Staunton River Tour
Halifax County, Virginia


 Steamboats on the Staunton


Designed to Float in a Heavy Dew
The NELLIE and the JEAN, by W.E. Trout, III

ILLUSTRATION: This teapot on a raft plied the Roanoke Navigation between Brookneal and Randolph in the 1880's. The drawing (cleaned up with a computer by Lyle Browning) was made by the steamboat's Captain, John William Harvey.


Steamboats have never been successful on Virginia's rivers above the fall line. But you have to credit Charles Bruce with having the gumption to build a shallow-draft steamboat back in the 1870's and when it wasn't shallow enough to build another one.

The canal society goes out to river festivals and sets up a tent and table mainly to talk to people who can tell us about canals and rivers. So we were particularly excited to meet Mr. R. H. Dameron, now of course a member of VC&NS, at Danville's Batteau Day in 1993. He told us about a family heirloom, a drawing that his great-grandfather, John William Harvey, made when he was Captain of a steamboat which once plied the Staunton River between Brookneal and Randolph. It's an amazing drawing, which makes you itch to build a replica and try it out.

Mr. Dameron showed the drawing to historian Herman Ginther, who has a chapter on Bruce's steamboats in his book, Captain Staunton's River. The original drawing is very fragile, faded and spotted, so Mr. Ginther made an enlargement of it, carefully redrew it, and made several hand-colored copies for his friends, including VC&NS. At our request. He offered to make more copies for those who are especially interested, hand-colored and suitable for framing, for $25 each. Just write Herman Ginther at 330 Virginia Avenue, Brookneal, VA 24528-3018.

At the same time, archaeologist Lyle Browning took our Xerox of the original, scanned it into his computer, and cleaned it up to make the illustration in this article. Thanks to Mr. Dameron, we have compared it with original so we think we've got it right. Note the quaint teapot boiler in the front, and an extension on the back which Mr. Dameron explained was a float to keep the sternwheel from dragging in the shallows.

Captain Harvey made the original drawing while the steamboat was moored at the landing in Brookneal, perhaps in the 1880's. At that time Brookneal was at the head of navigation on the Staunton (also called the Roanoke) River in Campbell County, not far from the Bruce plantation, Staunton Hill. The steamboat ran between Brookneal and Randolph in Charlotte County, 31 miles downriver, where cargo and passengers could be transferred to the Richmond and Danville Railroad.

Captain Staunton's River (now, alas, out of print) has this to say about Charles Bruce's steamboats (quoted with permission):
Charles Bruce, who built Staunton Hill, placed two small steamboats in operation on the river. The boats operated upstream as far as Brookneal, which was considered the head of navigation on the river for such vessels. The sound of the steamboat whistle on the river was the signal for large crowds of people to turn out and watch the boat come in for a landing. The late Mrs. R. E. Gilliam of Brookneal said her grandfather, Dr. Hudnall, purchased an organ in Danville and had it shipped to Randolph and up the river to Brookneal on Bruce's steamboat.

In his Recollections, William Cabell Bruce of Staunton Hill wrote:
"His aim, he jocularly said, bearing in mind the shallow depths and rocky reefs of the Staunton River, was to build a boat with as light a draught as one of those Federal gun-boats, of the Civil War period, which Abraham Lincoln asserted could run upon a heavy dew. Indeed, the Staunton River was, perhaps, one of the shallow streams which Sunset Cox, the witty member of the House of Representatives from New York, had in his thoughts when he declared, or is reputed to have declared, after the Civil War, in connection with a wasteful River and Harbor Bill enacted by Congress, that such streams should be macadamized, if anything was to be made of them as highways. But even after a considerable amount of Federal money had been expended on the improvement of the navigation of the Staunton River, the waters between Brookneal and Roanoke (Station) (now Randolph) were still not deep enough, everywhere, at low-water mark, for the draught of my father's steamboat. It was a small boat, and I remember little about it now except that once, when a visitor, who was inspecting it, commented on the tiny size of its kitchen, its cook wittily replied: "Yes, but it is a kitchen in which dinner can be cooked before you can turn around."

