“We’ve been expecting from the first day we slipped the boat into the Ohio River to have the local police come speeding up the river bank, sirens a-blast, to answer a call that a flying saucer has landed on the surface of the Ohio.”
GREENUP Those were the words of the visionary boat builder from Greenup, Bob Callihan.
Anyone who saw Greenup’s UFO (unidentified floating object) may have indeed thought we were being invaded by aliens via the Ohio River. The boat built by Callihan was like no other. It sprang from his ingenious thinking and years of experience with boat building and all manner of construction. It was round. It was made of concrete. And it floated.
A round, concrete boat — many said it would never float but Callihan’s innovative mind designed and built it and proved the naysayers wrong. One of the more amazing boats to traverse any river was built in Greenup where the Little Sandy joins the Ohio.
There were other concrete boats and there were other round boats. But as far as anyone knew, Callihan built the only round, concrete boat, Tim Callihan, his son, said.
The Laura VII was named after Bob’s wife, Laura Avenell, because it was the seventh boat built by Callihan. The boat turned heads for years even just sitting at the dock near the Callihan home while he was building it.
Construction began in 1974 and the boat was launched during a flood in 1978. It was a work of love for a man who had built several house boats before setting out to prove the impossible. Callihan, always dressed in his famous “Bob suits” — a pair of mechanics coveralls — worked summer and winter over three years to complete the project, Tim Callihan said.
Callihan was a well known and knowledgeable, quick to help his friends. He was often seen at Kinner Lumber helping people solve construction problems and had a rare talent for building things, his son said. He enjoyed building so much, he would jump in and do the work himself for his friends.
Love of building
Callihan’s life was remarkable aside from the boat building. A high school diploma was all the education he had, but he became an electronics engineer for Goodyear Atomic because of his creative mind and his ability to put his ideas into a working form. He could have advanced further but he didn’t want to give up working with his hands doing what he loved — building things. He was known to ask experts for help, but most of his ideas were new. He would build prototypes and test them before building a full-size version.
It was no easy task just getting the craft into the water. Half of the town of Greenup turned out to see the boat being launched. Many thought it would sink like a rock. They were wrong.
Callihan set up the launch to take place during a flood so the water mostly came to the boat instead of having to move the boat to the water; there was no easy way to move it across dry land to reach the river. Callihan set things up so the river would come to the boat. “That’s the beauty of it,” as Callihan was fond of saying, not just about the launch, but about many of his ingenious designs. Railroad tracks were laid to help with the launching. The tracks remain to this day.
Several attempts were made to move the boat the short distance to the water. They tried pushing it; then, they tried using a tow truck driven by Mike Worthington. Both methods failed. Finally a bulldozer, driven by Danny Bradley, got the job done.
The 33-foot hull weighed 14 tons, but drew only 10 inches of water. There were two 21-foot runners measuring 4 inches thick and 18 inches deep. They sank deeper in the water than the hull. Still, it was an amazing achievement to float in such a small amount of water. It was all about displacement. If the water displaced by the boat weighs more than the boat, the boat will float. Again as Callihan would say, “That’s the beauty of it.”
Callihan made good use of the resources at Goodyear when he had the boat’s hull and cabin designed by computer to be stable during high winds and fast currents. It was said to be almost motionless no matter the weather.
Navigation was aided by two trolling motors mounted on opposite sides of the boat. They could be pivoted to the direction needed, at which time they were used to spin the boat to the desired direction. Landing a boat that heavy at a small dock meant total control was needed. This design by Callihan achieved the task beautifully.
The engine also powered a Jacuzzi Jet Drive which was an early version of an inboard jet drive. It provided directional control and was able to work in very shallow water.
Several national magazines, including Popular Science, did articles about the boat. Because Callihan attracted so much attention from the national media, the V6 Challenger engine was donated by General Motors. In return, GM received advertising privileges in boating magazines.
The operation of the boat could be achieved at the center console or via a remote control, which could be used sitting outside on the deck. Remote control technology at the time was very limited compared to today, but Callihan figured out how to make it work.
The boat even had air conditioning, which wasn’t common in homes on dry land at the time. It was a heat pump, so it provided heat in cold weather and kept passengers cool on hot summer days.
Callihan ran copper pipes filled with antifreeze to the boat’s fins, which had a series of copper pipes inside which acted like a heat exchanger. Those fins were essentially large heat sinks. The system transferred heat from the cabin to the river water below. It reversed the process to provide heat for the boat. Only one fin was needed to accomplish the task. Callihan had the other fin in reserve for any ideas he might have later.
Maybe the most surprising addition to the craft was a gang plank which doubled as a diving board. It was stored in the interior of the boat until needed, when it was pushed into diving position by the ingenious use of a garage door opener.
Among Callihan’s other designs was a system for monitoring the water around the boat during cold weather. If the water got close to freezing, the boat circulated the water nearby using the trolling motors. Callihan was notified via a system using a marine band radio of water temperature situations and any ununusal movement of the boat which might indicate someone was on board without an invitation.
The lucky occupants on a trip were treated to all the comforts of home. There was a kitchen, bathroom, comfortable seating and plush furnishings.
The boat was mostly used for entertaining. The slow speed didn’t allow for long trips, but what it lacked in speed it more than made up for in comfort. Callihan entertained many of his friends on the boat.
Callihan’s impossible boat traveled the river for many years, but eventually was sold to the operator of Captain’s Cove Marina in Haverhill (now Holiday Point). Still going strong at the time, it was used as a tourist attraction for a while at the marina. During the 1997 flood, the boat was accidentally left high and dry on a small hill near the dock in Franklin Furnace. It remains there as a monument to a man with very special skills.