Buchanan and The James River & Kanawha Canal…

Buchanan, Virginia celebrating more than two centuries of history

Personally surveyed and planned by George Washington himself, the canal was begun in 1785 under the James River Company.

Buchanan Virginia is the western terminus of the James River & Kanawha Canal. Considered one of Virginia’s most remarkable engineering feats ever attempted, the Canal’s beginnings stretch back to 1785 when George Washington appeared before the General Assembly to propose building a canal from Tidewater up the James as far as practical, opening travel from the Atlantic to the Ohio River.

The General Assembly passed an act on January 14, 1785 approving the project. The James River Company formed as a result and George Washington was made its honorary president Edmund Randolf its acting president.

The James River Company’s Charter provided for a continuous waterway from Looney’s Ferry to the navigable water at Richmond. The first part of the Canal’s construction from Richmond seven miles westward took ten years to completer. Another twenty years passed and by 1816, difficult navigation from Richmond to Buchanan was possible.

Joseph Carrington Cabell, “Father of the James River and Kanawha Canal.”

In 1820, the State took over the James River Company and operated it until 1835. In 1832, the legislature passed a bill incorporating the James River and Kanawha Company to be a joint stock company with private subscriptions and State aid, replacing the original James River Company. Joseph Carrington Cabell served as president from 1832 until 1844 and was known as the “Father of the James River and Kanawha Canal.”

By 1835, sufficient funds were raised and work resumed on the section of canal between Richmond and Lynchburg. The second leg of construction from Lynchburg to Buchanan was started in 1841 and was completed in 1851. This 196 miles of the James River and Kanawha Canal cost $8,259,187.00.

View on the James River Canal from Harpers Weekly, Sept. 28, 1861

The first packet boat to travel from Lynchburg to Buchanan was named the “John Early.” It carried a large number of dignitaries, prominent citizens, members of the “Saunders Band” and cannoneers of the Lynchburg Artillery. The “John Early” left Lynchburg for Buchanan on November 11, 1851 at 6:30am. Newspapers reported of crowds gathered along the canal and at every lock to cheer the arrival of the packet boat as it passed from Lynchburg to Buchanan. About 8pm, a long blast from the packet boat horn echoed through the darkness and bounced from the banks and cliffs above the James, announcing to the residents of Buchanan, the arrival of prosperity and the “John Early.” The crowds along the banks had waited through the cold day for the “John Early’s” arrival and cheered in celebration as artillery roared a hearty welcome. A joyous occasion for the Town reports indicate that because the hotels had run out of sleeping quarters for all of the visitors, dances and parties were held through the night until dawn to occupy all of the people.

Still standing at 421 Lowe Street, the John S. Wilson Warehouse is known today as the Community House.

When plans were announced for the construction of the James River & Kanawha Canal to Buchanan, it sparked a tremendous boom within the community. John Wilson expanded his business and completed construction of his Wilson Warehouse and Jacob Haney began construction of the Hotel Botetourt.

Edward Beyer’s 1855 painting of Buchanan illustrates the many warehouses and businesses which sprang up along Water and High Streets. It is difficult for us to imagine how the physical isolation due to poor modes of transportation affected every day life and opportunities for trade. Cargoes of wheat and tobacco, iron ore and timber that once required the efforts of scores of animals and dozens of wagons and drivers to transport, now were pulled along by a few draft animals, a boy to ride one, a captain and a hand or two. What might have once taken weeks to travel, now only took three days to three and one half days.

An 1855 View of the Town of Buchanan by Edward Beyer on display in the Bank of Botetourt on Main Street. Today, the Swinging Bridge stands on the footers of the old covered bridge.

By the 1860’s revenues from the tolls on the Canal had substantially decreased due to competition from the newly constructed railroads combined with damage to the Canal system sustained during the Civil War, the James River and Kanawha Canal had brief comeback as bateaux’s were in demand due to the destruction of railroad lines by opposing armies. At this time, the Town of Buchanan served as an important Confederate supply depot for the shipment of agricultural produce and pig iron to Richmond via the Canal. Buchanan’s farmers provided the Confederate quartermaster with beef, cotton, yarn and corn. Badly battered during the War and almost wrecked by a severe flood in 1877, packet boats and freight made their last trips by 1880. In 1887 Buchanan’s Major John W. Johnston, father of author Mary Johnston, became the last president of the James River and Kanawha Canal. On the verge of financial collapse, the James River and Kanawha Canal was expected to go bankrupt, however, Major Johnston is credited with the creativity which kept the company afloat until a deal was closed with the Richmond and Alleghany Railway Company to purchase the assets of the James River and Kanawha Canal Company ending its ninety – five year existence, passing into history making way for the construction of the Richmond and Alleghany Railway along the town path of the James River and Kanawha Canal, the easiest grade from the Appalachian Mountains to the Atlantic Seaboard.