Sternwheelers of the Kanawha River
by, Capt. Eric Grubb
I recently had the opportunity to cruise down the Kanawha River from Port Amherst, Charleston, WV to Point Pleasant, WV, where it meets the Ohio River.
The Kanawha River (pronounced "ka-naw") reminds me in several ways of the Allegheny where I spent time growing up, especially considering its narrow width and the number of wooded hills. It is formed at Gauley Bridge, WV, where the Gauley and New Rivers meet.
Downriver of the confluence of these two rivers you'll find the Kanawha Falls, below-which there are 90 navigable miles in a Northwesterly direction toward the Ohio River at Point Pleasant, WV. The area is rich with coal, natural gas and oil, as well as mineral deposits that yield bromine, calcium, chlorine, magnesium and potash. The area is home to coal and chemical production, which makes for a strong transportation industry by river.
Idling past Charleston and Dunbar, WV in the evening hours of early May provided an excellent opportunity to capture some of their historic riverboats. What especially caught my attention on the Kanawha River was the relatively large number of sternwheelers, both recreational and commercial.
Above, the Miss Sterling, built in 1926. She's had many names over the years, but was eventually renamed to reflect her roots. She's owned by Thomas Jones, and features a 65' hull.(3)
Passing Dunbar, WV, I found myself in sternwheel heaven, sighting nine in a three-mile stretch. Something told me there was something special going on there, and the more I dug around, the more I found out how accurate that was.
To best understand, one needs to take a step back to the early 1970's. Charles T. Jones was the chairman of the Madison Coal & Supply Company, operating from Port Amherst, Charleston. The company provided for construction and the movement of coal on the river. Boaters themselves, the Jones family would take summer vacations on the "Laura J."
Above, the Momma Jeanne at Port Amherst, currently owned by Lawson Hamilton. She was formerly the Laura J, used in the early years by the Jones family for vacations.
Below, you'll notice that she features a hydraulic drive system rather than chain.
Nelson Jones was said to "loved all-things-river." At age 12, he presented the idea of a sternwheel regatta to the mayor's office in Charleston. They found five sternwheelers for the first year's event, where they had races and sternwheel push-pull competitions.(7)
It was evident that it would take a group of leaders to pull of a regatta, so Charles Jones and a group of friends came up with the idea for the "Great Kanawha River Navy."(6)
Today's membership stands at 125 people, each having the rank of "Admiral." There are some 15 members who currently have the rank of "Fleet Admiral," an honor bestowed based upon contributions and length of membership. Charles Jones, for example, is a Fleet Admiral, and just reached a milestone of forty years of service.
Above, the Great Kanawha River Navy. Photo courtesy GKRN.org
The Charleston Sternwheel Regatta, a Labor Day Weekend event, quickly grew to become the biggest annual event east of the Mississippi, with crowds of one million annual visitors.
It is worth noting that many of the members of the Great Kanawha River Navy (GKRN) are also members of the American Sternwheel Association, which was founded in the same era. They meet annually for a festival in Marietta, OH, where the Muskingum River meets the Ohio. Pomeroy, OH also holds an annual regatta.
Nelson Jones was said to "never let a sternwheeler die,"(8) as was evidenced by their fleet of historic work boats. Not fully understanding their history, I asked Mr. Charles Jones, Nelson's father and the chairman of Amherst Madison, about the boats still being used in service. He replied, "They still work, they're great in shallow water and there's no reason to retire them. They're easy to maintain as long as you don't hit the sternwheel on something."
The family's rich river history went beyond that of a company that owned river boats. Besides assisting the GKRN, they later contributed toward the development of Charleston's downtown riverfront. Caring for the safety of recreational boaters, they made a ride on a working towboat part of every local USCG Auxiliary and Power Squadron's safe boating course graduation, taking up to eight people at a time onto the bridge for a ten-mile trip down the Kanawha. Volunteers in pleasure boats would do crazy things like circle in front of the boats so that those on the bridge could see what it looked like from the perspective of the captain with his blind-spots. They would also demonstrate an emergency stop, showing how long it really takes to stop a loaded tow.
At its peak, the Charleston Sternwheel Regatta featured over fifty sternwheelers. While it "lost its focus" and was all-but retired in 2008, there is still a strong sternwheel presence in the region. The American Sternwheel Association(2) was formed in 1976 for sternwheel enthusiasts, and the annual Ohio River Sternwheel Festival in Marietta(1) still boasts thirty or more boats each year.
Dunbar, as it turns out, has one of the highest concentrations of sternwheelers in the country. As such, it has been officially named the "City of Sternwheelers" in 2013.
Sadly, Nelson Jones lost his battle with cancer in 2010. Amherst Madison's "Pennsylvania," a 151' towboat in service since 1964, was renamed the "O. Nelson Jones" in his honor.(5)
I hope you enjoy this sampling of boats as much as I did (Photos by Capt. Eric):
Above, Amherst Madison's "Lady Lois," in operation at Port Amherst, is 74' in length and was constructed in 1928.(9) Many sites, including the USCG, list the construction date as 1923, but those are inaccurate. She was purchased in a derelict state in 1996, and was previously featured as the "Charles W. Stone" and the "Mississippi" in movies.
