Riverboat Is Way Of Life for Local Couple
By SCOTT McCLOSKEY
RAYLAND — While there are many Ohio Valley residents who take advantage of boating on the Ohio River, not many can say they have taken it to the level Gary and Marilyn Morton of Rayland have for the past 14 years. That is because they decided to live aboard their riverboat, “The Gambler,” full time.
Gary Morton said it has allowed them to kick back and enjoy a lot of the “fabric” of what makes up this country.
“It’s a slow down pace. … You can kick back and relax and watch the banks go by. You can actually see things,” said 73-year-old Morton, who has their riverboat tied up at the Rayland Marina.
“The people that you meet along the river are some of the nicest people that you ever hope to meet. “Keep in mind, these boats only travel about seven or eight miles an hour, but you got everything with you that you would ever need,” said Morton, who is quick to compare it to driving along a back county road as opposed to a major highway.
“The interstate, all you’re doing is watching the traffic around you — where if you’re traveling on a county road someplace you’re looking at farmhouses, the scenery and what really makes this country,” said Morton, who is originally from Parkersburg, W.Va.
He said in the early years they would seldom stop at marinas, and when they did it was mostly for refueling.
“We would find a little stretch of river bank that we liked and we would punch her into the bank, tie off and we were good to go,” Morton said. “Almost invariably, if there was a house within 2, 3, 4 miles of us, they would see us coming and in many cases they were there as we were tying up. They of course wanted to see the boat. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many thousands of people who have been through this boat.”
He said many of them were always quick to offer their support in some way. “Could we get anything for you?” they would often say.
“I’ve actually had them say,’Here’s the car keys, take ’em and go,'” Morton said with a chuckle.
Morton said it was purely by accident more than 30 years ago that he first became interested in sternwheelers after visiting the sternwheel festival in Marietta, Ohio.
He said The Gambler, which would eventually become a permanent home to him and his wife, was the first of six riverboats he helped build over the past three decades. He said at the time they also owned a small retail store in Parkersburg.
“Really when we built it, we had no intention of living on it full time,” Morton said.
He said one of the primary reasons he decided to build his first riverboat was to create a project that he could work on with his two sons, Shane and Rhett. By having a degree in mechanical engineering, drafting and building skills, and knowing his way around a machine shop, Morton felt it was the perfect opportunity to pass along some of his skills to his two sons. So he set out to learn as much about sternwheelers as possible.
“I thought by us working together we would improve our camaraderie,” he said. “Even though they were still fairly young, I knew that it would be in short order that they would be out in the workforce, and there’s no better time to start a good work ethic than when your young,” he added.
Morton said it was important to work on a project where his children could eventually enjoy the fruits of their labors.
He said they began building “The Gambler” in 1983 using all their spare time, mainly evenings and weekends, and launched it on the river nearly three years later. He said it would take a few more years to get everything “the way they wanted it.”
“It wasn’t just them handing dad tools. They ran the saws, they ran the drills … they did it all,” he said.
“This boat here met all the goals that I set out for. In the early years, when the boys were still at home we virtually put hundreds and hundreds of miles on this boat. We would go out weeks at a time,” Morton said.
He said they would travel along the Ohio River and its tributaries between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
He said it was nearly 17 years later in 2003 when they finally “got the notion” that everything they needed was on the boat, so they decided to sell their house and live on the boat full time.
“So we had an auction at the house and virtually sold everything … and a few months later we sold the real estate,” Morton said.
He said after moving aboard the boat they first tied up at his friend’s property near the Belleville Lock and Dam south of Parkersburg, but after enduring two bad winter seasons in 2006-2007 that had the river between the Belleville Dam and Marietta freezing up, they decided to move the boat to a more secure location off the main channel.
“That pool almost froze solid. Now this doesn’t happen very often and it had been almost 10 years since it had happened before. But, when a pool freezes solid it can create havoc,” said Morton.
He said when the ice broke apart, pieces 12-14 inches thick the size of a two-stall garage, began stacking up against the dam.
“It got our attention, and we figured since we were living aboard full time we should look for a place off the main river to stay, and there aren’t many,” he said.
Morton said he had a friend at the time who owned the Rayland Marina and he was looking for someone “to look after the place” during weekdays.
“So we kind of killed two birds with one stone. We came up here and got off of the river and since we are both retired, my wife and I, we just kind of look after the place,” he said.
He said after the marina sustained heavy damage following flooding in 2004 and 2005, he was very instrumental in rebuilding the marina to what it is today.
Morton said he and his wife have spent a lot of wonderful years aboard their riverboat, and he doesn’t even own a fishing pole.
They both agree that their journey has always been a “labor of love” that allowed them to enjoy the fruits of their labor with their sons who still come back to visit them aboard “The Gambler” every chance they get.