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Wood on Steamboats

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    Wood on Steamboats

    I realize if it happened before 1970 and is not about the DELTA QUEEN no one is interested, but I'll get to Her Royal Highness in a minute.
    As much as they were steamboat builders, the Howards ran a lumber yard. Lumber was everything to their business, they had to be experts in all phases of the lumber business. Many said it was the quality of the wood they used that set their boats apart.
    They would get their lumber in large rafts floated down from the Big Sandy River valley, the Kanawha River and from around the vicinity of Twelve Pole Creek. They would store these rafts in the river behind Six Mile Island and bring the logs down to the shipyard on an as needed basis. The logs Howard used were in the river at least one year and many times two Jim Howard said "this washed the acid out of the wood". (I wonder how many virgin forest oak logs are lying on the bottom of the river behind Six Mile Island today....might make a program for the Discovery Channel).
    The Howards used oak, both red and white, in the hulls. Pine for the decks. Cedar under the boilers, and Poplar, both yellow and tulip, for the superstructure and cabin.
    Howards had a rough saw mill on the river bank and a finishing mill across Market St. (where Girders Service Station and the Wise Owl is today).
    The reason I brought all this up ......and here it comes.... the DELTA in another thread I asked if modern day wood fits what they are replacing on Her Royalness.
    If you were trying to do the same thing on a Howard built boat, I doubt you'd be able to find on stick of wood at a lumber yard today that would fit because Howards cut their lumber to meet the specifications of whatever boat they were building.
    My question is did the California shipyard do like the Howards and mill their own lumber or did they buy it from a lumber yard?

    *Steamboat wood/Howards/DQ*
    Steamboating colleagues:
    Jim, you presented one fine posting above and it would take, perhaps, a dozen follow postings to get all the information out. I know I don't know all the answers and would never stoop so low as to want to be called an "expert" on anything.

    The Howard papers contain that long ago memoir telling about how the Howards mounted a virtual expedition up the Ohio River to eastern Kentucky etc. in search of just the right woods you mention below. The expedition had a leader or two, chuck wagon for grub, tree 'markers,' purchasing agent etc. to pick, size up the particular tree they desired. The purchases made good with the land owner. In time all was cut usually by locals with Howard supervision, dragged by teams to the river, 'rafted up' using the raft bindings called 'gluts' to hold them together. The Howards, and their agents, were careful to choose trees on the correct side of the hills and mountains avoiding what was then termed "wind shaken" trees with weakened wood fiber. Trees on the 'sunny side' were preferred. You've explained well how the rest went with wood towed down to Jeffersonville where it lay in rafts.

    Wood for boats was very carefully chosen for the right job at the right place for the right reason on the boat. Beams, joists, tongue-in-groove etc. came in many different dimensions and specifications. Early writers thus termed old time steamboats as "lumber piles on a raft"..."chicken coops on a raft." The really fine woods such as walnut, burl walnut, mahogany, rosewood and even ebony were expenvise woods with many imported from outside the country. They did know about 'shaving wood' to produce veneers not using full, solid pieces. We've all seen those incredible old Howard Yards photos showing the 'steaming tanks' or troughs used to soften wood in boiling water so as to bend to a desired shape. Those boat builders and joiners knew their craft well. Look again and you won't see all that much--if any--extensive piles of waste wood from a job. The old boat builders, joiners here in Cincinnati at the Marine Railway Co. were German, Irish and Scotch-Irish so skilled barely inches of any wood was wasted. Wood cost money and if they crews wasted it many yard managers charged it against their wages. Already by the late 1880s, early 1890s, shipping journals commented on " the Ohio/Mississippi River boat builders still shun emerging use of iron in boats sticking to wood...behind the times etc." This not so as the technical guys back East didn't understand the use and needs boats demanded here on our rivers.

    The DELTA KING/DELTA QUEEN built of West Coast lumber all but the fine teak railings, ironwood lower deck where the 'Orleans Dining Room' is today. The California Transportation Co. building the boats also owned the entire C.N & I yards in Stockton where the DK/DQ were built along with where their extensive fleet went for repairs. They were one big company at their height employing between 1,200 and 1,500 people making all of the packet lines here on our rivers look like pikers in comparison. Wood was brokered through agents, shipped to Stockton by rail or into San Francisco by freighter where it was shaped, dressed put in place. Many of the craftsmen were brought to California from Scotland by Jim Burns. Old Jim Burns picked up the expensive ironwood for the boats when he got wind of a ocean freighter in from Asia with the contractor defaulting on the wood. He raced down to look picking all up for mere cents on the dollar. Unfortunately, there are far too many still today who think both the DL/DQ were totally built also in wood, knocked down at Denny Brothers Yard in Dumbarton, Scotland. Only the hull, fittings, engine parts in metal were done there--and I have all the detailed manifests for the components used in their building here in my files down to the exact number of nuts, bolts, screws, port holes etc. Jim Burns purchased only the very best materials, parts, components for the boats. The wood for their upperworks mostly from the Pacific Northwest. Naturally most of the wood was "cut to meet the specifications" as you state above.

    Make no mistake about obtaining the right wood today. You can get whatever you want or the workmanship you want if you are willing to pay the money. Naturally it's more difficult today to find the men and even now women skilled/trained in that work--but you can find them if you're willing to pay what they demand. Same goes in finding those still trained, skilled in old-time riveting on hulls and vessel components now with use of welding. Again, what do I know?

