Mason County Memories: The early boatbuilders


By Chris Rizer - Special to the Register



Though the Marietta Manufacturing Company (later the Point Pleasant Marine Company) closed only 35 years ago, many people forget that Mason County has a long history of boatbuilding! Of course, that comes from living on a river as mighty as the Ohio, which even before the modern dam system was navigable all the way from Cairo to Pittsburgh. Of course, the three exceptions were the dry season (when it has been said you could easily walk across the river without getting your knees wet), Louisville Falls, and our own Letart Falls.

It is no coincidence then that crude European boatbuilding on the river began at three locations: Pittsburgh, Letart Falls, and Louisville. One could buy a flatboat in Pittsburgh and travel downriver to Letart Falls, where if you were lucky, you had a pilot that could navigate the falls, or you could carry your flatboat around. If you weren’t lucky, you lost your boat and bought another at the nearby boatyard. Then, repeat the process at Louisville.

Flatboats could not return upriver without difficultly, so they were typically sold for scrap lumber once you reached your destination. This continued to be the primary means of transportation on the river well into the 1830s, when they were finally displaced by steamboats.

The steamboat era on the Ohio River began in 1811 with Fulton and Roosevelt’s New Orleans, though it remained too expensive for common use until the 1830s. After many improvements in construction and the growth of many new cities along the river, boatyards began to sprout like weeds. Pittsburgh, Wheeling, Marietta, Parkersburg, Cincinnati, Louisville, the list goes on.

By the 1850s, that boom reached Mason County alongside major industrial growth. New salt furnaces, coal mines, and manufacturers all needed a reliable means of transporting their goods to market in the larger cities, and what was more reliable than your own boat? So, they contracted with local boatyards to build them, local manufacturers to outfit them, and local captains to operate them. Cities also had ferries built at these boatyards, such as Mason City and Pomeroy’s well-known Champion #3.

From 1850 to 1915, Point Pleasant, Mason (x2), and Hartford were our four largest boatyards. I don’t currently have much on Point Pleasant’s boatyard, other than the fact that it was the largest of the three and built the largest boats, full-size passenger boats and towboats. Point Pleasant, unlike the other boatyards in the county, also had the facilities to manufacture propellers, boilers, and other machinery. Because of this, many boats built at Mason or Hartford were outfitted at Point Pleasant.

Mason’s first boatyard was founded in 1875 when John Young bought the saw mill located above the ferry landing, roughly where the Mason Park is today. He quickly converted it to the manufacture of boats, and within months, was producing barges and small boats. Within a year, under Foreman Captain William Larrimer, the Young Boatyard was producing everything from barges, to ferries, to packet boats, to full-size steamboats. Among them were a 200 ft. long model barge (said to be the longest on the river at the time), the St. Jacob’s Oil for the patent medicine company of the same name, the Louella for the Brown brothers (an entire family of

steamboat captains), and the C.A. Hill for the Hartford Salt Furnace. Young’s boatyard was destroyed by the 1884 flood.

Mason’s second boatyard was the Mees Boatyard, opened soon after Young’s by John Mees and George Weyersmiller of Pomeroy and located roughly in front of the present VFW. Here they also began with barges, but like Young, they quickly expanded to larger rivercraft. It was at Mees’ boatyard that the Champion #2 and #3 ferries were built, as well as the George Moredock for the Hartford Salt Company. The Mees Boatyard continued until destroyed in a fire in 1909.

Hartford’s boatyard, the smallest of the four, was a secondary operation of the Valley City Salt Furnace. It was opened around 1869 by William Harpold and his brothers, each of whom ran a different part of the salt company’s business. Henry Harpold was over the boatyard, and it is said that he pioneered a new type of barge, though exactly which type isn’t specified in the histories.

The fifth and final boatyard in Mason County was at Leon, and I leave it for last because it is the least documented of the five. It is said to have been operating earlier than our four largest, beginning operation around 1820 and continuing well after the Civil War. At Leon, the boatyard took advantage of the old growth forest in the area to build oceangoing schooners and other sailing ships, which were then floated downriver to New Orleans and outfitted with sails. It is a fantastic piece of our history, and I look forward to further research that will confirm it.

Information from the 1987 History of Mason County, writings of Mildred Gibbs, and writings of Anna Lederer.

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By Chris Rizer

Special to the Register

Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at masonchps@gmail.com.

Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at masonchps@gmail.com.