TOWBOATS. OHIO RIVER TOWBOATS by John Bowman July 2021 Towboats seen on the Ohio River today are generally pushing (towing) a fifteen-barge tow, three barges abreast and five barges deep.

Ashland Oil’s Towboat Valvolene North Bound at Ohio River mile 87.6 heading towards Sister Islands and Pike Island Locks & Dam.  A John Bowman photos

Why call a diesel-powered boat pushing barges on the river a towboat?  When were Ohio River steamboats first called Towboats?  The first river ‘Towboats’ were steamboats that lashed a model barge to the sides of their boats and thus towed the barge alongside their boat.  A Model barge was an empty boat hull.  River barges today are specifically built as barges. 

The first River steamboat to lash a ‘Model’ barge to her side was the single decked, stern-wheel steamboat Walter Forward built in 1845 at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  At Pittsburgh in June of 1845, she lashed to her starboard side, (her right side) a tow of three coal flats (barges) and delivered twenty thousand bushels of coal to Cincinnati, Ohio.  History records and concedes that this trip, probably under the command of Capt. Joseph Vandergrift was the first coal towing boat on the Ohio River.

Source: Way’s Steam Towboat Directory, Walter Forward 1845-1860 T2604, Pg. xii, and Pg. 236

This Towboat history is based on the first ‘Towboats’ doing regular duty on the Ohio River, and this was near Wheeling, West Virginia (then Wheeling, Virginia).

Towboats over 100 years ago are pictured shoving (pushing) a fifteen-barge tow and they look much the same as they do now.  Here we see the steam-powered Towboat Ironsides North Bound on the Ohio River at Wheeling in 1900.

The steam-powered River Combine Towboat Ironsides with a fifteen-barge tow passing Wheeling, W.Va.
1900 W.C. Brown Photo 88


Hugh Smith lived at Dilles Bottom, Ohio and operated coal mines at Dilles Bottom and Wegee Creek.  Belmont County Ohio’s Wegee Creek empties into the west side of the Ohio River about four miles south of Bellaire, Ohio.  Smith was mining coal from these mines and hauling it up-river to Wheeling’s early Iron industries. 

In August 1850, Smith becoming a steamboat Capt. bought the steamboat Lake Erie from a Pittsburgh group and promptly took her to his newly built river-coal tipple at Dilles Bottom.  Lake Erie was an early stern-wheel packet built at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1845.  Fred Way, Jr. identifies Lake Erie in his writings as 3352 and T1544Lake Erie ran on the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers in the Pittsburgh-Beaver Pennsylvania trade.  In 1851, Smith lashed two barges to the sides of Lake Erie and shipped coal from his Dilles Bottom-Wegee Creek mines south to Cincinnati, Ohio.  Capt. Smith, with this Lake Erie is credited as having the first regular coal towboat used on the Ohio River.  Lake Erie lasted eight years into 1853.  Smith then went with an idea of a full-fledged tow type boat. 

In 1851, Capt. Smith designed and built the stern-wheel ‘Towboat’ Lake Erie No. 2, built especially for his coal towing purposes and it may have been? the prototype of all future towboats used on the Western Rivers.  The stern-wheel towboat Lake Erie No. 2 was built in 1851 at Brownsville, Pennsylvania for Capt. Smith and towed coal out of Pittsburgh (mostly to Wheeling) for about five years.  In 1857, Smith sold her and she went south to Mason City, West Virginia hauling coal to Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  Lake Erie No. 2 ran in this trade from 1857 until her demise in 1863. 

Three early steam-powered ‘towboats’ were 1. the 1856 Coal Hill and 2. the 1860 William H. Brown.  Both were built to the style of towboats that would prevail well into the future.  The 1856, stern-wheel towboat Coal Hill, built at the Pringle yard, Brownsville, Pennsylvania was a very successful towboat running on the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers for eighteen years.  Her well-liked design would be the standard for twenty-one other coal towboats.  The 1860 stern-wheel towboat William H. Brown was built at Monongahela City, Pennsylvania forWilliam H. Brown and Capt. Samuel Crow.  The William H. Brown towed coal on the Monongahela River until June of 1861 when she was sold to the USQMD, United States Quarter Master Dept.  The William H. Brown then served in Civil War campaigns on the Mississippi and Red Rivers.  3. Capt. Hugh Smith built the Lake Erie No. 3 in 1858 and this towboat would serve the rivers for the next twenty-one years.

Source: Way’s Steam Towboat Directory, Coal Hill 1856-1877 T0458, Pg. xii, 43

Source: Way’s Steam Towboat Directory, William H. Brown 1860-1875 T2664, Pg. 241

Source: Way’s Packet Directory, Lake Erie 1845-1853 3352 Pg. 277, Way’s Steam Towboat Directory, Lake Erie 1845-1853 T1544, Pg. xii, 141   

History doesn’t tell us if any of these three boats were built specifically as to what we would see today looking like a river towboat.  The early steamboats lashing Model barges to their sides had a pointed bow, looking like the typical boat hull.  ‘Towboats’ squared their bows off and added ‘Towing Knees’ to their bows.  Which steamboat was the first to add ‘Towing Knees”?  No one is sure, however no doubt it was one of those early three.

Here we see ‘Towing Knees’ on the bow of the 1957 Towboat Boaz built by Yates Marine Construction Co. in Wheeling, West Virginia.  A John Bowman photo

John Bowman’s photo of the Diesel Towboat Boaz built in 1956-1957 by Yates Marine Construction Co. Wheeling, West Virginia Thank You

Photo Credits

  1. Ashland Oil’s Towboat Valvolene North Bound at Ohio River mile 87.6 heading towards Sister Islands and Pike Island Locks & Dam.  A John Bowman photo
  2. 1900 photo of Ironsides W.C. Brown Photo 88
  3. The 1957 Towboat Boaz built by Yates Marine Construction Co. in Wheeling, West Virginia.  A John Bowman photo


  1. Way, Frederick Jr., Way’s Packet Directory, 1848-1983 Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, 1983
  2. Way, Frederick, Jr., with Joseph W. Rutter Way’s Steam Towboat Directory, Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, 1990

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