By Elaine Kish
Located in southeastern Ohio on the Muskingum River is Marietta — Ohio’s oldest city and home of the Valley Gem sternwheeler. In 1973 Capt. James E. Sands Sr. and his wife Peggy began operation of their first 98-passenger sternwheeler. The name Valley Gem was taken from a historic boat that traveled the Muskingum River between Marietta and Zanesville, Ohio from 1898 to 1918. Construction of the current Valley Gem was completed by Capt. Sands in 1989 and it was designed specifically for the Muskingum River. Although it can carry 296 passengers, it has only two decks so it can clear low bridges and is narrow so it can fit through the locks. We recently took the 90-minute sightseeing cruise on the Valley Gem which proved to be a relaxing trip into history.
The boat is powered by a 500 horsepower Detroit Diesel engine attached to a marine transmission and the transmission turns chains attached to the paddle wheel. This paddle wheel is the sole source of power for the boat, as it has no additional motors and no propellers. The boat is United States Coast Guard approved and handicapped accessible. Immediately after leaving the dock the boat made a 180-degree turn heading south to the Ohio River. The comfortable lower deck is completely enclosed and climate controlled with air conditioning or heat depending on the season. It contains a snack bar, restrooms and numerous tables and chairs next to large windows. You can also move to the outside deck area where standing on the front portion gives you the feeling of skimming over the water.
Moving to the upper deck for a better view, there were more tables and chairs, as well as benches, most of which were covered with an awning for sun or rain protection. It was no time until we moved to the back of the boat to see the giant paddlewheel in action. Standing too close will give you a slight shower, but there is ample dry space to see the wheel in action, churning the river water to move the boat.
As we move along, Capt. Don in the wheelhouse begins to give us a narrative history of the area. We passed under several bridges, one of which was an old railroad bridge that connects the east and west sides of Marietta. Originally a covered bridge, it was converted for railroad use and rebuilt four times due to floods, the last time in 1913. After it was no longer used for railroad traffic, the bridge was ultimately donated to the city by the B&O Railroad and converted to pedestrian use in 1962. Interestingly, it contains a movable section which can still be manually cranked open to allow taller boats to pass through.
Continuing on our journey we converged with the Ohio River. Turning north, we passed Buckley Island, a strip of land about three miles long and a quarter-mile wide. Buckley Island has a long history beginning in 1774 when its first owner farmed the land. The island subsequently passed through numerous owners and was used for many purposes. When a new owner took possession in 1897, it was converted to an amusement park complete with a dance pavilion and family activities. Alas, another flood in 1907 destroyed that endeavor. Purchased by James Buckley in 1911, it was eventually sold again and the island is now a National Wildlife Refuge and a favorite area for boating, swimming, picnicking, hiking, and fishing.
Turning around to head back, this time we pass the other side of Buckley Island. Evident on all sides are the rock formations placed by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service designed to reduce erosion of the island while also increasing the area for fish and mussels. We also witnessed a tugboat pushing its load of six empty barges. The Ohio River is a major commercial waterway for the transportation of barges loaded with coal, crude oil, petroleum products, sand, gravel, iron and steel, chemicals and grain. Lengthy and with limited navigational ability due to their size and weight, barges are confined to a shipping lane within the channel and recreational vehicles are required to yield the right-of-way to them. The barges are a testament to the past, present and future of the area where water transportation is preferable over rail and truck.
During our excursion, we visited the Portside Café and enjoyed drinks and snacks, all reasonably priced. We also visited the wheelhouse where Capt. Don answered all of our questions and allowed us to take some memorable photos. The Valley Gem has a variety of cruises including the sightseeing cruise, dinner cruises, day tours, island tours and lock cruises. It is available for private charters and is fast becoming a destination wedding location available for rehearsal dinners, ceremonies and receptions. They can also provide corporate events and educational tours. For more information, consult their website at valleygemsternwheeler.com.
The most memorable event of this area is the Ohio River Sternwheel Festival held each year the weekend after Labor Day in September. This year’s event will be September 9-11, 2016. Each year 30-35 sternwheelers meet at the Ohio River Levee on the corner of Front and Green Streets in downtown Marietta. Events for the weekend include a 5K run, fireworks, a car show, boat races and a photo contest. Sternwheelers come to this riverboat town from everywhere to attend. What more could a river buff ask for than to see the beautiful sternwheelers all lined up, each with its own history, and offering a great opportunity for photography enthusiasts. For more details about how to enjoy the Ohio River Sternwheel Festival, see their website at ohioriversternwheelfestival.org.
A final note – a search of youtube revealed several eyewitness videos of the B&O Railroad bridge in Marietta being opened manually and they are extremely interesting. It’s as if you’re standing right there in history, so take a look.
Valley Gem sternwheeler