As many of you probably noticed, the American Queen came through Mason County yesterday for the first time since 2012! The Queen of the Mississippi will also be in town from tomorrow until Wednesday. With two impressive steamboats coming to town in one weekend, I thought we’d spend this article reminiscing about Mason County’s steamboat filled past.
When the Ohio’s first steamboat, the Natchez, came downriver in 1811, Mason County was still mostly wilderness. Point Pleasant contained little more than a few cabins and a mill, the founders of New Haven, Hartford, Mason, and Leon were yet to be born, and settlers had yet to spread their farms throughout the far reaches of the county due to a longstanding fear of a Native American attack. A lot changed over the next fifty years.
By 1861, over a thousand steamboats were traveling the Ohio River, and boatyards lined the river from Pittsburgh to St. Louis. We had our own boatyards at Hartford, Mason, Point Pleasant, and Leon. Of course, none of ours could hold a match to the massive facilities at Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, but we still turned out an impressive number of steamboats. We also had quite a few respected captains.
Most of these were packet boats, designed for local routes. We had many of these in Mason County. Perhaps the most well-known were the Hummingbird No. 1, Hummingbird No. 2, and Luella, all owned and captained by the Brown family of Hartford. They traveled daily between Gallipolis and Syracuse, delivering mail, packages, and other necessities. Due to the various dangers surrounding steamboats, and the fact that these were meant mainly for work, I’ve yet to see a surviving example of a pre-1900 packet boat.
A step above the packet boat is your average steamboat. These were a decent size, large enough to carry reasonable amounts of cargo or passengers but small enough that they tended to stay local. Two of the most popular in our area were the Klondike and the Chesapeake. The Klondike was owned by Captains Mel Brown and Nick Stone of Hartford and usually stayed between Charleston, Huntington, and Parkersburg. The Klondike in particular was a Mason county favorite. Many newspaper articles tell of church groups and fraternal organizations going out with Captain Stone for an afternoon cruise. A few of these have survived. Among them are the Belle of Louisville, which was originally a passenger ferry and has since seen service as a cargo carrier, towboat, nightclub, and excursion boat, and the W.P. Snyder, a towboat and now museum boat docked in Marietta.
Finally, in a class all their own, you have the “floating palaces.” These are the steamboats romanticized by Mark Twain and replicated by the modern American Queen. These are the Delta Queen, Katie Stockdale, and Natchez. Able to carry hundreds of passengers or tons of freight, these make for a spectacular sight. It’s because of this beauty that so many of these steamboats were saved and replicated.
But long gone are the days when everyone would hear the steamboat whistle from a mile away and run to meet the mail. Long gone are the days when you could tell the name of a steamboat just by the sound of its whistle. Luckily, long gone are the days when your steamboat’s boiler exploded as well! Very few of these architectural masterpieces still travel the Ohio River, so if one happens to be going through, go meet it at the levee or sit on the bank and watch it steam by. This is no longer the 1800s, and thousands of steamboats no longer travel the Ohio River. It’s likely that it’ll be a while before another comes through.
The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society will be at 6 p.m. on Monday, July 16 at Roseberry Plantation in Point Pleasant. The address is 1 Roseberry Lane. We will be discussing ongoing projects, potential upcoming projects, and our future location before ending with a tour of the historic home.
Information from Mildred Gibbs’ “Hartford City, WV” and “History of Mason County (1987).”
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society.