A bridge over Texas Beach

October 27, 2014 · 4 minute read

James River hiker and Home Depot employee Jeff White said it over two years ago: “We need to build a bridge across the Texas Beach quagmire.”

Our Meetup group, James River Hikers – Hiking With History, has crossed this sloppy and treacherous section of the James River Park System scores of times during the over three years it has grown from a group of 19 hikers to today’s membership of over 2,200. During the wet season, many pictures destined to Facebook were taken as the hikers would trapeze across the narrow planks and climb over the massive ball of roots necessary to get to the other side and complete our eight-mile loop hike.

The bateau makes its way down the James. Credit: Andrew McRoberts

The bateau makes its way down the James. Credit: Andrew McRoberts

The legendary Ralph White commented that this problem section was a priority he wished could have been corrected before his retirement. But standing in the way were the complications of 1) design, 2) logistics, 3) manpower and 4) money. How would we get a professional engineer to design it, and how could we pay for it? How to get the necessary construction material to this difficult-to-get-to site? A five level stairwell, part of the over-the-train-track bridge structure, would need to be navigated with the long timbers. The project would require lots of laborers.   Where would the money to purchase the materials come from? A harsh reality is that if it was necessary to budget it through the City of Richmond process, it might have been a project for the next generation to deal with.

Nathan Burrell, James River Park System superintendent, solved issue No. 1 by acquiring at no cost the design services of professional engineer Stuart Toraason from the Timmons Group.

A meeting with Richmond’s park system trails manager Michael Burton resolved issue No. 3, labor to do the work. The James River Hikers would assemble the necessary volunteers. But the suggestion that we engage in a money-raising campaign was rejected. James River Hikers is a “money-free zone.” We’ll do the work, but prefer to leave fundraisers to the Girl Scouts, the Rotary club and your church.

Soon after that, a most curious coincidence happened. Out of nowhere, group member Louis Matherne informed us he had really enjoyed hiking the trails over the years and hoped to make a financial contribution to create something of value, perhaps something like a new bridge. Bingo! Issue No. 4 solved.

Another meeting with Michael Burton, and now we were on our way. This was followed with communications with Home Depot’s White, who arranged the best possible deal for purchasing the construction materials. But what about issue No. 2, how to get the construction materials to the site?

Loading the bateau at the Reedy Creek put-in. Credit: Dennis Bussey

Loading the bateau at the Reedy Creek put-in. Credit: Dennis Bussey

What follows is a story that if in a novel would categorize it as fiction. But it actually happened.

James River Hikers founder Dennis Bussey and event organizer Andrew McRoberts were together at an event one Thursday evening when Andrew came up with the novel idea of transporting the construction materials to the site by batteau just like this would have been done over 150 years ago on the James. It would both fit nicely into the “Hiking With History” theme of our Meetup group and also solve the logistical issues.

Dennis: “Andrew, do you know anyone who has a batteau boat?”

Andrew: “Nope.”

Dennis: “Me neither.”

Both: “Maybe something will come up.”

Twelve hours later, I was at The Wetlands with a group of volunteers painting and staining bridges as part of our yearlong effort to maintain all 120 of the wooden structures in the James River Park System. We were literally lost in the complex network of trails looking for the next bridge to work on when a 30-something guy came up behind us and asked if we had dropped the pruning shears he was carrying. Yes, we had, and as we thanked him, he inquired what we were doing. The conversation evolved from that to our plans for Texas Beach, and I mentioned the batteau concept.

Bingo again! Issue No. 2 solved.

Moving the lumber at Texas Beach. Credit: Dennis Bussey

Moving the lumber at Texas Beach. Credit: Dennis Bussey

The guy who returned our pruning shears was a batteau crew member for Andrew Shaw, a carpenter who had built his own batteau.

All that remained was to bring all the players together and coordinate the effort achieved this past Saturday when Shaw and his crew transported the construction materials from Reedy Creek across the river to Texas Beach in his batteau. James River Hikers plus additional folks willing to weigh in carried the materials the 250 yards down the trail from the beach to the construction site.

Under Burton’s supervision, the Texas Beach boardwalk will be constructed by teams of volunteers from Home Depot as well as Saturday Meetups by James River Hikers.

It began as an idea to fix a problem that for years has inhibited hikers, runners, dog walkers and just folks who wanted to experience the beauty, power and wonder of the James River up close. It was an idea plagued with complications, but they were all overcome through a series of coincidences and some determined individuals.

Here’s an invitation. Sometime after Thanksgiving, because the construction will be complete by then, take a hike to Texas Beach and see for yourself what can be achieved when citizens volunteers band together to solve a problem.