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Trip aboard the Historic M/V J. S. Lewis

June, 2013

by, Capt. Eric Grubb


It was 9:45 in the morning, and I was standing on one of Amherst Madison's landings on the bank of the Kanawha River in Charleston, West Virginia. The skies were clear, and the water looked very good for spring. Other than a few workers cleaning, it was pretty quiet.

Waiting for my ride, I took out my digital camera and snapped a few pictures of some workboats. I noticed that they looked relatively new, but strikingly, a few had sternwheels. It was almost as if I had stepped into a time machine. My invitation aboard the J. S. Lewis was to help promote river safety for recreational boaters. However, as I researched the J. S. Lewis, it became apparent that I would have much, much more to tell about.

A well-kept gentleman came up behind me, and stared at the same geese that I was photographing. I made a comment that they looked right at home there, and he mentioned that there were six of them now and that they were making quite a mess of things down there. After exchanging general pleasantries about the weather and the river, we both noticed a pristine-looking wooden towboat sliding by, assisted by a sternwheeler, the Lady Lois. "That's the J. S. Lewis," he pointed out. "She's heading down to Louisville."

In the pilothouse of the J. S. Lewis, the captain saw the two of us standing there, and moved to wave out the window as I grabbed another picture. Somebody said, "Hello Mr. Jones," and that's the first time I realized that I had been talking to Charles Jones, the chairman of Amherst Madison. He admired the J. S. Lewis as if it were one of his favorite sights to behold.

Below, Allan Hall, Vice President of Operations and Charles T. Jones, Chairman, Amherst Madison


Amherst Madison was founded as the successor to the Star Coal & Coke Company that was started by Mr. Charles Jones' grandfather in 1893, and became known as Madison Coal and Supply (MCS) in 1915. In the 1950's, they purchased the Hatfield Campbell Creek Coal Company, and their fleet grew to 30 barges and two coal-powered sternwheeler vessels.(2)

Currently servicing West Virginia's Kanawha River, the Ohio River and its tributaries, Amherst Madison currently has 25 towboats, 11 cranes, two dry docks and over 300 employees, and provides marine services such as construction and transportation from their home ports in Charleston and Henderson, WV. They take pride in being a family-owned business, where they advertise that what they do "is more than just a business, but rather a way of life." The M/V J. S. Lewis is a stunning tribute to that effect.(1)

In 1931, Charles Ward Engineering Works, Charleston, WV manufactured the "Vesta," a steel-hulled coal burning sternwheeler that featured a wooden superstructure. It was manufactured for Jones & Laughlin Steel Company, a Pittsburgh-based firm also known as J&L Steel. It would eventually be the second of three J&L Vestas, and this particular boat was sold to Madison Coal and Supply in 1955.(1)


Above, the S/S Vesta, circa 1931. Below, its launch from the Charles Ward Engineering Works. Photos provided courtesy Amherst Madison Inc.


The boat still retains the moniker "Vesta" on its bell, but was later named the James A. Rankin (1948), the Mike Creditor (1952), the Orco (1954), and after being sold to Madison Coal & Supply, was finally christened the "J. S. Lewis" after Joseph S. Lewis III, one of the company's principal stockholders and directors.(2,3)


The J. S. Lewis was converted from steam power to diesel in 1958 at the company's home, Port Amherst, in Charleston. The coal hopper at the forward end of the vessel remains, and has been used in more recent years as a VIP dining area.

Enterprise diesels making 800 hp. each are located just aft of midships, and the conversion was said to make extra room on the main deck for additional equipment and workrooms. If you compare the above pictures closely, you can see where the original stack was replaced with diesel exhausts further astern.

Prior to the conversion, the boat was known as "Old Smokey."(2) In 1954, it apparently made so much smoke in Cincinnati one day that drivers on one of the bridges needed their headlights and the city issued a citation. Charles Jones chuckled, "I still remember getting that call," and the citation is still available on display in the companionway of the J. S. Lewis.

The J. S. Lewis was one of MCS's workhorses for many years, but has recently been relegated to smaller tasks such as VIP tours along the river. Many of you remember the trips the LST 325 made from Evansville north with stops in Louisville in 2003, 2006 and 2009. However, you're most likely unaware that its engines were not functioning in 2003, and that it was the J. S. Lewis that towed her for part of the journey.

There is so much to tell about the M/V J. S. Lewis, from her rich history, to the crew members who make her the boat that she is. After a general overview of the vessel, we'll take a closer look at what it's like to step into a time machine and be a part of the crew on such a fine boat.

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