KANAWHA COUNTY, W.Va. (WOWK) – It wasn’t coal that got the river industry moving when this all began back in the 1800s, it was salt, which was the primary export for West Virginia. That’s what helped get the Kanawha River flowing with commercial traffic and those boats were steam powered with paddle wheels on the back. These are called sternwheel boats.
The steam-powered boats are no more, with only a rare few in operation near New Orleans. Now they are diesel powered and used primarily as pleasure or tour boats.
Sternwheels are some of the beautiful boats that you see at festivals on the weekends or slowly going up and down the river. The American Sternwheel Association helps preserve the history of these boats and connects boaters or potential boaters with ways to buy or even build them.
Most of the boats have one or sometimes two bedrooms, a bathroom, a galley (which is a kitchen) and a bathroom and shower. Upstairs is the pilot house where the captain sits at the controls and that’s also where you’ll find the whistles.
The boats are powered with the wheel on the stern, which is at the back of the boat. Hence the name sternwheel. Less than 5% of the boats are a sidewheeler like this one, where there are two paddles on each side of the boat. Some of the tops speeds of these beasts can be up to 10 or even 14mph with some of the most powerful boats. They are made with steel hulls and can haul a number of passengers.
Labor Day weekend begins the sternwheel regatta season with stops in Point Pleasant, Marietta, Parkersburg, Wheeling and Pomeroy.
As for the regatta festival returning to Charleston, which is the biggest question on people’s minds, there’s a new lady in charge and I wouldn’t count it out just yet.