Before commerce was first introduced to the railroad phenomena and before the macadamized turnpike stretched from Winchester to Harrisonburg, our great valley had a natural transportation highway. It would take a number of enterprising partnerships, strategic planning and long term labor intensive efforts to deliver the physical improvements necessary to access a narrow, twisting and shallow river.
In colonial times travel by land was done by old-fashioned stagecoach, on horseback, or on foot. The roads were in a habitually deplorable condition. Many of the towns were thoroughly without roads, only connected with their neighboring towns by Indian trails. Great quantities of hemp, grain and other farm products were often brought to town from the remote settlements on pack horses.
Wagon transport was not an essential factor in Shenandoah Valley trade until the 1760s, when the shipping requirements of the hemp industry provided the first major demand for wagon teams. A warehouse for hemp was established in Frederick County and freight wagons necessary to conduct trade first became a priority.
Wagons in general were expensive to construct and demand for wheelwrights and other skilled craftsmen were greater than the supply. The local and legendary Newtown wagons had not yet been developed to haul hemp and farm produce from the river valleys and mountain slopes over the Blue Ridge to busy city warehouses. Overland transportation using wagons was always an option, but costly and dependent on good weather. Wagon routes were often a treacherous option due to heavy spring and summer rains.
Beginning in 1790, the Shenandoah Valley produced a surplus of flour for export and the developing requirement for passage to eastern markets in Alexandria, Richmond and Fredericksburg grew more intense. Farmers searched for other avenues of conveyance and the solution appeared to be in a natural, but potentially unnavigable transportation highway. Written records reflect that in the 1790s, pig iron and flour were first loaded onto primitive rafts in the North River at what would become Bridgewater and sent down the Shenandoah during high water seasons.
Around that time George Washington became actively involved in efforts to establish an organization whose objective was to develop water routes between the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers employing a series of canals and locks. Washington led the way in chartering the Potomac Company by first seeking interstate cooperation between Virginia and Maryland in developing the Potomac River. Both states passed legislation in early 1785.
Washington had also called for the establishment of a U.S. Armory at Harpers Ferry, located at the mouth of the Shenandoah River. By 1799, as work commenced on the armory, improvement of the Shenandoah River was a requirement to channel up-river lumber and iron into Harpers Ferry as material resources to support site construction and later for forging muskets, rifles and pistols.
The Virginia legislature unsuccessfully attempted to establish an independent company for developing the Shenandoah River to handle substantial boat navigation. In 1803 it granted a charter to the Potomac Company. In 1805, after obtaining the necessary start-up loans, the company hired a boat crew to inspect the Shenandoah from Harpers Ferry to Port Republic on the South Fork. The Potomac Company concentrated efforts toward managing the most difficult river rapids by building a series of canals and locks on the lower seven miles of navigation above Harpers Ferry. These milestones were completed in 1806.
Potomac Company crews continued to hammer away, black powder blasting rock and dredging the river bed and by 1807 established a navigable passage for trade between Harpers Ferry and Port Republic, then the head of navigation on the Shenandoah. In especially shallow areas, funnel-shaped wing dams made of stone were built with an opening in the center to form a higher flowing passageway for boat traffic.
Historical evidence accounts for an unsophisticated cargo carrying boat, called a Gundalow, to become a mainstay of valley commerce and transportation from roughly the turn of the nineteenth century until after the Civil War. These whitewater river crafts were heavy, with square bows and sterns, flat bottoms, pine hull/floor boards and measuring as much as 9 ½ feet wide by 76 to 90 feet long. The side planks were two inches thick and fourteen or more inches wide.
The Gundalow was a short-lived boat built for quick inexpensive shipment of bulk commodities (8-12 tons) down river. The boats were most often loaded with flour, lumber and pig iron. Other diverse items such as pork, beef, tobacco, ginseng, copper, manganese, wheat, whiskey, furs, tanned leather and occasionally herds of turkeys were pre-staged on site while boat captains waited for high waters in order to make the trip downriver to Harper’s Ferry or continue on the Potomac to Georgetown.
The crafts were mostly built by local sawmills near Port Republic. A gundalow was usually manned by six crew, four pole men and two oarsmen, one for each tiller. Boatmen manipulated the craft through manmade and natural chutes, rapids and constant choppy waters, docking at river stations to discharge or take on cargo. At their destinations, gundalows were disassembled and sold as inexpensive lumber to frugal builders who then used the recycled material for wall, ceiling and floor construction in houses.
