Wheeling’s Boat Yard History
by John Bowman September 2016
In 1815-1816, the James Patton and James Palmer boat yards watched Henry Miller Shreve’s progress as he built Wheeling’s first steamboat, the steamboat Washington.
North Wheeling’s Boat Yards
The James Pemberton boat yard.
In 1815, James Pemberton opened the first boat yard In North Wheeling, and began building keelboats. Beginning in 1818, he was building complete steamboat hulls, superstructures, and cabins. That year, Pemberton completed four steamboats, the Expedition, Johnson, Mars and the Virginia. These would be Wheeling’s second, third, fourth, and fifth steamboats. It is probable that these boats used A.M. Phillips machinery built in Steubenville, Ohio. Wheeling’s flourishing boat building activity would be the main reason for Phillips’ move to Wheeling in 1832. Pemberton contracted two of his steamboats, the Expedition and the Johnson to the U.S. Government to transport supplies to military outposts on the upper Missouri River. In 1819, they were unsuccessful in their attempts to deliver. This may have to do with their hull design or maybe not enough steam power.
Pemberton’s Wheeling built steamboat Virginia, in May of 1823, under the command of James Pemberton, would successfully steam seven hundred miles from St. Louis into the upper reaches of the Mississippi River to the mouth of the Minnesota River, and it was the first.
These Wheeling built, Pemberton boats used A.M. Phillips Wheeling built machinery: the Chief Justice Marshall, built in 1832, the Anna Calhoun and the Lady Boone built in 1835, and the towboat Tiger, built for Capt. James Beebe in 1836. Phillips placed machinery in Pemberton’s side-wheel Tioga, built in 1840, and the side-wheel Planter, built in 1841. Pemberton completed the side-wheel Clarksville, its hull built at Louisville, Kentucky in 1845.
The 1816 Bell boat yard.
In 1816, Thomas Bell of Pittsburgh, a builder and master on many keelboat voyages to New Orleans, came to Wheeling with his son David W. Bell and established a flatboat yard. The Bells would begin building steamboats in 1826 and continue until Thomas’ death in 1833. These boats, the Clinton, La Grange, Madison and Traveler were built in 1828. The West Virginia and the Kitty Clover were completed in 1829, and the Bolivar and Freedom were completed in 1831. These boats were furnished with steam machinery manufactured by A.M. Phillips in Steubenville, Ohio or by shops at Brownsville, Pennsylvania.
The Bell Yard would complete four boats in 1832, the Brave, Denmark, Jefferson and Warsaw, and all would have A.M. Phillips steam engines manufactured at his new Wheeling works. The Bell Yard would eventually become part of the Sweeney complex in North Wheeling. Thomas’s son, David would have a long career with the Sweeney Company.
The Adkins boat yard.
Adkins was building Keelboats in 1816 and would continue in business for about eight to ten years.
The Thomas J. Gardner boat yard.
Circa 1816, the Thomas J. Gardner Sawmill and Lumber Yard in North Wheeling began building flatboats and keelboats.
A.M. Phillips steamboat machinery and the Elijah Murray steamboat yard.
In 1832, Arthur M. Phillips moved from Steubenville, Ohio to Wheeling, Virginia and established a works at Three Twenty-One Main Street in North Wheeling. Joining Phillips in Wheeling in 1833 was Elijah Murray and boat carpenter Thomas Thompson both from Steubenville, Ohio. Murray and Thompson would build steamboat hulls and cabins under contract to Phillips. The A.M. Phillips shop placed machinery in the A.M. Phillips, completed by Elijah Murray in 1836. In 1839, Murray built his last boats for Phillips, the side-wheel Amazon and the Mt. Pleasant, sold his yard, moved on, and founded Murraysville, Virginia, (West Virginia) where he established a boat yard that would build quality steamboat hulls for the next fifty plus years.
A.M. Phillips, Sr. retired in 1840. His son James W. took over the foundry, forming a partnership with employees Dan Dunbar and Hans W. Seestabl (a machinist). The Phillips Company under the management of James W., in financial trouble, needed an infusion of money and this he secured from his brothers A.M. Phillips, Jr. and Hanson (Hans) W. Phillips, whereupon the three became Phillips & Company.
