to the extra crew hands, the trip also was made possible by sponsorship, including the National Geographic Society, the University of Virginia Alumni Association and the Virginia Canals and Navigations Society. Keen and ExOfficio contributed gear.
“We’re trying to show people what you can do on the river.” The Greenbrier in particular is a gem, he says. He’s seen other waterways littered with tires, their banks dotted with trash. The Greenbrier, he says, is pristine. None of the crew had ever seen the Greenbrier before. “We’re having a blast. It’s a beautiful river.” The crew has another mission, too, Shaw says. “We’re trying to tell a story about the vision of our founders to establish a feasible trade route.”
The team seems to have succeeded: “I think we tend to forget the hardships and privations suffered by our ancestors in exploring and settling this country,” says Margaret Hambrick, who halted the expedition in Alderson with her offer of coffee. “This recreation of the Marshall expedition reminds us of their fortitude and willingness to sacrifice themselves to move our country forward. Perhaps we can apply a little of that spirit to our own lives.”
Readers can follow the expedition blog at www.vacanals.org/marshall
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