Above, Amherst Madison's "Major," in operation at Port Amherst, is 64' in length and was constructed in 1928.(3) Formerly a sunken vessel, she was rescued by Nelson Jones and placed back into service.
A river view of the capital building in Charleston, WV. Many visitors only see the top of the building from the highway, but from the river, it is apparent that the structure was built in a time where the river was a priority.
Below, Charleston's riverfront reflects its river heritage. The Jones family of Amherst Madison was the original force behind the development of the Riverfront Park and was the home of the Charleston Sternwheel Regatta, which started in 1970.
Above, the Spriit of West Virginia, currently in service conducting rides and tours(4)
Above, the Fancy Nancy, built in Pittsburgh in the 1980's. She was formerly owned by the previous owner of the Spirit of West Virginia, showing how these boats tend to stay in the small family of enthusiasts. She features a 38' hull, and draws 28" of water.(2)
Above, the Pile Inn was previously the "Belle of Richmond," and is currently owned by Thomas Pile. Tom joined the Great Kanawha River Navy in 1979, and helped provide much of the detail featured here. He mentioned that the previous owner lived aboard the boat for many years, and passed away a mere 30 days after selling her.
The Pile Inn was constructed in 1963 by the Kelly Shop of Jefferson, Indiana.(1) Interestingly, builder John Darling thought nobody would buy a boat named a "Darling," so he put up a sign for "Riverman's Houseboats" at the "Kelly Shop." Of course, they are now "Darling Yachts," and are managed by their third generation since the passing of Dan Darling in 2013.
Below, not a sternwheeler, but rather a classic Kelly on the Kanawha. Built in 1955, her hull is 50'x15'. She was purchased by in 1997 by Tom Pile, who moved her to the Kanawha River.
Above, the Mudsock. She started out as the USS Mudsock, featuring a 50'x14' hull. Owner Bob Cantrell later split the hull four ways, expanding it to 80'x20', That would explain why she doesn't closely resemble earlier pictures.
Above, the Juanita features a 64' hull.(3) She was built in 1954 by O. F. Shearer & Sons at Cedar Grove, WV(2), and later purchased from Indiana & Michigan Power Co., now part of AEP.
Above, the Princess Margy, built in 1980(3) by Peter Gassie, and named after his wife. The boat is currently owned by their daughter, Alice Gassie.(8)
OK, not a sternwheeler, but "The Barge Restaurant"
just seemed to fit in on the Kanawha. In its heyday, it was formerly known as "The Edwards Moonlight," and was a showboat with open floors for dancing.(8)
Above, Stephen Hutchison's Port Explorer. The first steel was laid on May 31, 2005, and she floated on January 27, 2010(3) While not really on the Kanawha, it's close enough, as you can find it just south of Point Pleasant, WV. (Note: They've recently moved to Burlington [South Point], Ohio) The contruction of this boat is documented in the American Sternwheel website (link removed).
Other sternwheelers on the Kanawha that were not photographed but deserve honorable mention would include the Pearl Ann (formerly Oh Suzanna) and the Henny Cook. I've also been told that the "Sewickley," named after my home town, now resides behind Wheeling Island on the Ohio River in West Virginia.
Lastly, here's the "Labor of Love" from California, OH that deserves mention. She's a newer boat with modern features, while still resembling the days past.
(1)Ohio Sternwheel Festival
(2)American Sternwheel Association
(3)USCG Documentation Center
(5)"Amherst Madison Honors Nelson Jones," Waterways Journal, 16 May 2011, by H. Nelson Spencer
(6)Great Kanawha River Navy, GKRN.org
(7)"Regatta founder Nelson Jones dies at 52," WV Gazette, 25 July 2010
(8)Interview with Thomas Pile, Dunbar, WV
(8)Capt. Steve Huffman
Founder, Port KY
Eric grew up around boats, trading summers on board his parents' Sea Rays for many man-hours of swabbing the decks. He grew up by the little town of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, overlooking the the Dashields Locks and Dam. He has traveled the Great Lakes, Lake Huron's North Channel, Gulf of Mexico and several rivers to include the Ohio, Allegheny, Monongahela, Kanawha, Mohawk (Erie Canal), Tennessee, Tombigbee, Black Warrior and Mobile Rivers.
As a commercial pilot, Eric flies jets and is a flight instructor. He has owned recreational boats ranging from PWCs to most recently, a flybridge convertible that he keeps in a Louisville marina (MM 590). You can also find him with his family on the "Escape Pod," an 18' fishing boat. His most memorable journey was aboard the J. S. Lewis, a 155' towboat in service since 1931.
Eric is a USCG Licensed Master with a Commerical Tow Assistance rating, and is a member of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Riverman and the Louisville Sail and Power Squadron. After moving to Louisville, he conceived the idea for Louisville's Port KY website while searching for information to help him become a safer and more knowledgable local boater. He has worked hard over the years to educate other boaters by promoting safety classes through Port KY and by hosting captain's classes and related events.