In 1874, Dan Dunbar, a former partner of James W. Phillips from 1840 to 1843 and Wm. A. Wilson, bought the Phillips Co, incorporating it as the Wheeling Centripetal Company. In 1874, Dan Dunbar and Wm. A. Wilson ended the steamboat building business and sold the property to the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Dunlevy-McLure to Wilson & Dunlevy to Wilson, Dunlevy & Wheeler steamboat builders.
William H. Dunlevy had apprenticed as a boat carpenter under his father Anthony (builder of Henry Miller Shreve’s Washington), and in 1845 William decided to establish his own boat building business. Forming a partnership with steamboat Capt. John McLure, Jr., they opened their yard on the riverbank between Franklin (Sixth) Street and North (Fifth) Street in North Wheeling, Virginia. John McLure, Jr. was a nephew of John McLure, owner of the McLure Hotel of Wheeling. One of their first completed boats was the side-wheel Senate, built in 1845 for Capt. McLure.
In 1848, boat carpenter William Penn Wilson joined Dunlevy and McLure at the Wheeling yard. In 1848, Capt. McLure wished to divest his interest in his partnership with Dunlevy and go back on the river, which he much preferred. He would recoup much of his original investment in the steamboat yard and the rest he would later recoup having the yard build boats for him. In 1848, the firm became Wilson & Dunlevy.
Over the next few years, this Wheeling boat yard built complete steamboats utilizing steam machinery from the Phillips, Sweeney and Hobbs, Taylor & Company boiler works, all of Wheeling. They completed hulls built at their 1840 Neil McNaughton & William Dunlevy Boat Yard at West Wheeling, Ohio. They built hulls that other steamboat yards would complete and finished hulls that other boat yards had built.
Wilson & Dunlevy gained a partner named Thomas Wheeler in 1859 and formed the Wilson, Dunlevy & Wheeler Company. This company prospered into the early 1870s. By 1872, Thomas Wheeler had passed away and William Penn Wilson died in 1873. In 1874, William H. Dunlevy died. The Wilson, Dunlevy & Wheeler steamboat building business was left to sons William A. Wilson and H.H. Dunlevy. In 1874, the sons ended their father’s steamboat building business.
Sweeney Co. to T. Sweeney & Co. to A.J. Sweeney & Son Co.
Four Sweeney brothers, C. Sweeney, Thomas, Michael and R.H. Sweeney arrived in Wheeling in 1830. They purchased the shops of the North Wheeling Manufacturing Company near present Fourth and Main Streets, forming the “Sweeney Co.” The foundry produced cut nails, castings and mill machinery. This firm dissolved in 1833 with the death of C. Sweeney. Thomas would run the firm alone until 1852. That year Thomas’ elder son T.C. joined Thomas and together they formed a new company, T. Sweeney & Company. Sweeney Co. added the production of steamboat engines sometime between 1852 and 1856.
Michael Sweeney managed the Sweeney Glass works in North Wheeling, (The Sweeney Punch Bowl).
In the mid-1870s, the company became the A.J. Sweeney & Son Company (Andrew J. and John M. Sweeney). Circa 1880, the company purchased a boat yard in Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania from William McFall. They purchased the Freedom, Pennsylvania boat yard in 1884, and placed it under the supervision of Tom Dunbar, a brother of Dan Dunbar who was once a partner in the Phillips Company. The Freedom yard had specialized in building fine quality, light draught (draft) stern-wheel steamboat hulls using very heavy oak timbers.
Andrew J. Sweeney died in 1893. The Sweeney business under John M. Sweeney was incorporated as the General Engineering Co., and moved to Chicago. John M. Sweeney remained with General Engineering Co. up until his death in 1925. The Sweeneys had completed a total eighty-five steamboats in their long history.
From 1815-1900 Wheeling completed 225 steamboats. Henry Miller Shreve’s steamboat Washington launched in 1816 was Wheeling’s first and Thaddeus S. Thomas’ steamboat City of Wheeling launched in 1900 was the last.
The famous “John Sweeney Steam Whistles” that everyone wanted.
John Sweeney had his hand or ear in every whistle produced. He had a chromatic pitch instrument he would use to tune each whistle. John found the most pleasing whistle you can get was the “D – minor chord, A below middle C and C – F natural above”. He tuned a whistle by hammering the bell to change the density of the metal in it.