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Sternwheelers give Marietta a unique flair

Having spent most of my life in Marietta I have become somewhat of a sternwheel purist, or snob, depending on your viewpoint. To me it is not really a sternwheeler unless the giant paddle wheel on the back end of boat provides the primary power to move the craft. The sternwheelers moored on the Muskingum River are all real sternwheelers as are the boats that will visit Marietta for the annual Ohio River Sternwheel Festival in September. Sometimes sternwheels are mounted on the backs of boats for show. The real power comes from an underwater engine that is more powerful and more controllable than a paddlewheel.

The next time you are watching a visiting sternwheeler, watch to see how they use the paddle wheel when they leave. If they can make a tight turn as they back out, it is likely not using the paddle for its main thrust. Unlike underwater engines, a paddle wheel cannot be turned from side to side. A real sternwheeler must use a rudder or steering jets to either move the stern or the bow one way or the other.

The wake behind a sternwheeler is always a giveaway. A true sternwheeler will have a series of waves behind the boat caused by the wheel forcing water downward as it spins in the river. Watch the Valley Gem heading up the Ohio and you will see the waves extending far behind the boat.

Large cities like Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have small fleets of boats with paddlewheels on the back that operate for dinner cruises and events. The ones I have seen are not real sternwheelers. The wheel does not actually touch the water on some of them.

Hundreds of sternwheelers once traveled the nation’s river system. The paddlewheel allowed the crafts to operate in the shallow waters of the river system. The systems of dams raised the river and changing technology allowed for more efficient pulsion systems and the charm of the sternwheeler slowly disappeared from the river.

The river was a dangerous place during the sternwheel era. The pressurized steam boilers would explode, killing passengers and crew, as was the case of the Buckeye Belle that exploded on Nov. 12, 1852 in the canal in Beverly, killing 24 people. The river itself presented danger to passing boats, as was the case of Tell City, which got damaged and sunk near a Little Hocking dam on April 6, 1917. The pilot house was the only thing saved. It is now part of the collection at the Ohio River Museum on Front Street.

The centerpiece of the museum is the W.P. Snyder Jr. A photo of the inside of the paddlewheel of the sternwheeler is featured on page 2 of today’s Times. I took the photo from a kayak at river level on the port side of the boat. The historic boat is the only steam-powered sternwheel towboat that is still afloat in the United States. It came to Marietta decades ago under its own power and is a remarkable example of a past era of riverboats.

Just downstream from the Snyder you will find Marietta’s other two authentic sternwheelers. The Valley Gem and The Major. The Valley Gem provides trips on both the Muskingum and Ohio rivers. The museum and the Valley Gem provide visitors the unique chance to learn about the history of sternwheelers but also take a ride on one.

Marietta’s riverboats are one of the many things that give the town character, and it is one of the reasons most the modern riverboats that journey up the Ohio make Marietta one of their stops.

Art Smith is online manager of The Marietta Times and can be reached at asmith@mariettatimes.com.

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