Rockingham County, Virginia
VAGenWeb Project

A History of Rockingham County
John W. Wayland Ph.D.

Chapter XXVI





            All of us have heard or known of the days of “wagoning,” when the farmer or his son would load the four, bacon, or other products of his labor in the great wagon, and set out for Fredericksburg, Scottsville, Alexandria, or some other important market.  It may not be generally known, however, that for many years hundreds of tons of flour, lumber, iron, and other articles of trade were taken down the Valley in boats on the main streams of the Shenandoah River.  Concerning this river trade Mr. Richard Mauzy, a venerable citizen of McGaheysville, writes as follows:

            “Between 1830 and 1840 Zack Raines(1) as leader, or ‘boss,’ with the soubriquet ‘Commodore,’ and a number of others made their living by boating to Harper’s Ferry.  There – the flour having been disposed of – the boats were sold for the lumber in their construction, and the boatmen would walk back to their homes.

            “The floatboats used were made of heavy undressed lumber, and were guided by rudders at each end.  At the dams in the river, next to the shore, chutes were placed, constructed of strong timber, for the passage of the boats.  When the rise in the river was sufficient, the boats would go over the dams.”

            An idea of the magnitude of this river trade from Port Republic and other points in the eastern part of the county may be obtained from the following advertisement, which appeared in the Rockingham Register of January 16, 1841:



     The subscriber takes this method of informing his customers and the public, that he still continues the business of Boating Flour and other produce of this country to market; and, owing to the failure of crops, his terms hereafter will be –


(1)     “Commodore” Zachariah Raines died February 3, 1871, aged 59.



     For Flour taken from the neighborhood of Mt. Crawford to Georgetown, $1.25.

     From Port Republic and his own neighborhood, $1.20.

     And an additional charge of 12 ½ cents per barrel when taken to Baltimore.  He will also deliver Flour at Harper’s Ferry, on the Canal or Rail-road, at $1.00 per barrel.

     Having a saw-mill of his own, to enable him to build his own boats, and having hands of his own to go with the water, - he will take Flour from his own yard at $1.12 ½ per barrel.  All barrels delivered in good order – no cooperage to be charged.  Las season he and his hands took through the Shenandoah locks 5,623 barrels.  He was  not forgotten when there was a great deal of business to do, and he flatters himself that his customers will not forsake him when there is a little to do.   He avails himself of this opportunity to return his thanks to those who have heretofore encouraged him in his business, and flatters himself that his long experience and success in his business will enable him to give general satisfaction.  He leaves as security for his returns, 1,492 acres of real property, and between . . . . . and $4,000 worth of personal property.  The public’s humble servant,

                                                                                                                Jacob Sipe.


            This notice makes the fact obvious that Mr. Raines was not the only man in the river trade worthy to be called “Commodore.”

            About twelve years ago a gentleman who signed himself “Gabriel” wrote an exceedingly interesting article on the subject before us for the Page Courier, published at Luray, Va.  We give herewith his account in full.


Old Boating Days on the Shenandoah.

     The Shenandoah River used to be the great commercial highway of this Valley, and boating in those days gave employment to many men.  My first recollections of the River date back to the day that my father moved on its banks near the old Columbia Bridge.  The second day after we moved my father and three uncles went up the River to the Furnace (now Shenandoah City) and in a few days we heard that the fleet was in Kite’s dam, so my grand-mother took me to the High Rock to see the boats come through the shoot.  We got in sight just in time to see the first boat go thro, strike a great rock, split in twain, and the whole cargo of pigiron went to the bottom.  Each boat was manned by six men, and when the boat broke those on it were carried to such deep water that they had to swim.  There were 18 boats in this fleet, and soon the men began to wade in and gather the iron together in a pile.  The broken boat was then taken to the bank and repaired, reloaded and started




on its way again.  This was in March, I think, so you can see that a River sailor had his perils and hardships.  William Lowry was, I think, the steersman on the broken boat.

