Steam-driven paddle wheel towboats once plied Midwestern rivers by the hundreds, pushing barges to feed the nation's industrial appetite for coal and steel.
Those days are long gone, though. And the only intact, steam-driven sternwheel towboat still on the nation's river system is in danger of sinking unless preservationists can tow the vessel to a repair yard downriver to patch up its rusting hull, limboing under low bridges along the way.
For the last 54 years, the W.P. Snyder Jr. has been moored in the southeastern Ohio city of Marietta, displacing a section of the Muskingum River half the length of a football field.
"This is an important boat," said Kevin Foster, chief of the National Park Service's maritime heritage program. "It really matters in American history."
‘A one-of-a-kind thing’
The Snyder represents the last remnant of the age of river steam power, said William Judd, a longtime river captain.
"She's just a one-of-a-kind thing," Judd said.
Driven by steam engines with a paddle wheel on the back, or stern, the Snyder was among 600 to 700 such towboats around the country in the early 20th century. The Snyder was built in Pittsburgh and took coal from the mines to the steel mills.
Many mills built and owned such towboats because they wanted control over the coal, said Jeff Spear, president of the Sons & Daughters of the Pioneer Rivermen.
"They were the workhorses," Spear said.
The largest steam-powered sternwheel towboat was the Sprague. Called the "Big Mama," it was built in 1902 to haul coal primarily from Louisville, Ky., to points south. In 1907, it set a world record, towing 60 barges of coal.
As they were replaced by diesel-powered vessels, steam towboats began to fade away. By the mid-1950s, only about a dozen still operated, and by 1960 they had all but disappeared.
In 1955, the Snyder — named after the president of the Crucible Steel Co. of America — was sold for $1 to the Ohio Historical Society to be exhibited next to the Ohio River Museum in Marietta.
Cheers and whistles
Moored in Brownsville, Pa., at the time, the Snyder was given a fresh coat of paint and then embarked on a spirited cruise on the Monongahela, Ohio and Muskingum rivers through Pittsburgh; East Liverpool, Ohio; and Wheeling, W.Va., before arriving in Marietta.
Joseph W. Rutter, 86, of Marietta, was among the 100 passengers for the last leg of the five-day voyage. People lined the banks and exchanged waves, cheers and whistles with the passengers, he said.
"It was a fun trip," Rutter recalled. "There was some banjo strumming and some singing."
Now, the Snyder's steel hull is rusting from the inside, and the boat cannot be saved if it sinks, Spear said.
"A boat like that with as many structural problems that are cropping up now because of the hull — you'd never get her up in one piece," he said. "That would be the end."
Preservationists are preparing for the crucial hull-repair voyage to a shipyard in South Point, Ohio, about 150 miles from Marietta. The trip could begin as early as this week.
The Snyder will have to slip under several low bridges on the narrow Muskingum and squeeze by a pivoted railroad trestle before hitting smooth sailing on the broad Ohio River.
Once the towed paddle boat arrives at the shipyard, the hull will be replaced with plates that will maintain historical accuracy. The project could take as long as eight months.
"They're going to have to be tender with her," Spear said of the 91-year-old boat. "You don't want to put any more tension on her than they have to."
Racing the weather
The preservationists are also racing the weather. If the river swells too much from the fall rains, the boat would not be able to clear the lower bridges and could be blocked for months from getting home and resuming its role as a museum display.
At the museum next door, schoolchildren and other visitors can enter to stroll the decks and quarters, admire the china in the galley and peek into the engine room, where bins still overflow with spare parts.
Replacing the hull will cost $1.18 million, a project funded by a Save America's Treasures grant from the Park Service, state funds, a pledge of $85,000 from the rivermen group and other private donations.
Preserving the Snyder is preserving the past, and the project will keep the memory of steam-powered paddle boats alive, said Judd, 74, of New Richmond.
"The whistles they had were beautiful melodious whistles. They would give you goosebumps on your arms," Judd said. "It was the last of the romantic era of river traffic."