Sternwheel Paddle Boat Festival Wheeling, WV
by Richard Frye

The waterfront bustled with activity as the Stern Wheel Paddle Boat Festival kicked off Friday the 12th of September in Wheeling, WV. The weather conditions were absolutely beautiful! Couldn't have asked for a better day.

Ya'll all know that River Boats have played a great part in our history, and even today there is something special about these magnificent water craft! Some original river boats still survive and take people on cruises down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

Rather than just walk around admiring these boats and munching on something from one of the many food stands, I decided I'd just git out there with'em! I had to go across the river looking for Wheeling Island Marina that I never found, so I just found a place at the river and parked. I had the trusty ole Stealth with me, and there were some men unloading a truck with funny looking pieces of pipe in wooden crates! I had accidentally stumbled upon some folks setting up for a large fireworks display that was to take place Saturday night! Never seen'em set up before and it proved to be very interesting!

(click to enlarge)

Now..this wasn't the best place to put in anykind of boat, but it would have to do. That's why I like these boats so much! George, the security guard for the fireworks said he'd be there till midnight and offered to help me carry my Stealth down the steep rocky incline to the waters edge where there were more rocks!.....and a bit of sticky mud too! George marveled at my little boat and shook his head thinking I might have been a little "touched" you know!

Little did he know he would have been right! I put on my water shoes, rolled up my pants legs, got in and took off down river from Wheeling Island...almost on the official Ohio side and paddled down toward Wheeling's waterfront where the boat thing was 'posed to be in full swing. Not to mention the fact I was more at ease when I got away from all those boxes labeled HIGH EXPLOSIVE!

I could see that a lot was going on, and before I got half way across the mighty Ohio River to the West Virginia side I spotted a big ass monster barge coming toward me about a mile away! I told myself ...and out loud too..."OK fool? Don't do anything stupid!......That is a lot of tonnage coming directly at you!....and it's time to get scientific!"

Big ass monster barge
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I pondered the thought and rationalized that I only had about 1/4hp at the most if I exerted maximum effort and that this barge probably had at least 2000hp diesel engines maybe 2 or more of them, and outweighed me by several billion pounds! The barge steadily got closer at what I estimated to be 5 times the speed I could paddle even if I was in good shape .....which I ain't!... so I braced myself in the cockpit and threw in some power strokes to accelerate my tiny craft to a comfortable cruising speed. I didn't want to get too technical here but I felt the need to explain the fact that it was time I got my ass out of the way real damn quick!

Now out of the way of the heavily loaded coal barge by several hundred yards as she moved north behind me, I closed in on the waterfront that resembled a carnival of boats and everything else related!

As the barge continued north under the I-70 bridge, linking Ohio and West Virginia, the Stealth eagerly rode out the gentle 2 foot high rolling swells passing under my stern. I enjoyed this for several minutes and then removed the camera from a zip-lock bag and began taking pictures. Getting a ducks view was so much better than what folks on land were doing. They were limited to side shots and front views along the waterfront dock. I was in the river and able to get up close and personal with the business end of the paddle wheelers as well as the other too!

The Michael J.
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One particular Paddlewheel boat caught my eye! The MICHAEL J! ...Well I'll be suwaneed up a damned gump stump! It couldn't be!..?? Naw.........but it wouldn't surprise me! You can see it in the picture on the left.

After taking many pictures, I paddled in, out, around, and amongst this magnificent flotilla, just making myself at home. I did get a few stares from folks strolling along the boardwalk..more or less shocked...and a few hand waves from folks that thought I was cool! It seemed that every time I thought I was at the end of the boats, I would
paddle around only to find several more of different sizes moored in odd locations.

Stealth tied to Dom's boat
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One that quickly caught my eye was the smallest of the sternwheelers on display...the THREE HOUR TOUR! A homebuilt sternwheeler ingeniously built on a pontoon boat! The power system rated 11 hp with a marvelous hydraulic system that powered the 6 or 7 foot diameter paddle wheel at the rear. Don M......he said to just call him "DOM" cause nobody can pronounce his last name invited me aboard and I tied up the Stealth to the THREE HOUR TOUR and stepped on deck.

He and his family were a little amazed at how easily I got out of the Stealth since I did appear to be quite confined in the small cockpit. I sat and chatted with them a while and waited for the feeling to come back in my butt and legs then set out to see what else they had on dry land!

Jimbo (click to enlarge)

For one thing they had food stands out the ass! Every kind of food you can imagine! Some I ain't never heard of and couldn't pronounce most items listed on their signs. So I ventured further down the boardwalk and discovered Jimbo's BBQ way down at the end! I know what that is!.. so I ordered a pork sandwich that was a nice size, but at 5 bucks I could've got 2 MAC RIBs! Nevertheless it was good and didn't tear my stomach up like I thought it would! I could just see myself out in the middle of the Ohio River if the urge hit me and me looking for a porta-jon!......well they ain't got none!

Anyway, come to find out ole Jimbo is almost a neighbor and lives about 35 miles from me in Clarksville, PA. Jim invited me up to his bar...the only one in Clarksville, to have some good home cooked food. I'll be sure to stop by there on my next trip to the Monogahela River. Plan to do that real soon. He built his BBQ house on a car carrier type trailer for less than a third of what he could buy one for! And it cost more than my house and two cars put together if I'd have to buy one! He told me he loved BBQ and does this for fun. He gits to meet folks and invite them up to his place like he did me and make a little money on the side too!

Double Paddle Wheels
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In the picture at left, ya'll can see a huge set of double paddle wheels on one boat...the green ones. That was as pretty good sized boat. The smaller boat with the red paddle wheel was nice, and all seemed to show pride by their owners just by the way they were maintained. When you talk to these river boat folks you'll sense a special breed of people that are dedicated to preserving parts of history from a by gone era. And they are very special people.

When you look at some of these amazing river boats.....just imagine how much it takes to keep one going, and to keep her looking good! You don't just throw one of these on a set of sawhorses, slap on a coat of latex paint on then have a beer and say, "Yep......she's ready for next year!" It takes a couple or three drums of marine enamel that, as you all know don't come cheap!..and a lot of physical labor, and it ain't done over a weekend either!

My little Geo Tracker
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After a grand tour, a fine lunch I bid my goodbyes to Dom and his family and paddled out toward the middle of the Ohio River! And what to my surprise?....another big ass barge fully loaded was dead ahead and heading north also like the other one. In all I passed four other huge barges before I got to Moundsville, and finally saw my little Geo Tracker waiting to take me home after a great day on the water. None of the barges were heading south so something must be going on up that way!

The trip back was uneventful and relaxing since I was going with the current that got a might stiff in the main channel. When I'd spot a barge, I'd give her all the river she wanted, and along with the barges, as far as I'm concerned the rivers still belong to the Sternwheelers as well as Side Wheel Paddle Boats of long ago. These are the boats that once carved an overwhelming notch in our history, making famous cities on the Ohio, the Mississippi, the Missouri, reaching long watery arms from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico! Trade routes expanded tremendously in America.

Of course gambling played a big part too, and even that is still done today with cruises available to the public from short evening dinner cruised to a full blown trip From Pittsburgh, PA to the sound of jazz in New Orleans, LA. But that's another story! When you hear a steamboat whistle, let your imagination take you back a hundred and fifty years! Better yet, plan a trip for your family, step aboard and relive a part of history! It will certainly be rewarding for all even if it is .....and only for.......a three hour tour!...