WHEELING WEST VIRGINIA’S FIRST MAJOR INDUSTRY BOAT BUILDING
Model by John Bowman
Wheeling’s James Patton and James Palmer boat yards were building barges in the late 1700s. Barges are familiar to us today, as daily we see towboats pushing barges of coal on the Ohio River and the 1700s barges looked much as they do today. They were flat-bottomed and sometimes covered; they were supplied with steering sweeps, oars and pike poles, which were used to extricate them when they became grounded on shallow sand bars. These early river barges were built of unseasoned Oak. Their size varied in width between 12 to 20 feet, minimally their length was about 30 feet, and their draft was 3 to 4 feet. They were meant to go one-way, down-stream where they were then dismantled and their lumber sold.
Goods from the East arrived in Wheeling in Conestoga wagons. “Scarcely a night passed that Wheeling was not filled with these wagons. As many as forty and fifty a night laid over at the Inns of John M’Courtney and Robert T. Newlove, each of whom kept a tavern and wagon yard for the accommodation of the wagoners.” The Conestoga wagon’s freight was unloaded and immediately placed in the hands of these Forwarding and Commission Agents for passage on flatboats and barges that were leaving daily down-river for the West.
Barges built at Wheeling were somewhat larger in comparison to those built at either Brownsville or Pittsburgh, as the depth of water above Wheeling was much too shallow to launch a barge with a deep draft and the tonnage capacity that Wheeling could launch.