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Boat Building in Wheeling

Transportation in Wheeling Icon

▼ Newspaper Article

- from the Wheeling News-Register, June 24, 1951. Part I, Page 7. © Ogden Newspapers. Reproduced with permission.


-by Peter Boyd, 
News-Register Staff Writer

The placid Ohio river, passing the city of Wheeling since pioneer days has been an avenue of transportation. Historical records disclose that by the beginning of the 19th-century boat building was one of Wheeling's leading industries. Here was one of the centers of transfer from the east to the flat boats and keel boats destined to float down the river, many never to return. Large number of workers were employed here building the flat boats and keel boats, because most of the boats were broken up at the end of the down-river journey and the wood, used to build cabins, barns, and other buildings. Regular boatmen traveled the river as a business,floating their boats down to St. Louis, Memphis, Natchez and New Orleans, returning via foot and horseback to Wheeling to have another boat constructed for their next trip. During the mid-summer navigation on the Ohio was only possible as far north as Wheeling. Records disclose that in 1811 the steamboat New Orleans, built in Pittsburgh, made the first voyage downstream, under the power of steam-driven paddles, to the Mississippi.

Records disclose that in 1811 the steamboat New Orleans, built in Pittsburgh, made the first voyage downstream, under the power of steam-driven paddles, to the Mississippi. An item in the Wheeling Repository, the first newspaper published here in 1808, states that the schooner, Nancy, of 100 tons burden was launched in Wheeling, at a shipbuilding yard on the banks of the Ohio, "which was launched with great eclat" on June 27 of that year.

In 1816, the first side-wheeler the "Washington" was built in this city and launched by Henry M. Shreve, a prominent pioneer boat builder. It was the first boat of this type to negotiate upstream with a cargo. As there was no engine manufacturing works in Wheeling at that time they were built in Brownsville, Pa. Soon after the first successful steamboat was completed here the T. Sweeney and Sons founder entered the field of steam engine building and so it was that boats and engines were built here for a number of years.

An idea of the volume of business done by the early boat yards is shown by a list of boats built in Wheeling between 1815 and 1835. In 1815, of course, the Washington was the only one constructed. The next [boat] came three years later when the Johnston was built in 1818. The year 1819 saw three boats finished, the Wheeling Packet, Virginia, and Expeditious. In 1822 the Congress was built, after which there was a lag in building until 1828 when a boom area must have hit the city for in that year the Clinton, Madison, Traveler and La Grange were built. The West Virginia was the only steamer completed in 1829 and the Bolivar the only one in 1831. But in 1832, the Brave, Jefferson, and Warsaw were completed. 1832 saw the Denmark and the Lady Boone finished and 1835, Wheeling boat builders constructed the Anna Calhoun, Roanoke, Monroe, Mt. Pleasant and Robert Emmett. Records available disclose that most of these boats were built at either the Bell yard or the Patton yard while practically all the engines were made in the foundry operated by T. Sweeney& Son, and later by A. J. Sweeney and Son their successors. Subsequently, the Sweeney Company took over the Bell Company and moved the boat yard to the Island just downstream from the Suspension bridge. The last boat built in Wheeling by Sweeney & Co. was completed in 1892.

Many river packets operated from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati, St. Louis, and even New Orleans. The packets brought livestock and produce from the downriver towns to the markets in Wheeling. Melons from Marietta, poultry, and eggs from Clarington and Parkersburg, all found a ready market in Wheeling. The old wharf boat at the Wheeling wharf was always loaded to capacity with merchandise from Wheeling business houses shipped to downriver ports. The old Stamm House on Water st., south of Twelfth was the favorite stopping place for the packet passengers. Until 1934 Ohio river packets were prominent on the Ohio river and the Wheeling wharf was a beehive of activity. Up until that time regular packet service was maintained from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh. The steamer Liberty, owned and operated by Captain Harry Donnally, was one of the most widely known steamers on the Ohio, being in operation approximately 30 years. The Gordon Greene of the Greene line was a prominent Pittsburgh-Cincinnati packet of the large type. Large excursion steamers also plied the Ohio, of which the Goldenrod was one of the largest. Today the large Diesel propelled towboats have taken the place of the packets and transport large cargoes of steel, coal, and other products to all cities along the inland waterways.

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