A Little Bit of History on The Dan River

*Article written for the Stokes County Historical Society in November 2006 by Bill Collins.  Original post can be found HERE*

Early Commercial Batteau Navigation on the Dan River

For many years the upper Dan River valley farmers and merchants, who could reach their James River markets in Virginia only by long overland wagon routes, had dreamed of a batteau navigation system which would make their river an easy commercial route to the outside world.

In 1792 a double-ended, flat-bottomed boat called a batteau traveled up the Dan River into Rockingham and Stokes counties in North Carolina.  Batteaux were used for hauling bulk cargoes such as tobacco to trade centers, and this early voyage proved that commercial ventures were possible on the upper Dan.  A major problem for river transportation, however, involved the numerous rapids and falls blocking the river.  If these obstacles could be overcome, an open line of travel between the Dan River basin and the Virginia markets would be opened.

The Roanoke Navigation Company, chartered by the North Carolina and Virginia legislatures in 1812, began the first major river improvements in the Roanoke River basin.  This was an example of early efforts supported by both states to provide internal improvements.   Many North Carolinians were eager to end the state’s reputation as the “Rip Van Winkle State” – a sleepy, backward place with no major forms of transportation or industry.

In 1823 the Roanoke River rapids near Weldon, in Halifax County, North Carolina, were bypassed by a nine-mile canal.  This opened the upper Roanoke and its two tributaries, the Dan and Staunton rivers, to batteau navigation.  In 1824 a second canal was opened around the falls in Danville, Virginia.  Wing dams and sluices (channels) and a lock at Eagle Falls (Rockingham County, NC) tamed the rest of the Dan.  By 1828 the river was fully opened for 112 miles from its mouth up to the town of Madison.

These river improvements enabled batteaux to carry supplies and crops destined for Virginia.  The growth of the railroad industry eventually led to the decline of the river as a major source of transportation.  The last navigation improvements were made by the Corps of Engineers in the 1880’s for batteaux and small steamboats carrying goods down to the nearest railway crossing.
By 1892 three different railroads had tapped the valley trade.  For a few years batteau crews found occasional employment with group outings and river picnic trips, but it was no longer possible for them to make a living on the river.  The batteaux and batteaumen vanished and soon became vague memories to the valley people.  But the canals, sluices and wing dams – most of them still navigable today – survived to be rediscovered as reminders of a colorful era on the Dan River.


In 1874 the North Carolina legislature chartered the Dan River Navigation Company for the purpose of improving the river for steamboats from Danville, Virginia, to the Moratock Ironworks at Danbury.  Built in 1843, Moratock Furnace was known as Colonel Moody’s Tunnel Iron Works, because water to power the bellows came through an ingenious tunnel system through the horseshoe bend from a crib dam to the furnace.  Under the name Moratock Furnace (taken from the Native American name for the Roanoke), iron was forged for the Confederacy until the Yankees destroyed the dam on April 9, 1865, the same day Lee surrendered at Appomattox.  It was started up again in 1875 but stopped for good by 1880, the last operating furnace in Stokes County.  When the Corps of Engineers surveyed the Dan in 1879 the works were in ruins, but the 40 ft. high/40 ft. square furnace was in excellent condition.

Batteaux poling up the Dan River could not reach the ironworks because of Hairston’s Falls on the Hairston Plantation 11½ river miles below Danbury.  But above Danbury, it is understood that boats regularly used the Dan for at least two miles carrying iron ore down to the furnace from Roger’s Ore Bank on Sandy Creek and Moore’s Ore Mine on Big Creek.  The furnace’s twelve-foot high crib dam backed up the river for much of this distance so navigation down the river and back would have been easy.   (A wing dam just above the mouth of Sandy Creek may be a remnant of the navigation, and a few timbers remain of the crib dam at the furnace.)  The ore boats were said to have been flatboats, eight feet wide and 40 feet long.  Iron would have been hauled by wagon from the furnace to Hairston’s Falls, loaded on bateaux, and poled to markets down the Dan and Roanoke rivers, even as far as Norfolk, Virginia, by way of the Dismal Swamp Canal (constructed in eastern North Carolina).