"Subsequently, my father built another small steamboat, to take the place of the first, which had the proper draught; but it, too, was not a pecuniary success."

Steamboat navigation came late in the development of navigation on the upper Roanoke. The Roanoke Navigation Company improved the river for batteau navigation, starting in 1815, and it reached its peak in 1828 when over 351 miles of the Roanoke, Dan, Banister and Staunton were open for navigation-the Staunton as far up as Salem, at present day Roanoke. The worst part of the Staunton for boats was just above Brookneal, where elaborate channels for batteaux were constructed along 11 miles of the falls. This is now the beautiful Staunton State Scenic River, enjoyed today by canoeists and batteaumen who can still run the boat sluices. But maintenance of this section was abandoned about 1840, leaving Brookneal as the upriver head of navigation on the Staunton.

After the Civil War, in 1879-1889, The Corps of Engineers took over the maintenance of the Staunton River from Brookneal down to Randolph. The objective was to improve key sections of rivers which flowed from isolated parts of the country, down to railway crossings. The Corps reported in 1879 that this part of the Staunton was "navigable by batteaux at all times and at mean winter water by one steamer of 14" draft"- no doubt Mr. Bruce's. The 1880 Corps report noted that Mr. Bruce had spent $10,000 (probably his own money) in improving the navigation. Then in 1886 the Corps reported that Mr. Bruce had completed the JEAN, a (presumable new) stern-wheeler 85' long; and the 1888 report stated that "One steamer, Jean, of 91 feet length and 14 feet breadth, constructed to ply between Brook Neal and Randolph, is engaged in Transportation on the river." In 1889 the Corps dropped the project and reported that there was then navigation for steamers of two-foot draft and 25 tons burden.

We wish the Corps had recorded more detail about Mr. Bruce's steamboat. The name remembered in Brookneal is the Nellie, thought to have been Bruce's first boat, the one discussed in William Cabell Bruce's Recollections. The Corps report indicates that his second boat was the Jean, 85 (or 91) feet long. Was the additional 6' length the float added at the stern? So is Captain Harvey's drawing of the Nellie, or of the Jean? Is there any more information out there? The Mariners Museum could not find anything about Bruce's boats in its files. And what happened to the boats after the 1800's? I vaguely remember reading somewhere that one of them, probably the first boat, ended up in Norfolk, but that needs to be checked.

Now, thanks to Mr. Dameron, we have some insight into a most amazing steamboat, especially adapted for shallow-water work. The drawing probably has enough detail to build a reasonable working replica. And it just happens that there is a new Staunton River Battlefield State Park across from Randolph. Focusing on the railway crossing, which was fortified during the Civil War, and they have been in touch with the canal society about interpreting the history of the river there, perhaps with a replica of a batteau. And less than 20 miles downriver on Buggs Island Lake is Staunton River State Park where hundreds of visitors congregate. Wouldn't it be exciting to carry visitors from one park to another on the replica of a boat which once navigated those same waters?

(Many thanks to R.H. Dameron, Herman Ginther and David Bruce for making this article possibe.)



The preceding article (reprinted here with the author's permission) was originally published in 
The Tiller, Vol. 17, Issue 3 - Fall 1996
by The Virginia Canals and Navigating Society

If you have more information about steamboats (and batteaux) on the Staunton, please let us know. We understand now that there were more than Bruce's two boats. Is anything known about them? Are any old boats on the bottom somewhere, that can be studied? A boiler said to have come from one of Bruce's boats was excavated at the steamboat landing in Staunton River Battlefield State Park in 1999 by the Peter Francisco Chapter of the Archeological Society of Virginia. Get in touch with the park or Bruce Cumbie at bcumbie@halifax if you're a steam engine or steamboat buff who can tell us more about it. There were also steamboats on the Dan. A photo of one of them, built by Tom Mebane, is on the cover of the Dan River Atlas.

Last updated on January 29, 2003
Direct your comments & inquiries to D.K. Barnes..
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