Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on July 6, 1975 · Page 60
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Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 60

Charleston, West Virginia
Issue Date:
Sunday, July 6, 1975
Page 60
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Page 60 article text (OCR)

The steamer Liberty with the showboat Coldenrod at Madison, Ind. The Last Old Packet By James Wallen Inland riverboat packets were designed to be work horses, but rum-runners they were not. But the sternwheeler Liberty, the last of the Kanawha River packets, included one trip of rum-running in a long and checkered career that ended in 1936. It was skulduggery by one of her shippers -- not an illicit operation by her owners and crew -- that brought about the rum-running. When her officers discovered how they were being used, they blew the whistle for the federal authorities before they whistled for the shipper's destination - and that was that. The Liberty had several other claims to fame. When she finally came to rest at a riverbank landing across the Ohio River from Point Pleasant, she had become a towboat and, as such, added two more years to her pre: vious 24 years as a packet. The final year-and-a-half of her river service was in towing the showboat Goldenrod, carrying "Major Bowes' Amateurs in Person." Thus the Liberty went into history not only as one of the last packets on the entire Ohio-Mississippi River system, but also with the additional claim to fame of having pushed the era of the traveling showboat into the late 1930's. Her service in moving the Goldenrod from landing to landing \ helped to keep the traveling showboat a going institution until the floating theater could be taken over by a new generation, to be carried on in the style of the'University of Cincinnati's showboat Majestic at Cincinnati, and the Rhododendron at Clinton, Iowa. An important difference is that these two present showboats stay moored to their landings, and have no need of the power of a towboat. Preceding this brief, final period of glory, most of the Liberty's career was as a packet, the kind of boat she was originally intended to be. As a packet, she became well known along the Kanawha and upper Ohio and even for a while, on the tree-shaded Muskingum River in Ohio. In almost a quarter of a century as a packet, the Liberty was indeed a busy boat. Trip after trip, she ran loaded to the guards with farm produce, chickens, cows and calves, along with tons of hardware, industrial supplies, groceries, manufactured steel, and almost anything else that could be crammed aboard. And in the summer months she often carried as many passengers as her limited number of cabin staterooms would allow. For a boat of her size, the Liberty was reported to be a consistent money-maker, year after year, while running in the packet trades. Timbers chosen from wooded hillsides nearby were used in building the Liberty at Clarington, 0., in 1912, to a length of 141.8 feet and a beam of 28.7 feet. She was light, her total hull depth being only five feet. In river history the Liberty is indelibly identified with Capt. Walter C. Booth, member of a widely known family of steamboatmen having riverside homes along the Ohio River in Marshall County, below Wheeling. Capt. Booth was a leading member of the original group of owners and went aboard as clerk when the Liberty came out. In the boat's early years he graduated from clerk to purser, while learning the river to obtain his pilot's license. He was still aboard in June, 1936, when the Liberty made her final trip as a packet, but by that time he had long been the captain as well as principal owner. , Capt. Booth was a man of gentle and courteous manner who had innumerable friends among all those with whom he came in contact, from roustabouts to some of the most prominent businessmen and industrialists along the rivers. With rivermen, he enjoyed quiet discussions of steamboating experiences -- a subject to which he could .contribute so much. No matter how hot it might be -and midsummer aboard a steamboat could be mighty hot -- Capt. Booth presented the same appearance when he stepped into the pilothouse, ready to go on watch. He would be wearing a dark suit and white shirt, with tie knotted neatly at the front of a stiff, white collar. In 1951, long after he had retired, Capt. Booth was called upon by Frances Parkinson Keyes, the noted author,, for advice on some of the steamboat phases of the book she was then writing, "Steamboat Gothic." This novel proved to be one of the most popular written by Mrs. Keyes. In its earlier years, beginning in 1912, the Liberty ran in packet trades from Wheeling as far downstream as Parkersburg, and up the Muskingum to McConnellsville and Zanesville, 0. For a year or so she ran from Gallipolis to Charleston, changed to the Pittsburgh-Charleston trade in 1929; and during a period of three years, marking her final packet boat service, she was in a triangular trade from Pittsburgh to Huntington and Charleston. She kept the clerks, mates, and roustabouts busy, and was frequently carrying so much freight that boxes and crates had to be stacked up on the boiler deck (the second deck on a river steamboat) where the passengers stayed, and even up on the hurricane deck at times. Many a newly arrived passenger had to pick his way gingerly around boxes and barrels, and even crates of noisy chickens from some farm landing, on their way to the Pittsburgh or Wheeling market. Passengers frequently were awakened to the early breakfast by the bawling of calves below them on the main deck. But the years when she was carrying the heaviest loads were those between 1922 and 1929, when she was making three round trips a week through the 90 miles of industrialized valley between Pittsburgh and Wheeling. She made dozens of landings each way, stopping not only at the larger towns, but also at the numerous riverside industrial plants and coal mines in West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Her cargoes in these years consisted largely of groceries, steel products, and merchandise out of Pittsburgh, manufactured products, including stogies, from Wheeling, and brick and tile from the numerous riverside kilns in that section of the Ohio River in the vicinity of New Cumberland, W. Va., known as "brickyard bend." In April, 1932, while in the Pittsburgh-Charleston trade, she went as far up the Kanawha as Boomer, Fayette County, to deliver some structural steel. It was during the late years of Prohibition that a Pittsburgh bootlegger tried to use the Liberty as a rum-runner. Thinking that no one would suspect a plodding old river packet was hauling booze, he packed his bottled produce into boxes and barrels, labelled them " "pottery," and consigned them to Charleston. His deception was discovered on the Liberty before she unloaded at Charleston, and the Feds got the "pottery." During these final years on the Kanawha the Liberty was not only "the Pittsburgh boat," but also she CHARLEST(M, : W VA. was "the local boat," for she was the only remaining packet coming from Pittsburgh, and she had replaced the short-trade boats on the Kanawha. So, while continuing to reach the larger river towns, she became familiar to the riverside residents of Leon, Grimm's Landing, Maupin Landing, Arbuckle, Buffalo, Frazier's, Vintroux, Win-, field, Red House, Poca, Webb Landing, Peal Maple, and Friends Landing. When in the summer of 1936 the Liberty was withdrawn from her Charleston-Huntington-Pittsburgh packet trade, she found a job towing the Goldenrod. For the Liberty it was the beginning-of the end. The Amateur Hour troupe had been delighting audiences at the river towns of West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois, so the Liberty and the Goldenrod were on the lower Ohio when they were caught in the disastrous floods of 1936 and '37. With leaking hulls, the two old- timers were fighting high water and winds. By this time they were hold-overs from an 'age that was passing, even though the crew of rivermen aboard and the troupe of entertainers did not seem to realize it. But they had to give up and move into the safest landing available. Before it was over, the Liberty suffered considerable damage. She finally took refuge at Mound City, 111., in December, 1936. However, she was to end her days amid familiar scenes. Capt. Walter Webster of Marietta, 0:, .brought her back to the dock at Parkersburg, under her own steam, and had her repaired. Parkersburg was also the place where the Goldenrod had been originally constructed before 1920. Capt, Ben Raike of Point Pleasant, who had watched the comings and goings of the Liberty for years, became her last owner. In the summer of 1938 he moved her to a final harbor at his Kanagua, 0., landing, across the Ohio River from Point Pleasant. The Goldenrod proved to be the much longer lived of the two. She is still to be seen on the riverfront at St. Louis, where she is a continuing attraction. But she has long since been given a new hull -- a steel one this time. ·July-'6rl'975. Sunday. G

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