Sternwheel-driven Boats Provide Glimpse Into Past

Jul 26, 2019

The view from the pilothouse of the sternwheeler Hobby III.
Credit Eric Douglas / WVPB

There was a time that life along the river revolved around riverboats. In the 19th century, the only way to get supplies or mail was the river. To keep the history of the river alive, a community of enthusiasts in West Virginia and Ohio maintain riverboats for their personal use. 

The original riverboats were called “sternwheelers.” The stern is the back of the boat, so these riverboats had a paddlewheel that provided thrust to propel the boat up and down the river. 

Eighty to ninety sternwheelers worked the Kanawha and Ohio rivers at their peak, according to Jack Fowler, the director of the Point Pleasant River Museum and Learning Center. Today, only a few still operate as work boats, but there are many more that private owners maintain for recreational use. 

“These guys that have these sternwheelers just preserve those memories and what it used to be like,” he said. “It just keeps the spirit of the river alive, about what it was like back in the day.”

Sternwheelers dock at Haddad Riverfront Park in Charleston, West Virginia.
Credit Eric Douglas / WVPB

One of those private owners is JD Pauley. His boat, the Hobby 3, was built as a pleasure boat. 

“I've owned this boat for 22 years now and it’s just the people you meet, the things you do, the places you go. It's I wouldn't I wouldn't trade it for anything," he said. "I wouldn't trade it for a million dollar vessel."

Tom Cook is the treasurer of the American Sternwheel Association. The group works to preserve and educate the public about sternwheel boats and has been in operation since 1976. Cook is worried about the future of sternwheelers, though, as membership in the group falls. 

“It doesn't seem like that the younger people are as interested, or maybe they just don't have the resources to purchase,” he said. “A lot of the people that own boats now are getting older so there's there's several for sale right now.” 

In September, a series of riverboat festivals will be held in communities along the Ohio River that will give people a chance to see a bit of floating history. Events are scheduled in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, Marietta, Ohio, Wheeling, West Virginia, Parkersburg, West Virginia, and Pomeroy, Ohio