Sometime during the night, the fire burned down and I would sit near the smoky lantern and wait for a fish to come calling. I remember one night from down river I heard the sound of a boat whistle. Before long, in the far darkness I could see the lights of a boat coming up river.
I could tell at a distance she was sternwheeler by the way she was lit. It was late and she had turned off many of her deck lights, still the remaining lights on her lower deck danced across the dark waters, giving it an almost holiday appearance. Soon she locked through the old chamber and made her way out into mid-river.
Just north of the dam site she slowed her paddles to just maintain her position in the river’s current. After a short time, the big paddles began to push the water behind it as she started toward her up river destination. Looking back through time nearly 50 years ago, I wonder if it was a similar sight in the days when the big steamers must have been common place on the rivers. Someone with an imagination could have believed that a 100 years before that steamer could have been piloted by Sam Clemens on the Mississippi. The boat moved north toward the coming day and disappeared around the far turn in the river.
Growing up near New Martinsville gave me occasions to enjoy the Ohio River. When I was boy a theater boat came to town in the early-1960s and I went aboard to see the old time minstrel show. The area was small and the stage size limited the performer’s ability to sing and dance. But it made no never mind as the show must have been similar to a time when boats came to town and performed for the town’s people. After the show, I went up to the pilot house on the top deck and looked out at the river from where a pilot would stand.
Also back then, each September, our community would come alive when the roar of power boat racing returned to the river behind the Yacht Club. The bottom land next to the football field was full of campers and colorful boats, with names like High Winder and Thunderbolt, along with dozens of others that came to town each year.
But the days of songs from minstrel boats, roar of hydroplanes and calliope music from the big streamers has seemingly passed us by, much like that streamer did me many years ago. I remember back to those days and think about the enjoyment the river has brought into my life.
My love for stories of the river has resulted in my doing research on stream boats and the stories that go along with them. My quests for information led me to a writer named John Bowman. John is retired and has become one of the leading authorities on steamboats that were built and traveled out of Wheeling in the late-1800s through the middle of the last century. He has written three books that chronicle steam boats and their history on the Ohio River. One of his books tells of steam boats used in the Civil War on America’s rivers. He is also well known as a builder of museum quality steamboat models. Some have taken over 400 hours to build in the basement of his home in central Wheeling. His creations are on display at river museums throughout the valley.
John recently finished a model of a boat that was built in Clarington, in 1929, the Paragon. The Paragon is the boat on which local pilot Jack Hyer started his career. After being sold in the late-1950’s the Paragon sunk near Huntington. My family and I were privileged to see the completed model before it was given to river historian Fred McCabe in Hannibal.
My research next took me to Marietta where I wanted to show my wife and grandson a real steam-powered boat, the W.P. Snyder Jr. In fact this is one of the last intact steam-driven towboats that is afloat on the river. It has been a long time since the boat moved barges around the Ohio River. But, still I wanted to see and understand how the boats of yesteryear looked and worked on the inside.
The Ohio River Museum is a place where people can see and touch parts of life that were once common place on the river. My many questions on how things worked in the boiler and engine room would be answered by a man waiting on board for my family. Bill Green introduced himself to my grandson and shook his hand, before asking if he had ever been aboard a steam boat. Over the next hour Bill took his time and explained the boat’s history and how it worked when in service. He told of the story when he was part of the crew that accompanied the boat to a tall stack festival in Cincinnati a few years back and how the roof leaked during a heavy rain the first night out. We talked of what life may have been like on the old steamer from years gone by, along with his memories of the boat he had experienced.
Before we left I asked Bill how long he had been guiding people on the boat, he told me he guessed 10 to 15 years and that he enjoyed meeting people. Somehow we got to talking about his military service and he told me he served during World War II at an air base in the Philippines. I wondered if Bill was there when my dad was a Navy Seabee building air fields on those same distant islands?
My research on steamboats has given me information about life and how it must have been on the river years ago. But even more important it gave me the opportunity to meet and talk with a couple of men who shared history of the river and their lives. Books and pictures keep our heritage preserved for future generations, but taking some time and talking with those who have experienced a part of history is even better. I will long remember my conversation of the river and boats with John and Bill. I hope my grandson will remember that in the summer of 2011, he met two men who not only showed him history they told him of theirs. In the far future, perhaps he can tell his grandchildren stories of the river as he once looked Thru the Lens.
Chuck Clegg’s grandson Cameron Clegg and boat guide Bill Green check out the pilot house of the W. P. Snyder at the River Museum in Marietta Ohio.