Once landed and unloaded, the boatmen received good paying wages and returned to their point of departure on foot. Front Royal was often a popular place to rest on the return trip. A man could buy new clothes, or get a room, bath, meal, bottle and perhaps some female companionship here. These river sailors were both boisterous and unruly and locals claimed they carried a readily combustible powder keg in their hearts. Boatmen mingling with horse and cattle wranglers, wagon drivers and trainmen created an atmosphere for ferocious nightly saloon brawls giving the village of Riverton on the northern edge of Front Royal, the unflattering nickname of “Helltown.”
The Potomac Company was never able to generate enough funding to fully support navigation improvements to the upper stretches of the Shenandoah River. In 1816, the company sold its Shenandoah works and permissions to the New Shenandoah Company. The new company’s first objective was the physical improvement of the Shenandoah River between Port Republic and Harpers Ferry. Countless wing dams, cut through and tow paths had to be constructed, but by 1825, a continuous and improved waterway extended from Port Republic to the river’s confluence with the Potomac at Harpers Ferry.
By 1829, valley farmers believed that river transport was a cheap, safe and viable alternative to any wagon route east. Therefore, prior to valley rail and turnpike service, upland farmers and iron masters turned to the Shenandoah River whose waters were made navigable by the very spring thaws and ice melts that mired wagon routes and they did so with great zeal. Later channels were sufficiently cleared to navigate gundalows on the North River as far as Mt. Crawford and Bridgewater, on the South River at Grottoes and the Middle River, as far as Mt. Meridian.
Port Republic, founded in 1802 and located at the convergence of the North and South River, established an authentic harbor as docks lined the riverbanks in order to oblige increasing river traffic. The prospect of shipping and boat building propelling immense river trade slowly transformed the newly chartered town into a center for local commerce and agriculture. The nearby Massanutten Mountain ridge provided the tall, limbless long-leaf yellow pines that fueled boat building and other lumber dependent industries. Methodist and Presbyterian churches, mercantile stores, grist mills, leather tanneries, blacksmiths, saw mills, a tilt hammer shop as well as hat makers, shoe factories, wood workers, coopers and tailor shops eventually lined both Main and Water Streets.
The New Shenandoah Company began upgrading the North Fork in 1825 for boats measuring a minimum of 66 feet long and 8 feet in width. Contractors not only cleared the river segments congested by trees and other debris, but also built works including dams and chutes. Records of the company indicate that the contract called for river navigation enhancements up to Tumbling Run, halfway between Strasburg and Toms Brook, but continued improvements were extended up to the dam at Pennybackers Mill, near New Market by May, 1832. This site was known as the head of navigation and may also have been a boat yard with docking capabilities for loading cargo similar to Port Republic, however on a much smaller scale. In 1845, accounts reflect that the North Fork was navigable at high water for large boats up to Plains Mill near Timberville.
The macadamized Valley Turnpike, completed in 1841, connected the western valley to the Winchester and Potomac Railroad and gradually reduced the gundalow traffic on the North Branch to almost non-existent status by 1850. The Manassas Gap Railroad arrived in Front Royal in 1854. Gundalows that once floated down the forks of the Shenandoah River to Harpers Ferry and beyond, now were unloading their cargo on to trains at Front Royal which transported them to market points east.
During the Civil War Valley Campaign in 1862, Stonewall Jackson swept the Valley burning bridges to slow Union troops, rendering wagon transport all but impossible. The destruction of bridges briefly revitalized gundalow traffic on the Shenandoah. After the war, gondolas continued to be used to move product to Front Royal until the bridges could be rebuilt and the Manassas Gap rail lines extended to Harrisonburg in 1868. The Shenandoah Valley Railroad connected the south fork communities with Hagerstown MD and Waynesboro, VA in 1881.
Some farmers, out of respect for southern tradition, continued to use this river system friendly to the “sons of the valley” as late as 1880. Despite sporadic business from loyal farmers, millers and timbermen; destructive winter weather, floods, railroads and modern turnpikes pushed the river captains, sailors and gundalows into the dust bin of history. Only recent scholarship has brought them all back to life again. Perhaps someone will soon uncover a nineteenth century gundalow buried under river silt somewhere in the Harpers Ferry basin?
Note: An outstanding source of information on the Shenandoah River is The Shenandoah River Atlas, prepared by W. E. Trout, III and Friends of the Shenandoah River.