     Nearly all boats were provided with tin horns about 8 feet long, and when they would start from stations on the River, all would blow.  War songs were the favorite tunes, and the music they made would make your hair stand on end.  These horns could be heard for five miles.

     These boats were 9 ½ x 76 feet.  In low water they carried 8 tones and flush water 12 tons of iron; 8 to 12 thousand feet of lumber or 110 barrels of flour made a load.  Iron was then worth $60 per ton; lumber $1.80 to $2.25 per 100; flour $8 per barrel.  A great deal of bark, hoop-poles, rails, shingles, posts, apples, brandy, potatoes, and corn was boated off also; tho iron, flour, and lumber were the principal exports in those days.

     Boats sold at the journey’s end for from $18 to $25.  Boatsmen got from $14journey’s end for from $18 to $25.  Boatsmen got from $14 to $18 for the trip.  It generally took from 5 to 7 days to make the trip – 3 or 4 to take the boat down and 2 or 3 to walk back.

     The stations along the River had names just like our railroad stations.  Here are some of them:  Starting at Shenandoah, we came first to Welfley’s Mill, then Wm. Kite’s Mill, Roland Kite’s Mill, and so on, each of which all the way down the River old boatsmen and residents along the River will remember; but I have not space to mention them here.  The deepest water in the River those days between Port Republic and Harper’s Ferry was at Gray Horse Eddies, below Castleman’s Ferry.  [Castleman’s Ferry is in Clarke County.]

     These are the names of some of the old boatsmen:  Hamp Miller, Frank Rucker, Coronee Comer, Billie Melton, Alec Kite, Bud Cave, Wm. Strickler, Merrell Comer, Bud, William, Cap, Dick, Dan, George, Ben, John and Al Dofflemoyer; Ben and Dug Dovel; Columbus Kite, Jack Kite, Commodore Turner, William, Reuben, Dick, and Henry Lucas; Fred Phillips, Wm. and Jack Alger; M. V. Louderback, John Gaines, Bogus Lucas, James Bateman, Shinnol Croft, Bax Bugan, Ton Morris, James, Sim, and Davy Keyser; Chris, Aleck, Charley and Jacob Hilliard; W. M. Lowry, Reuben, Joseph, Peter, Martin, John, Isaac and Abram Painter; James W. Foltz, Sharp Good, Adam, John W., Noah, David, Jacob, and Newton Seakford; Joel Decker, Joe and John Burner, Wm. Price, Jas. and George Webster; John and Dan Martin; W. M. Martin, Sr., Wm. Martin, Jr., George W. Seakford, Buck, Dick, Harrison and Hutch Cameron; Wm. Stoneberger, Alf Kite, and Robert, Isaac, and Billy Aleshire.

     The last three boats that ever went down the River were built for Adam Seakford on the James Bumgardner place, three miles southwest of Rileyville, about 11 years ago.  They were loaded with plank, which was sold at Riverton.  They were  run off by Adam Seakford, James Webster, and J. R. Seakford, the stern hands being Martin Painter, Buck Cameron, and Newton Seakford.




     This ended the boating business in Page.

     There may more occur to me later on this subject, and if it does I may write another chapter about it, as it covers and important era in the history of our county.(2)


            From Mr. J. H. Mace of Port Republic the following facts relating to transportation on the Shenandoah have been obtained.  For some time in the early days Port Republic was the highest point on the river from which boats started.  Later, the channels being sufficiently cleared, they started farther up:  on the South River, at Mt. Vernon Forge, now Grottoes; on Middle River, at Mt. Meridian; and on North River, at Bruback’s Mill.

            The boats were called “gundalows,” the accent being on the first syllable.  They were frequently or generally nine feet wide and 90 feet long.  The main side board was 2 inches thick and 14 inches high, this height being increased – perhaps doubled – by a second board on top, one inch thick, called the “splash board.”

