Float back in time on the Valley Gem Sternwheeler

Published online: Dec 20, 2011 News Carolyn White - www.thefencepost.com
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It's one thing to take a trip down a lazy brown river on a pontoon or in a motor boat, but it's something entirely different when you're sitting up high on the deck of a Sternwheeler like The Valley Gem, which is docked in scenic Marietta, Ohio. 

It not only moves evenly through the waters of the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers, but the rhythmic splashing of the rear-mounted paddle wheel makes you feel as if you've been transported back in time. This modern-day cruise boat, built by Captain Jason "J.J." Sands and his long-time employee, Don Sandford, travels at a rate of 7.5 miles an hour - allowing plenty of time for sight-seeing - and can seat up to 296 passengers for daily tours between April and October. "The last of the (coal) steam-powered sternwheelers was replaced by diesel in 1955," Captain Sands told me. "The paddle on this one is driven by a 500 HP, 12.7 liter engine with a German ZF marine transmission." When I remarked on how smooth the ride was, he explained how he and Don (both Merchant Marine officers), have to replace the boards "every 10 years, otherwise the Gem will shudder." The comment made me wonder what travel must have been like for the pioneers who'd originally settled the territory back in 1788.

A "sternwheeler" - also known as a riverboat, paddleboat and showboat - is known for having a single wheel mounted at the rear, or stern. Invented by James Rumsey of Shepherdstown, West Virginia in 1787, it revolutionized transportation because unlike flatboats and dug-out canoes, it could run on its own power. By the 1830s, steam-driven sternwheelers were all over the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio Rivers covering territory from Pittsburgh, Pa., to Cincinnati, Ohio, to Nashville, Ten., and New Orleans, La., with trips ranging from one to four weeks. Providing an efficient and inexpensive way to transport travelers, mail and vast amounts of salt, glass, agricultural supplies and manufactured goods, their popularity remained heaviest up until the Civil War. But although river travel gradually faded after the onset of the first transcontinental railroad, the handful of sternwheelers that remain in use today have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity over recent years ... and it's easy to understand why.

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