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Gas towboat questions

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    Gas towboat questions

    One of the unique abilities of this message board is to get historical questions answered quickly and by many, many respondents! (On a side note, another of its talents is to generate long conversations that go off-topic, return to the topic, and find another tangent, with plenty of interesting stories along the way!)

    Today, the subject is gas towboats. In reference to the linked image, this is the gasboat KID. According to the UW-LAX steamboat photos website, she was built 1906 at Wheeling and was abandoned 1922 at Pittsburgh. She ran on the Muskingum.

    Can someone fill in the story on the gasboats? How much of the towing industry did they claim? Were they a serious threat to the steam tows prior to widespread use of diesel-fueled props? And why would a towboat like the KID have fancy feather-topped stacks? Boy, she looks new in the picture! While we're at it, anyone want to chip in a brief history of the Hammitt Yard?

    Sorry the image is so small with little detail. The original photo is from the UW-LAX website, but I can't link to it because the site is session-based instead of using persistent links. For those more interested, the image is referenced as LaCrosseSteamboat.steam12287.bib, currently at #1524 of 13566 (although this is certain to change soon, as the Special Collections department is constantly digitizing more of their steamboat photos).
    Attached Files

    Jon there were literally hundreds of the so called "gas boats", however some ran on gas and others on a type of oil engine. They really found their niche in the smaller tributary streams. Not all were towboats, a lot were small, shallow draft packets. The Muskingum, Little Kanawha and Kentucky rivers were home to a large group. Also the Pittsburgh area. A lot converted easily over to diesel and were around until the late 40's.

    The boat in your photo was NOT built at Wheeling, but in 1905 at the Hammitt yard in Marietta. That's where the photo is taken, the boat brand new. The boat was built for the Clifton Brothers Co, a river sand operation in the #10 pool at Zanesville.

    The Hammitt yard had two locations, at the foot of Sacra Via, just above where the Snyder moors and in Harmar ( West Marietta) at the mouth of the Muskingum. The Hammitt yard built some really fine large packets and a few large towboats.


      Look on page xix in Way's Steam Towboat Directory for the best essay on gasboats. Many ran on gasoline. Distillate ( a light oil fuel much like diesel fuel), kerosene, or diesel were all used. Devereaux Books, P.O. Box 503, Marblehead, MA 01945 published a pair of books about marine engines that used these fuels, complete with photos, drawings and descriptive text.

      I remember the Revonah, a packet which ran Louisville to Frankfort on Kentucky River until the middle 1930's. I helped put out a fire on the J. Z. W. at Harrods Creek. When the owner heard about it he said, "They should have ler her burn." I also steered the Martha A. Greene, a diesel-electric double-ender sidewheeler one day.

      They were noisy, low-power, and held in contempt by steamboaters until economics convinced them that steam had to go. Gasboats went big-time when the Herbert Hoover came out.

      To see one visit the Barbara H. at Lamb, Indiana.


        Hey Alan I spent a weekend at steamboat willies back around 78 when he had the house in Covington and he took me to an old sidewheel ferry, the Martha A Graham. Do you know what ever became of her?



          I know, I know!!!!!

          Shes on the bottom of the Arkansas River at North Little Rock. She sank there in the early 90's when she was the wharfboat for the former "SPIRIT" riverboat. The SPIRIT was first known as the SPIRIT OF EVANSVILLE, later the SPIRIT (while operating at North Little Rock, AR.), and today she is the BARVARIAN BELLE in Frankenmuth, MI.

          Frankenmuth Bavarian Belle - Riverboat info

          The MARTHA A GRAHAM was built in 1942 at Cincinnati, OH, used as a ferry boat for passengers and vehicles at Vevay, IN until 1980. She was 65'x35', diesel sidewheeler. She was sold and remaned PACHYDERM to Bob Limle, in Newport, KY...sold the same month and renamed MARTHA A GRAHAM. She them moved to Evansville, IN to be the wharfboat for the new excursion boat SPIRIT OF EVANSVILLE. I got most the information on her history from the Inland River Record (1969 and 1983).

          The SPIRIT OF EVANSVILLE has but a short lived success in her initial homeport. Once most the citizens had ridden her, the charm was over. The sad fate of most excursion boats in smaller communities is, once you've done it, there really isn't reason to come back. The SPIRIT OF EVANSVILLE also had some notorious growing pains with her hydraulic drive system and missed alot of early cruises Got towed home from alot of them, too).

          By the late 80's she moved to North Little Rock, AR and took the MARTHA A GRAHAM with her. The old MARTHA sank at the landing shortly before the SPIRIT was sold. Keeping such an operation going was hard and alot of maintenance issues were ignored to keep going. Hull work on the wharfboat was needed, but the $$$'s weren't there. The operator had fought the valiant battle...alas, in the days of gambling boats, he failed.

          I'll bet Capt. Bates knows alot more than I do, as he was the designer of the SPIRIT OF EVANSVILLE and had first hand experience with with operator. I wish I could remember his name. I met him a couple of times in the early 80's. Nice fellow, former JULIA BELLE SWAIN crew member. He started the whole operation based on the former tramping trips of the JBS through Evansville, and the success she had there.

          Which brings up an interesting point. When the tramping excursion boats hit these small towns, they flourished. When the small fry came to roost in the same exact places, they failed. Doesn't that say something to the excursion boat operator of today?

          History is not a fickle thing, it is infact a very wise teaches so much, yet so few ever listen!



            I have just a few more details to add to what Travis said.
            Back in 2002 we got an email from Henry (Hank) Burch, who was the owner of the SPIRIT OF EVANSVILLE operation. He said he bought the MARTHA in 1980 and used her as a wharfboat until she sank in 1985. She was a total loss, but they did raise her and she became a deck barge with railings, used for passenger boarding.

            About 5 years ago I happened to see that deck barge was for sale on for $5000, still complete with railings. Who knows where it is now...



              Hank Burch bought the Martha A. Graham with the idea that he would convert her to an excursion boat. The good ol' Coast Guard shot that idea down in flames. Hank took her to Evansville and used her as a landing flat.

              I was permitted to steer for part of that trip, the only sidewheeler I ever handled. She was a doll to steer and handle and would actually spin around her own center. She was diesel-electric and control was by rheostats that changed the field current. The rheostats were directly under ther pilot's forearm and arced at every movement. It paid to wear shirts with wrist-length sleeves.

              The pilot's chair was on rollers and was pinned to a vertical shaft - a vigorous kick would send the chair into a half-arc to reverse the pilot. The rollers had worn a deep groove into the pilothouse floor.

              When Hank moved to Arkansas, he took the Martha A. Graham's hull with him.


                Wow guys that was answered all my Q's. I remember her as being such a unique boat and only the third side wheeler i'd ever been on, the Admiral and President being the first 2. Thanks Travis, Alan, and Steve. I did take a couple pictures when Shipyard took me down there but I have no idea where they are. If and when I find them I will certainly post them.