As we approach the end of a long, hot Wheeling summer, the Ohio River is seeing a surge in people out on the water. Dragon boat and vintage racing boat races, steamboats making late-summer trips, and final weekends out on family boats before it’s time to pull them out of the water at the end of the season. While we all look forward to soaking up these last few weeks of beautiful weather by the water, we thought we’d take a look at the rich history of boats, boating, and boating clubs in Wheeling through the years!
Due to Wheeling’s placement on the riverbank, the Ohio River has always played a large part in both business ventures and recreation for the local residents. The Ohio is the 10th longest river in the United States at a whopping 981 miles long, and runs from Pittsburgh where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers converge, through West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and finally to Illinois where it joins the Mississippi, defining five state lines along the way. In the early 1800s, Wheeling had a huge boat-building industry, where flatboats and keelboats were constructed on the banks, filled with cargo, floated downriver to major towns in other young states, and dismantled so that the wood could be used for building.1 As a gateway from Pittsburgh to the West, it’s easy to see why Wheeling was chosen as a building and launch location for boats at this time.
In 1811, the first steamboat to go down the Ohio from Pittsburgh, named the New Orleans after its destination, passed through Wheeling.1 Soon after, the building of the innovative Washington cemented Wheeling as the Birthplace of the American Steamboat. The Washington was the first flat-bottomed, double-decker steamboat and had a high-pressure steam engine that could make the return trip back upriver with full cargo, which was unheard of at the time.2 Steamboat building continued to be a lucrative enterprise in Wheeling for nearly a century, resulting in 225 completed vessels originating here. The final ship, the City of Wheeling, was completed and launched in 1900.3 These days, barges have replaced any cargo-hauling the steamboats once did, and the giant vessels that traverse the Ohio are tourist attraction passenger ships. The American Queen Steamboat Company has three paddlewheel ships that travel the rivers of the Midwest, with a route between Louisville and Pittsburgh that stops in Wheeling!4
Ohio River Boat Racing
As early as 1850, the Wheeling Intelligencer was reporting on shell boat races being held along the Ohio River and by 1870 boating clubs were popping up on the banks. The clubs had boat houses built atop retired steamboat hulls where the club members would store and work on their boats. Races in Wheeling were held on two there-and-back ‘courses’; an upper course that ran from a spot on the northside of Wheeling Island upriver for a mile and a half and a lower course that ran from the southside of the Island downriver for a mile and a half.
The main attraction for residents of Wheeling was to spectate the races and place bets on the outcomes. At the time, the river level was lower, which meant that Wheeling had multiple riverbank beaches including one at the northern tip of the Island and one at the end of 26th street, both of which made for spectacular viewing areas of the finish lines. By the mid-1880s, however, the shell boat race craze had died down and there was only one boating club of its kind left in Wheeling.5 Then, around the late 1930s, the levees were constructed on the Ohio to reduce flooding which resulted in a rising of the river level and the disappearance of riverbank beaches.
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However, that wasn’t the end of boat racing in Wheeling. Around 1940, residents of New Martinsville began to race hydroplane boats (also called hydros or thunderboats) which are narrow, oblong boats with sponsons, wing-like structures on either side that lift the boats out of the water to skim along the surface. These race boats can reach speeds between 60 and 1400 mph as they fly along the surface of the water.6 The Wheeling Intelligencer reported boat races and regatta days around the tri-state area through the mid-1980s, with Wheeling being a prime central location for racers coming down from Weirton and up from New Martinsville and Parkersburg.
In more recent years, the boats have come back into fashion! After two consecutive years of unfortunate circumstances that resulted in the cancellation of the end-of-season event, the Vintage Racing Boat Regatta was held over Labor Day weekend at Heritage Port. Racing boat fans from across the nation traveled to participate in the festivities at Heritage Port over the long weekend.
Wheeling Dragon Boat Race 2019.
Wheeling Vintage Raceboat Regatta.
Other fun boating culture still exists in Wheeling! Each year for the last half-decade, Dragon Boat races have been held at the end of the summer as a fundraiser to support the King’s Daughters Child Care Center in Wheeling. Some kayakers and canoers brave the faster, deeper Ohio if Big Wheeling Creek is too low or doesn’t hold enough thrill. Yacht clubs, public docks, and marinas still dot the river with family boats that spend each summer dragging around wakeboarders, waterskiers, and tubers. The Ohio River is also a popular spot for local fishing clubs that host regular tournaments on the river. Jet skis and speedboats fly by during events at Heritage Port. Picnics at the port and parties on water-facing decks allow for the viewing of boats, barges, and even steamboats passing by as Wheeling residents continue to enjoy life on the riverbank.
So, whether you like to enjoy the serene river views, or you partake in recreation on the Ohio River, know that you are a part of a long legacy of Wheelingites utilizing this abundant natural resource. Comment below and share your favorite Ohio River activities!
• Ellery McGregor is a Wheeling transplant from Los Angeles, California. She works remotely for a marketing team in LA and now moonlights as an author for Weelunk. She earned her undergraduate degree in English from California State University Long Beach in Long Beach, California. Since moving to Wheeling over a year ago, she has spent her time helping her family restore an Italianate Victorian row house in Centre Market, picnicking at Heritage Port, and marveling over having actual seasons.
3 Bowman, John. 2019a. “Steamboats Built in Wheeling, West Virginia 1815 – 1900.” Wheeling: The Birthplace of the American Steamboat. January 24, 2019. https://steamboat-birthplace-wheeling.com/index.php/2019/01/24/steamboats-built-in-wheeling-west-virginia-1815-1900-by-john-bowman/.