John Hartwell Cocke was born in Surry County, Virginia in 1780. He attended the College of William and Mary from 1794-1799. After serving in the War of 1812, he returned to his home, Bremo, a plantation in Fluvanna County, Virginia, to pursue an agrarian career. Known for his agricultural experimentation with crops and livestock, he maintained several estates and plantations in Virginia and Alabama. He helped found the University of Virginia, and set up a boy's seminary on Bremo. Although he owned many slaves, he encouraged their education, set up systems for them to buy their freedom, and supported their colonization in Africa.
Being a deeply religious man, John Hartwell Cocke held strong views against drinking and tobacco. In order to combat these "evils," he was elected president of the American Temperance Union in 1836, and stopped all production of tobacco on his land. These views also led him to support and become a member of the James River and Kanawha Company board of directors. He believed that many poor farmers in Virginia were forced to turn their grain into whiskey because there was no profitable way to transport the grain to market. He felt that with the creation of the canal, farmers would turn to other occupations, thereby lessening the supply of alcohol and with it the desire to drink. He married Ann Blaus Barraud in 1802 and fathered several children. He died in 1866.
The James River and Kanawha Company: The creation of Virginia's canal system was begun in 1746, spurred on by the support of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The goal was to create an economical and reliable way for farmers living in the interior of the state to transport their goods to market. To achieve this, existing rivers were widened, dams were created to control water levels, bridges and aqueducts were erected, and a lock system established.
The James River Company was created to raise capital for this venture. For a time, the venture was very successful, producing significant returns for its investors. However, the citizens of Virginia demanded that the company also maintain and/or improve the canal structure. When the company was unable or unwilling to comply, the state bought the charter in 1820. The state intended to further improve the Kanawha River and to connect the existing canal to the western part of the country, via the Ohio River. The invention of the railroad, however, cast doubt upon the wisdom of this scheme.
Joseph Carrington Cabell became the leading proponent of the canal system. He, along with his long time friend John Hartwell Cocke, was able to convince the state to consider a joint public/private charter in 1832. The charter was conditioned upon the procurement of five million dollars in private capital. It took Cabell and his supporters nearly three years to interest enough investors in the project. Finally in 1835 the General Assembly officially granted a charter to the James River and Kanawha Company. Joseph Cabell was elected as its first president.
Canal construction was divided into three divisions. Ultimately, the plan was to connect Richmond to Covington. Further, railroad lines were to be added after the final division was completed in order to link towns to the waterways. Unfortunately, the company was faced with a myriad of technical and economic problems; subscribers refused to pay, flooding was continual, working conditions were deplorable creating severe labor shortages, and early work on the canal proved to be defective requiring nearly continuous repair work.
The demise of the James River Company was further hastened by the Civil War. In 1863, General Sheridan and his troops razed many of the bridges and canals and most of the company papers were destroyed during the burning of Richmond. This alone wasn't fatal, but without the funds for repairs the problems worsened. The combination of these difficulties, coupled with increasing competition from the railroads finally became too great and The James River and Kanawha Company was terminated by the General Assembly in 1880. Its assets were subsequently sold to the Richmond & Allegheny Railway Company. Further information about this individual or organization may be available in the Special Collections Research Center Wiki: http://scrc.swem.wm.edu/wiki/index.php/John Hartwell Cocke.