How far did boats go up the Dan River? By all accounts they were stopped by Hairston’s Falls, 129 miles from the mouth of the Dan River.  But that did not affect the optimism of Matthew Moore who offered his forge for sale in the April 9, 1798 issue of  THE NORTH CAROLINA JOURNAL, published in Halifax:

FOR SALE: ONE THIRD, the half, two thirds of the whole, of an exceeding well built FORGE, worked in the way of Bluming, situated on the Big Creek of Dan River, about a quarter of a mile from the mouth…  An extraordinary advantage attends this situation  — the navigation of Dan river for boats, is now within sixteen miles, and after the river is cleared out (which is to be done the ensuing season) the navigation will then extend at least within 100 yards of the forge, and in all probability to the dam of the forge, from whence iron, wheat, flour, &c. will be exported to Edenton in North Carolina, Norfolk in Virginia, &c….. MATTHEW MOORE

Moore’s Forge was up “Big Creek of the Dan,” (near today‘s NC Rt. 89 crossing), by modern maps 11 river miles above Danbury, and 23 river miles above Hairston’s Falls.  Despite Mr. Moore’s optimistic prediction, as far as is known, Hairston’s Falls remained the insurmountable obstacle to navigation of the upper Dan.  In the 1880’s the Corps of Engineers reported that batteaux went up only as far as the falls.  No signs of navigation improvements have been found above there, to Moratock Furnace at Danbury.  Ore boats are said to have floated down to Moratock Furnace, and batteaux went up to the falls, but none went in between.

The year 1793 seems to have been the time when navigation improvement first reached the upper Dan, creating the Dan’s first navigation boom and a flurry of port towns including Danville (in 1793), Milton (1796), and Leakesville (now part of Eden) in 1797.  At the head of navigation, (Upper) Saura Town Plantation, which once covered 10,000 acres, was established in 1786 by Peter Hairston (1752-1832), part of the same Hairston family at the head of navigation on Smith’s River (Virginia).  He also became the proprietor of Cooleemee Plantation in Davie County, NC.  The falls which blocked navigation were used to power a grist mill and sawmill; the canal can still be traced around Hairston’s Island down to the mill site.  The original home, on the east side of the Dan, burned before 1870 and was replaced by the present one on the west side.  The plantation is now part of Sauratown Plantation Game Land comprising approximately 6,600 acres.

In 1796 Peter Hairston laid out a head of navigation town, Hairstonborough, below the falls, but it failed to develop.  Seven years later, in 1803, Thomas Rivers established Danton, another head of navigation town in the Pine Hall area of Stokes County, with more success.  By 1806 Danton had a Main Street, a tobacco inspection warehouse, and at least four houses, but that was its peak and is now gone.

By 1891, with the upper Dan River valley tapped by three railroads, commercial Dan River navigation was no longer feasible.  The days of the river batteaumen were over.  For a few years they found intermittent employment on recreational charter trips, but it was no longer possible to make a living on the river.  The batteaux vanished, leaving no apparent physical trace in the valley that they had ever existed.  They became only vague memories to the valley people.  No more were the sleek craft seen gracefully cutting through the water.  No more were the boatmen heard singing their river songs.  But the canals, the locks, the landings, the sluices, and the wing dams remained to be rediscovered and appreciated, nearly a century later, as visible reminders of a colorful era on the river.


Courtesy of ” The Dan River Atlas,” ASBN 1-888838-10-8, Copyright 2003 by the Virginia Canals and Navigations Society.

Batteau on the Haw River, near Swepsonville, N.C. 40 miles south of Danville, Virginia. Courtesy “The Dan River Atlas.”


View the different segments of the Dan River so you know how to plot your course for a fun day of kayaking!


View the information listed from the United States Geological Survey regarding water flow and depth for the Dan River


View my blog posts regarding our trips on the Dan River


View the different Outfitters for the Dan River for kayak and canoe rental as well as shuttles