Mark P. Gunderman
Stephens City, Virginia
One county citizen weighs in on municipal ‘Sludge War’
In regard to the “Sludge War” and most specifically the Town of Front Royal’s Mayor Chris Holloway, the people should consider this carefully: Blackmail is wrong. It is immoral and unethical. It has no place in government. For hurting this entire community by calling on debts and refusing to have a working relationship with the County, that could be considered extortion.
If you get what I’m saying and live in the Town, please consider running for Town Council or Mayor. As it turns out, Mayor Holloway has been found wanting. True leaders lead by example and what a total sham to have a Mayor who sets a precedent for malicious, retaliatory antics consistently used by angry bullies lacking in critical thought.
Front Royal needs YOU!
An Appeal to Heaven
Prayer has always been powerfully employed in our country for guidance, protection and strength, from the earliest time when we were only loosely united and isolated colonies. The Pilgrims at Plymouth relied on prayer during their first and gloomiest winter. George Washington “appealed to heaven,” when his Continental Army crossed the icy Delaware River on the night of December 25, 1776, in a logistically challenging and dangerous operation. Benjamin Franklin called for prayer during the Constitutional Convention in July, 1787. Tempers flared and interests clashed as the delegates sought their respective goals. It was at this time Franklin offered his famous appeal for harmony and reconciliation, an appeal for God’s intervention.
Later in October, 1789, President Washington would say at his Thanksgiving proclamation, “It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits and humbly to implore His protection and favor.” Colonials believed their newly established nations many freedoms were a direct gift from God.
President Abraham Lincoln was also aware of the benefits of prayer. It was his belief that, “it is the duty of nations as well as men, to owe their dependence upon the overruling power of God.” At the most tumultuous period in his presidency, he found the dire need for supplication. Before the battle of Gettysburg, he turned to God in prayer. “I went to my room one day and I locked the door and got down on my knees before Almighty God and prayed to him mightily for victory at Gettysburg.”
Today the need for continuous and relentless prayer is greater than ever.
Our nation again faces spiritual warfare on all fronts pushing our citizens into drug abuse, gambling debt, bankruptcy and suicide, along with an epidemic of dysfunctional families, violence and dissension. Our leaders must bow their heads in prayer just as the great people did in the past to avoid plunging our nation into a certified death spiral. God has provided us with everything we need to win the spiritual confrontations, accentuating the awareness to know it, believe it and act upon it. It’s through prayer that we recognize and wield the weapons and wear the spiritual armor as described in Ephesians 6.
We must ask the Lord to bless our political and corporate trailblazers with wisdom and protection and to give us the fortitude to overcome the challenges that lay ahead. We pray that corporate leaders have insight to follow in God’s ways toward peace, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. We pray for our national and local elected officials to heed God’s wisdom in their legislation, judgments and activities. We pray that each of us does our best in our efforts as we are striving to do God’s will.
Stephens City, Virginia
Couple marries again… for the first time
When California couple Ann Shulman and Steve Colwell needed a copy of their marriage license for a business transaction recently, they turned to the file cabinet where they kept their important documents–but it wasn’t amid their birth certificates or passports. No matter. Shulman sent off a letter to the state’s Vital Record Office requesting a copy, and expected its arrival in a matter of weeks.
What she received instead came as a shock: a certified copy of the pubic record of marriages in California dating from 1905—with no record of their May 5, 1991 wedding. There appeared to be no such union in Marin County or in the entire sunny state of California.
Which meant… they weren’t legally married? How to tell Colwell’s 93-year-old Catholic mother that they had been living in sin all these years? Or their two sons, James and Daniel, 23 and 21 respectively, that they were illegitimate?
In the end they decided to do the right thing: to get married again, for the first time—thirty years later to the day. This time the nuptials took place in Front Royal, VA, near Browntown, where Shulman’s family has owned a farm for 56 years. The bride wore her original wedding gown with cowboy boots and a ten-gallon hat. They planned to honeymoon in Browntown.
In the pantheon of great American presidents, a few are always at the top. Lincoln usually comes to mind, then Washington, and Jefferson. In the 20th century, the president who makes every list is Franklin Roosevelt. What makes FDR interesting is that, unlike Lincoln, FDR was beloved in his own time. Because of the way he handled the Depression, it was not uncommon to see FDR’s picture hanging in homes in a place of honor. Don’t get me wrong. Some people had issues with this president, but most appreciated his efforts to relieve the nation’s pains. Yet there was one episode where he did receive rebuke from both sides of the political aisle and the population at large and that was his effort to pack the Supreme Court.