    R. Dale Flick
    Coal Haven Landing, Ohio River, Cincinnati.


      Very interesting post, Jim. But not all of us are interested only in what has happened post-1970!

      I wondered about the tongue and groove siding being replaced on the DQ also. However, the tongue and groove you mention being available in lumber yards and hardware stores is a different size altogether than what is used on her ladyship. On the DQ the siding lumber in the tongue and groove is (I'm making an educated guess) about a 1x3. I would assume it had to be specially milled. That in itself is not such a big deal.

      As the owner of a 1920's-built home for over 25 years, I did quite a bit of repair and remodeling on it - a good bit of it myself. While I did use "stock" lumber for some things, other things I needed to fit with existing stuff, and had at least a couple of occasions to have to get a lumber company to mill the special pieces for me. There was a set-up charge, but it was not at all outrageous. Admittedly, my projects were small compared to what they're doing to the DQ, but I also know that the "mill charge" or "set-up charge" is a one time charge to set up the milling machine -- they'd run as many board-feet through that as I liked. Not really a big deal.

      As far as "cured" wood and specialty woods, they are still available, too. I was involved in a very large ornamental millwork project (finding the company to do the work and assisting in the design, and seeing the project through) for the church we belonged to in Memphis. That project used quarter-sawn red oak. It was not cheap, but also not out of the reach of a 450 member Protestant church.

      Keith may jump in here, too, as the pipe organ business is one which uses a lot of wood, none of it bought at your local Lowe's, I can assure you.


        Sorry to burst your bubble Jim

        but as Bob said, there are some of us on here interested in things other than the DQ or post 1970.


          *Air dry vs. kiln dried woods*
          Steamboating colleagues:
          I'm a bit foggy on "pre or post 1970" here. I do know for years there was the "post 1947 history of the DELTA QUEEN vs. the pre-1947 history," information at the time often 'nere the twain did meet.' And it often takes a village to tell a story.

          Keith Norrington, Jim Reising, Kenny Howe no doubt know more about how the Howard Yards cured the woods they used. I'm not sure, but 'think' years and years ago I did see one or more fine old B/W Howard Yard photos seeing wood beams, planks ricked up under a weather cover to air dry naturally. Am I right or wrong on this? As a teen, Mrs. Loretta Howard did comment to me on "aging, drying the wood we used." Again that was a L-O-N-G time ago I'd 'guestimate' at 58 years now.

          I have no idea if Howards ever employed 'kiln drying' of their required wood but doubt it. 'Steam bending' of planks common. Earlier builders of boats/ships picked trees with certain 'curves/bends' in the trunks and branches for what they needed. Surviving old B/W photos from the Cincinnati Marine Railway Co. yards here in Cincinnati show huge piles of sawn lumber in various dimensions ricked/stacked up in neat, orderly rows stretching for several blocks along Eastern Ave. here at Rookwood Crossing near old Fulton. All of this wood carefully watched with a night watchman on duty to protect the supply. Some years ago I drove Jim Reising and Kenny Howe by showing them where the old yards started and ended. River reporters in the several newspapers here at the time wrote of the horrendous fire that swept the yards destroying thousands of feet of "running lumber." Cincinnati Marine Railway so located with major rairoad tracks running both ways just over from Eastern Avenue. CMR also famed for their sliding ways for boats in and out of the river using power--no end launchings. 'Finish carpenters' lacked the luxury of today's power saws, drivers etc. we have today relying then on their own personal set of hand tools, saws, planes, hammers and screw drivers etc.

          For years something of a 'civic rivalry' existed between Cincinnati and Louisville with debates on which city built the best steamboats. Again, what do I know?

          R. Dale Flick
          Coal Haven Landing, Ohio River, Cincinnati.


            I have an unusual background, being raised in a 1920s resort and being a preservationist, so I look at a lot of details others don't notice (witness my phillips screw note in a recent Save the DQ thread). While on the DQ, I noticed replaced beams on the underdecks and the addition of the promenade decks was obvious to me--granted, a nice design, but you can tell that the structural components were not made like the original boat's pieces. Details like finished edges show the differences. In my room the ceiling and walls were quite nice, but they were modern reproduction of what MIGHT have been there (being natural finished oak, I suspect the original was painted pine or fir). The edge forming was obviously done by running a router around the pieces--the corners were rounded, not mitered, as original construction would have been. BUT, as I stated, I am probably one out of a thousand who would even notice that, and the overall effect was quite pleasing and period-appearing.
            One change that has happened over the years is all the raised panel molding on the pilot house; that stuff disappeared early on in her "new" life.
            Yes, obtaining original dimension wood is becoming more difficult--as is getting dried wood. Most of what I can buy around here is what I call "pond-dried" -- the wood will squirt water out when you drive in a nail!!
            As for organ work, I was able to purchase some 4-quarter poplar at the hardwood supply house in Chico that I laminated up to make some organ chests--but I did have to pick through the pile to get wood I thought would stay straight!


              Count me among those who soak up every word of this stuff. The craftsmanship behind the packet steamboat industry is always enormously compelling.


                From the Howard collection, here's a picture of the boys at the finishing mill. When this picture was taken, the normal workday was 12 hrs., 6 & 1/2 days a week at $.35 to $.40 per day. Howards paid just above average wage because the American Car Works (railroad cars) was a major competitor for skilled wood workers. Capt. Ed Howard established and ran the mule powered streetcar line in Jeffersonville so his employees would have an easy way to get to the shipyard.
                Attached Files