Steamboats Dock In Wheeling

As the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War and West Virginia statehood commences, some historic steamboats have arrived at the state’s birthplace in Wheeling.

The boats aren’t actual steamers, though, but rather are handcrafted models of Civil War-era steamboats that plied the waters of the Ohio and other rivers, delivering goods and supplies and transporting men and material for the war effort.

Wheeling resident John Bowman built the highly detailed, authentic Civil War steamboat models “from scratch” in 2010. “Each model takes a minimum of 200 hours to build. The scale is 1/32,” he explained.

Bowman has placed five of his Civil War steamboat models on display at West Virginia Independence Hall, 1528 Market St. The models, which are arranged in glass-enclosed cases, can be seen on the first floor of the museum during regular hours of operation. The hall is open from 10 a.m to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday; admission is free.

Being shown during the four-year observance of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial are these authentic scale-model replicas from Bowman’s handmade collection:

  • The “timbercland” Conestoga, the first steamboat purchased and converted for naval war use. It saw action in the first western rivers’ battle, the Battle of Fort Henry, on the Tennessee River.
  • The revolutionary “ram,” Queen of the West, which was the brainchild of Charles Ellet Jr., builder of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge.
  • The second-generation ironclad gunboat, Lafayette, which, Bowman quipped, resembles “the Darth Vader of its time.”
  • The side-wheel packet Liberty No. 2, built in Wheeling, Va., in 1861. It served as a troop transport.
  • The Booth Battelle & Co. Steamboat Agents wharfboat and coal barge.

Bowman explained, “Wharfboats were floating warehouses where goods were brought for shipment and the steamboat agents consigned the shipments to the next available steamer.”

Over the years, Bowman has built more than 30 steamboat models. He said that some of his models are on display at the Point Pleasant River Museum, West Virginia’s River Museum and at the new Monroe County River Museum in Clarington.

He also is the author of three books on the watercraft. His books are “Wheeling: the Birthplace of the American Steamboat,” “A Pictorial History of Wheeling and Ohio River Steamboats” and, most recently, “Steamboats on the Western Rivers in the Civil War.”

Bowman is slated to discuss his latest book for Lunch With Books at the Ohio County Public Library, 52 16th St., Wheeling, at noon Tuesday, March 29. The program will feature information about Ellet’s role as a civil engineer, war strategist and creator of the Civil War ram fleet.

In addition, Bowman and his model boat building will be featured in an article written by Carl Feather in the spring issue (March 2011) of West Virginia’s Goldenseal Magazine.

It is fitting that Bowman’s model steamboats are being shown at West Virginia Independence Hall because, during the mid-1800s, the steamboat inspector’s office was located in the northwest corner of the second floor of Wheeling’s Custom House, as the hall was then known.

The historian, author and model builder noted that Wheeling was designated as a port of entry by an Act of Congress on March 2, 1831. “This act would regulate any goods imported into Wheeling by having an appointed surveyor collect duties on taxable items,” Bowman explained. “Another provision of this act would establish a customs office, which would cover the enrollment and licensing of vessels belonging to this port.”

At the office, he said, “A conveyance register book kept a listing of enrollments by year, the measurements and tonnage of the vessel, a listing of owners and a description of the vessel with its inspection certificate.”

During the Civil War, the Ohio River steamboats depicted by Bowman and displayed at WVIH “played a crucial part in the war effort on the western rivers,” he said.

“Prior to 1861, naval duties were restricted to the protection of America’s interests abroad with 42 commissioned sea-worthy ships scattered all over the world,” he said. “With the secession of the southern states, the attack on Fort Sumter April 12, 1861 and the Confederate takeover of the Norfolk Navy Yard a week later, everything would change overnight. The Federal Navy quickly requisitioned all available sea-going ships for use in the blockade of southern ports and orders were quickly placed for many new sea-worthy ships.”

Bowman added, “Within the next four years, the United States Navy had constructed 200-plus vessels and purchased another 418.” A total of 7,600 navy personnel in 1861 expanded to 51,000 by 1865, he said.

“Revolutionary designs were forthcoming, including ironclads such as the Monitor, rams designed by Charles Ellet Jr. and, finally, submarines,” he said. “In addition, a fleet of boats was needed to take control of the inland rivers.”

Union commanders’ plans included maintaining total control of the Ohio, Cumberland, Mississippi and Tennessee rivers and control of the Mississippi River cities of Memphis, Tenn.; Vicksburg, Miss., and New Orleans, La.

“River steamboats were converted into timberlclads, tinclads, ironclads and a few were converted into cottonclads,” Bowman related. “Nearly 300 Ohio River steamboats served in the U.S. federal war effort either as conversions or troop and supply transports. Initially, these vessels came under the Amry Command, but all would be transferred to the U.S. Federal Navy in October of 1862.”

By July 1863, the Federal Navy had seized control of all the major inland waterways, he said.

Relating historical details of the watercraft depicted in his scale replicas, Bowman said the side-wheel towboat Conestoga was built at Brownsville, Pa., in 1859. It was named for Pennsylvania’s Conestoga highway and the Conestoga wagons.

On May 7, 1861, Conestoga was sold to the U.S. Quarter Master Department for $16,000, he said. The Dan Morton and Co. yard of Cincinnati converted Conestoga into a gunboat. The first gunboat in the Union fleet, it arrived for war service at Cairo, Ill., on Aug. 12, 1861.

Lafayette had two prior names and previous roles before its conversion as an ironclad gunboat. Initially, it was a side-wheel packet known as Aleck Scott, built at Louisville, Ky., and completed at St. Louis, Mo., in 1849. It served as a troop transport in the Fort Henry, Tenn., campaign. Acquired by the U.S. Quarter Master Department in May 1862, it was renamed Fort Henry.

Fort Henry was completely rebuilt into an ironclad gunboat by James Eads at Carondelet, Mo., and commissioned USS Lafayette on Feb. 27, 1863, Bowman said.

“The side-wheel packet Liberty No. 2 was, built by the Wilson, Dunlevy & Wheeler yard at Wheeling, Va., in 1861 for Capt. Charles Booth,” the historian related. “The machinery was placed by T. Sweeney & Co. of Wheeling. She was placed in the Wheeling-Parkersburg trade in early May of 1861.”

Liberty No. 2 transported Union troops to the battles of Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Pittsburg Landing and Corinth, he said. After the war, the boat sank near Memphis in 1867.

Another side-wheel packet, Queen of the West, was built at Cincinnati in 1854. In May 1862, the U.S. Quarter Master Department converted the Queen at New Albany, Ind., into a Union ram designed by Ellet. During the Battle of Memphis on June 6, 1862, the Queen of the West rammed and sank the Gen. Lovell. Ellet was wounded in the knee during the battle and he died from his wounds on June 18, 1862.

The Queen of the West was involved in other battles, expeditions and raids. However, in February 1863, the Union vessel ran aground near Gordons Landing, La., and was captured to become a Confederate ram, Bowman said.

He said the circa-1850s wharfboat moored at Wheeling’s wharf was operated by Charles H. Booth and William G. Battelle. Also known as Booth’s Old Reliable, this wharfboat served Wheeling until being replaced by a new craft in 1879.

“During the Civil War, Wheeling supplied much to the Union war effort,” Bowman pointed out. “The majority of these goods were delivered daily to Wheeling’s wharf where commission steamboat agents Booth and Battelle consigned and placed these shipments aboard steamboats heading to the southern front.”