Here was the situation. When FDR took over the nation in 1932, we were in the midst of the greatest depression in our history. The president wanted to tackle as many problems as he could in his first 100 days (starting a precedent that has lasted till today). Many of his proposals became part of his alphabet programs like the WPA, AAA, TVA, and the CCC. One of his first and, it turned out, most controversial was the National Recovery Administration. The NRA, in an effort to reduce competition, created codes that did things like set prices. The problem for FDR was that in 1935 the Supreme Court ruled the NRA unconstitutional.
FDR, worried that more of his New Deal plans would be rejected by the courts, came up with a plan to get the courts on his side. He proposed adding a new judge for every member of the Court over the age of 70, which meant adding six new justices to the bench, enough to turn the tide of the court in his favor. He claimed the court was overworked and suggested the new justices could relieve some pressure. The problem was that most Americans and both sides of Congress saw it for what it really was, a power grab. Even though the Democrats held the majority in both houses of Congress, a vote for FDR’s measure failed. The failure was partly because one judge had begun voting for FDR’s programs, but also because the courts were seen as sacred and people feared FDR’s plan could destroy the separation of powers.
Constitutionally, FDR had the power to propose this court-packing scheme. As with many things, the Constitution is silent on the number of judges to the high court, simply saying in Article 3, Section 1: “The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.”
Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, which set up the Court with six judges. John Adams dropped it down to five, but then Jefferson brought it back to six and then later, when the Federalist judges did not die fast enough, he moved it to seven. Later Jackson added two more as the population grew and more judicial districts were needed. The Civil War saw some jumbling as Lincoln moved the number to ten, only to be reduced to seven by Andrew Johnson. Finally, under Grant the number was put to nine and since 1869 it has remained that way.
Now, in 2021 President Joe Biden is considering legislation to increase the number of justices for the first time since FDR. The president’s reasoning is that the Republicans have gained an unfair advantage with Trump’s three new justices. Democrats are still understandably upset at Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett after Republicans blocked Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, in his last year. However, though understandable, what the Republicans did was legal, if not morally, correct. What Biden is trying to do is no different than FDR, who wanted to make sure the courts agreed with him. If Clinton had won in 2016 and liberal-leaning judges controlled the court, there would be no call for equality in the court coming from Democratic camps.
I normally try to explain history, not solutions, but this is one area where I believe the Founders failed. Not that their system failed, but they could never have foreseen how partisan we have become.
Judges are supposed to follow the law, not a party. I would propose a new amendment to the Constitution that goes back to the original number, six, or maybe eight. With an even number, the new law would allow Republicans to choose four and the Democrats to choose four. If a judge dies, then the party of that judge gets to choose the new one. I know this sounds crazy, but with an even number justices will have to compromise over the law and not political leanings.
If Biden decided to, he might be able to pull off increasing the number of judges. Historically Speaking, however, he would need to be extremely careful. FDR won his second election by carrying all but two states before he tried something so daring. Biden does not have that same type of support. FDR, who was beloved, was seen as going for a power grab. Biden, who is nowhere nearly as loved, may not be able to survive the hit.
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.
We’re persevering thanks to you!
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the courage, resourcefulness, and dedication of essential workers who toil day and night to ensure the safety and well-being of their fellow citizens.
Whether you’re a delivery person, nurse, mechanic, police officer, psychologist, grocery clerk, teacher, plumber, doctor, truck driver, social worker, pharmacist, electrician, or other essential worker, in your own way, you’ve helped members of your community make it through this difficult time.
To all of you, we say “thank you.” You’re the reason our community is making it through this crisis.
Have our elected officials forgotten who they work for?
The Town and County still can’t get it together on issues, nor on Virginia’s Constitutional and Legislative laws.
Don’t you all feel that it should be a requirement that if you are going to run or seek a political seat that a course in American History and Civics should be part of the application, as well as reading the Charters of Town and County and passing a test on them?
Just because these “good ole’ boys” gatherings seem to neglect or ignore certain things on pertaining to how things are to be conducted or pursued because of political views getting in the way, shouldn’t allow them to comment in a public meeting about their opinions. – Like finding out facts and evidence before airing your comments on our law enforcement personnel. Don’t let emotions lead you to making a mountain out of a molehill.
Work together for the common good of this county and town. Stop the fussing and wanting things to go your way, look beyond your circle and see the whole range of voters you are working for!
Front Royal, Virginia