Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

November 29, 2009

Hull of history

W.P. Snyder Jr. in local dock for $1.5 million hull replacement

By MIKE JAMES - The Independent

SOUTH POINT — Resting dockside like an aging thoroughbred in her stall, the W.P. Snyder Jr. draws admiring stares that overlook the chipped and peeling paint on her superstructure and the grime accumulated from nearly a century on the river.

The proud relic of river history is bookended at the McGinnis Inc. boatyard by two modern towboats, McGinnis’s own City of South Point at the paddlewheel end and Marathon Petroleum’s massive Robinson near the bow.

Bits of flotsam lap in the water as a visitor steps over the side onto the scuffed red deck, worn with the footsteps of generations of crewmen and half a century of tourists.

Through a doorway are the boilers that heated the steam that drove the giant pistons that pushed the pitman arm that turned the big red paddlewheel. Out the other side, up a flight of steps, through another door and up still more steps is the pilothouse, a windowed sanctuary where Mark Twain’s legendary Horace Bixby would feel at home.

The varnished wheel is 11 feet in diameter from spoke tip to spoke tip. The pilot handling it might have enjoyed the conversation of a colleague or two sitting on the padded bench at the rear of the pilothouse.

Built in 1918, the W.P. Snyder Jr. is a historic gem that crystallizes a romantic era of America’s marine past. The people of Marietta, Ohio, where the boat has been moored for more than 50 years, know that. Since 1955, the Snyder has been the centerpiece of a complex of museums and historical displays in Ohio’s oldest city.

Before that, she had a long career pushing barges of coal, iron ore and steel products on the Ohio river and its tributaries.

Steamboats, like the steam locomotives that once ruled America’s railroads, were supplanted by diesel craft and by 1954, the Snyder was laid up. The Crucible Steel Co., owner of the boat, donated it to the society in 1955.

Her steel hull, immersed all those years in the waters of the Muskingum River just upstream from where it joins the Ohio, has slowly rusted and sprung leaks.

The Ohio Historical Society, which owns the boat, has contracted with McGinnis to repair the 152-foot hull. Over the next eight months, workers will remove all the steel plates which form the hull’s outer skin. They will inspect and repair the frames that are the skeleton of the boat and then weld on new hull plates.

McGinnis tow boats shepherded the Snyder down the river from Marietta a week ago Friday. Marietta gave the boat a grand send-off as she nudged out into the stream around mid-day, sandwiched between two barges.

The tow boats then pushed the barges downstream, carrying the Snyder along, said architect Fred Smith, the project manager.

The flotilla averaged 8 knots for most of the 146-mile trip, Smith said. McGinnis technicians monitored the fragile hull during the voyage and checked for leaks every 15 minutes. There were a few, but pumping removed the water. “Once we found out how manageable the leaks were, everyone relaxed a little bit.”

Heavy fog set in around 3 a.m. the following morning, forcing them to tie up for eight hours. Off again at 10 a.m., the boat reached South Point at 6 p.m. that night.

The first order of business is to remove the remains of toxic lead paint from inside the hull. Scott Lepi is in charge of that job. He owns Lepi Enterprises and is in the business of blasting away unpleasant deposits and debris.

Lepi will use ground walnut shells, blasted onto the surface with highly pressurized air, to remove the lead paint. The shells are easier to handle than other blasting media he has used and don’t kick up visibility-impairing dust, he said.

Lepi, like almost everyone who encounters the Snyder, immediately fell in love with the boat. “I took my lunch up to the pilot house and ate it there,” he said one recent afternoon.

Once he is finished, McGinnis will haul the boat into dry dock and cut off the hull plates, said company president Rick Griffith. Some of the frames are corroded or distorted and will have to be removed and replaced.

The original frames and plates were riveted but that would be too expensive for the replacement, Griffith said. Instead, they’ll use modern welding techniques.

The Snyder won’t be the first historic boat McGinnis has worked on. They did a similar job on the Mike Fink, a paddlewheeled floating restaurant based in Covington.

The entire job is expected to take about eight months. Once finished, the hull will be seaworthy but the historical society will have to raise more money to repair and refurbish the rest of the boat.

There isn’t much there that doesn’t need work. The decks, the paddlewheel, the electrical system and the superstructure all are showing their 90 years. Those jobs will have to wait until the society can get funding, Smith said.

Having the boat under, his care is a treat, said McGinnis dock supervisor Tom Schollenberger. “The more you crawl around her, the more you realize she’s built like a brick,” he said.