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First ‘authentic’ Crossing of the Dan reenactment set Feb. 22

Long before the modern concrete bridge for vehicle traffic crossed the river from Route 58 into South Boston, or even before a railroad bridge crossed the Dan River at the site of the town, there was a ferry.  Boyd’s Ferry and also Irwin’s Ferry, four miles westward, took passengers, wagons and cargo across on a regular basis.

Higher up in the mountains, Dan River could be forded on horseback or by foot, but lower down in Halifax County where the water was deeper, ferries were necessary. 

Although both ferries handled routine traffic, one moment in history forever gave Boyd’s Ferry and Irwin’s Ferry a place in the pantheon of historic places of the American Revolution.  

On Feb. 14, 1781, a ragtag American army under General Nathanael Greene had outraced the British army under Lord Cornwallis for over nearly 200 miles, barely staying out of reach. Two southern armies had already been annihilated, and the loss of this third one would likely have doomed the Revolution.  

As the race continued into Virginia, the Americans escaped across the Dan River ahead of the British on six waiting ferryboats. With all the boats on the other side, the British, unable to cross, retreated.   

Nathanael Greene’s resupplied and reinforced army re-crossed the river days later.  He then “raced Cornwallis as he has done me” and met the British at Guilford Courthouse on March 15, where Greene’s army gave the British a heavy mauling.  That battle precipitated the British surrender at Yorktown.   

It is doubtful since that Feb. 14 that ferryboats have saved the day by transporting troops across the Dan River to safety.  But that’s about to change. This year 2014 will be the first time since General Greene’s army actually crossed the river that an authentic reenactment of that event will have ever taken place.

For the past several years the Crossing of the Dan has been reenacted with American and British re-enactors, but with a batteau for the crossing, not a ferryboat.  But now an authentic ferryboat built by master craftsmen, David Haney and Emmett Abernathy, will cross the river in a dramatic portrayal of one of the great events of the American Revolution. 

Both men have long been associated with colonial era river boating through their association with the James River Batteau Festival. David Haney, a conductor on the C & O Railroad, first got involved when he met his wife, who invited him to go down the river with her father’s batteau during the festival.  That was all it took.  They later married, and over the years he’s been boat captain, served on the James River Batteau board of directors and also served as chairman of the event.

For his part, Emmett had played bones and spoons in a Irish pub band called the Tuckahoe Social Orchestra sponsored by Joe Ayers, a noted musician of 19th century banjo tunes with an interest in history.  

After a cache of old batteaux remains were uncovered during a construction site in Richmond in 1983, Abernathy helped to excavate, and afterwards Ayers had the first batteau built in modern times.  

Ayers later organized the James River Batteau Festival, and Abernathy began working with the boats. Since then Emmett has poled batteaux up and down the James River on many occasions, sometimes over a distance of 126 miles.

Of he and Abernathy’s association, Haney noted,  “Emmett and I first met in 1990 through the batteau festival and have been friends ever since. I invited him to become part of my boat crew a year or so after that. He has always been a hard worker and dependable anytime I needed something.  We’ve built about four to five batteaux and helped build a ferry boat for the city of Lynchburg.”

Knowing their background, Barbara Bass, president of Halifax County Historical Society, engaged Haney and Abernathy in building a batteau for the Crossing of the Dan, just like the ones that General Greene used on Feb. 14, 1781. 

The timbers for such a large boat, which had to be specially cut, were purchased from Dreaming Creek of Powhatan County, which specializes in authentic timber framing construction. The giant boards were over 30 feet long, at least two inches thick and approximately 16 inches wide.  

Abernathy and Haney agreed that the sheer weight and length of the white oak boards added to the difficulty of building the ferry.  Keeping the boards wet so they would be pliable and then clamping them in place was a strenuous exercise as well. It sometimes took one day’s effort to attach one of the sideboards. 

To maintain authenticity, locust pegs also were used to join the boards together. And oakum rope made from hemp was used to push between the boards to prevent leaking, since the wood swells in water.  

Bobby Shortridge of Dreaming Creek donated cypress wood from Maine for the gates at each end that raise and lower when cargo is loading or unloading.  With gates attached, the ferry is 36 feet long and 8 foot wide.  

With the help of South Boston town workers, a crane moved the boat from Evington below Lynchburg, where it was built, to South Boston in preparation for the big day when the town commemorates the 233rd anniversary of Greene’s Crossing of the Dan. 

On Saturday, Feb. 22, festivities start at 10 a.m. at The Prizery with a wreath laying and address by Patrick Henry Jolly, the great-grandson of legendary patriot Patrick Henry.  

Following will be a Brunswick stew lunch at the nearby riverside park with a battle scene featuring British and American re-enactors and, of course, the new ferry boat.  

Affectionately dubbed “The Lady of the Dan,” spectators will watch her cross the Dan River loaded with soldiers amid the smoke and fire of musketry and cannon in a journey that long ago changed the course of the American Revolution.  

For more information on the event access