            Occasionally, perhaps frequently, boats started on North River as high as Mt. Crawford and Bridgewater.  Gen. John E. Roller tells me that he used to see Com. Raines and his men taking flat boats down the river past Mt. Crawford.  In Martin’s Gazetteer of Virginia (1835), it is stated in the sketch of Mt. Crawford, “The North River is navigable for flat boats, about three miles above this village.”  A point three miles above Mt. Crawford is almost exactly the site of Bridgewater.  Henry Howe, in his history of Virginia (1852), says that Mt. Crawford was near the head of boat navigation.  The fact that Bridgewater was formerly called “Bridgeport” is thus explained.  Hon. Geo. E. Sipe tells me that he has seen as many as 1000 barrels of flour in one convoy on the Shenandoah.  He also states that the government expended some money in opening the river for navigation.  As early as 1798 the feasi-


(2)     From the Page Courier of May 24, 1900.  The paper from which the above was copied was loaned to the author by Ed. S. Conrad, Esq. Of Harrisonburg, Va.




bility of making it navigable was being discussed in the Virginia General Assembly.  In 1824 and 1831 Acts were passed declaring certain parts thereof a public highway.  In 1831 an Act was passed directing a survey of the Shenandoah River to the highest points of navigation, for the purpose of determining the practicability and expediency of improving the said river by means of dams, locks, etc., or of building a railroad through the adjacent valley.(3)

            April 11, 1867, some one, who evidently knew a good deal of the subject, was writing in the Rockingham Register urging that steps be taken to open North River for navigation from Port Republic to Bridgewater.  This could be done, he thought, for about $2400.(4)

            Doubtless the improvement of the river, like the making of fords and the building of bridges, had to be repeated from time to time, owing to destructive freshets.


What Rockingham Boatmen Can Do.


     The following will show what our hardy, persevering boatmen are capable of doing:

A fleet of boats, loaded with iron, was taken down the Shenandoah River, from Port Republic to Harper’s Ferry, 165 miles, by the following named boatmen, viz.:  Zachariah Raines, Capt.; Samuel May, Henry Pirkey, Alexander Pirkey, Jacob Raines, Reuben Raines, Jacob Hudlowe, George Rodeheffer, Henry Raines, Wm. Jones, Wm. Knight, James Anderson, privates, 12 in number.  The boats were run through in four and a half days, and had in them one hundred and ten tons, (110,) making over nine tons to each man.  They lashed the boats together, in twos, which were thus taken down the river.  A portion of the trip was accomplished when the river was very high, making the management of the boats very difficult and dangerous.  The fleet was commanded by that veteran navigator and sailor, Captain Zachariah Raines, living at the head of navigation, whose knowledge of the dangerous reefs and shoals and quicksands of the raging Shenandoah is perfect, he having passed over the same watery path for many years past, making several hundred trips.(5)


(3)     See Hening’s Statutes and the Acts of Assembly.

(4)     In the Rockingham Register of March 8, 1888, is an article relating to Port Republic, headquarters of the old “Flatboat Brigade,” and pointing out the natural advantages of the place.

(5)     From the Rockingham Register of March 21, 1867.




            The following item, copied from the Register of January 27, 1870, will show that navigation was not unknown in days of yore on the north fork of the Shenandoah.  So far as is known, however, the trade in Rockingham on this branch of the river never reached large proportions.


A New Era!


     Messrs. Editors: - Navigation has been opened on the North Branch of the Shenandoah River, from Brenneman’s saw-mill, in Brock’s Gap, to Cootes’ Store.  First boat, King Fisher, Capt. W. F. Turner, laden with shingles, deer-hides, furs, &c., also passengers, arrived to-day at the latter place, at 3 o’clock, P.M.  Hurrah for the first improvement on the admission of the old State!

  Jan. 20, 1870.                                                                                                                       Brock’s Gap.