Construction of the Sternwheeler “Port Explorer”
by Steve Hutchison
It all started with a dream. About twenty-one years ago, as we were building our house at mile 295.2 on the right descending bank of the Ohio River, I saw a sternwheeler going down the river. This reminded me of my childhood days in St. Albans, West Virginia, watching (and dreaming) commercial sternwheelers ply the waters of the Great Kanawha River . . . wondering what it would be like to be out there on one of those boats. Where do they go? What do they see? Who do they meet? How do they live? And on and on and on . . .
Now let’s jump ahead to the fall of 2003 (My wife and I had joined the American Sternwheel Association a few years earlier). I took a cardboard model of the hull I had in mind to one of the meetings and showed it to Captain Gary Morton (also an engineer and builder of commercial as well as private sternwheelers). As it turns out, he had plans for a “darn near identical” boat to what I had planned. The only major difference was that the plans called for a scow bow where I had planned a model bow. After seeing the plans, I decided to buy a set rather than “re-inventing the wheel”.
When completed, she will measure about 16 feet across the deck and 75 feet overall, with a hull length of 60.5'. On the main deck will be the galley (kitchen), dining area, main salon, full head (with shower), guest stateroom with queen size bed, and the engine room. Above will be the elevated pilot house, head, and owner’s stateroom.
After talking with a friend, who happens to own a steel company (Steel Products And Manufacturing Co., Inc. - AKA Spamco), I ordered about 18,000 pounds of steel in February, 2004. That was most of the steel needed to construct the hull of the boat. I was extremely fortunate in that he had plenty of room at his place, and would store the steel until I needed it. I picked it up on an “as needed” basis.
During that summer, we poured twelve concrete footer pads, hired a mason to build the piers, and acquired three 40' sections of 7" gas/oil well casing. This was to be the “platform” for construction of the boat.
The piers were laid out 12' apart along the length of the boat, and almost 6' apart across the boat. Once construction was completed, the center row of piers could be removed, leaving 9" - 3" between the outer piers, which would allow room for a low-boy trailer to back in under the boat.
We have a “basement” next to, and on the same level, as the garage under the house. We built a jig/table for construction of the frames and bulkheads.
The jig/table insured that the frames and bulkheads would be uniform. During the winter of 2004-2005, we built the eleven main frames and the three main bulkheads. As it turns out, there are quite a few things that can be done inside during bad weather.
The Move Outside
May 31, 2005, we started laying steel! It seemed like forever coming, but it was a great feeling to see the start of the boat outside. Perhaps it was like an announcement to the neighbors, “Yes! We’re really doing it!”
It finally starts. Steel is laid out and tacked in place for the bottom of the boat.
Progress was slow; although a good welder, he was young and not very dependable. The next step was to lay out the longitudinals with the bulkheads in between, and mount the frames.
Due to the “sag” in the steel between the pipes in the platform, we had to use a jack under the boat to bring the bottom up to the frames in places. It really was a team effort.
We started putting the sides on the boat. This got a bit tricky. Each side is made up of three pieces of steel, each piece being 20' long. My plan was to weld the aft side plates first, then the center ones, and lastly, the forward side plates. Well, after I welded the aft side plates, I measured for the center plates, and then realized that if I welded the center plates in place, I would be left with only 3' of bottom and 1 frame to attach the forward plate; This wasn’t going to work. Bear in mind now, that I’m working alone. Also, I have no machinery to help me. This was all done using a come-along to get the steel plates from the trailer up on the side of the boat.
Finally, after long and thoughtful consideration, I decided to hoist the center plate and clamp it basically over the aft plate, hoist the forward plate up on the center of the boat, overlapping the two plates a few inches, and welded them together. Now, I have a single piece nearly 40' long. With the clamps loosened slightly, I managed to bring the 40' section forward, using the come-along. In it’s final resting place, there would be 23' supported by the boat and 17' hanging out in space. Like I said, it was a bit tricky, but it worked.
As you can see from the photo, the seam of the center and forward plates is just at the rear of the first pier. Also, with the sun shining brightly, you can see that at this point, there is no bottom in the bow of the boat. With nothing to support the forward parts of the sides, I simply piled a few blocks in place for support. From there, it was time to join the two sides to form the model bow; this was done using a 1" x 3" piece of bar stock. Knowing that sooner or later, we’ll be running into logs and other debris, beaching the boat at times, and remembering that this is the part of the boat that will get hit the most, it’s gotta be tough!
In the above photo, you can see the forward part of the bottom; this sucker is ˝" plate, and weighs nearly 2400 pounds! I couldn’t transport it as one piece, because it would have been roughly 16' x 14', so I had it made in two pieces. The aft portion weighs about 1,700 pounds, while the forward portion was only 700 pounds (don’t forget . . . at this point, I’m still working alone).
Here again, we had a bit of a “sticky wicket”. How do we get the 1,700 pound section in place to start the welding? I now wait for the welder (a new and different welder, Chad Gartin from Crown City; Coast Guard certified) to work with me, so it’s a bit easier. Notice in the photo, you can see 6 of the 8 gussets which are extensions of the longitudinals (lower left, in front of the bulkhead). With these welded in place, we jacked the aft portion of the of the 1,700 pound section into place, making sure that the aft part of it was in the correct position, and tacked it in place across the bottom. The forward part of this plate was supported with two come-alongs between a temporary beam placed across the top of the sides and two “eyes” welded to the bottom plate (one is visible in the shadow in the photo). From there, we tightened the come-alongs until the bottom plate met the side plates about 6" from the initial seam. We tacked that into place, and tightened a little more, until there was another 6" touching. This continued until the whole section was tacked in place.
With the tough part being done, we proceeded with the “piece of cake” forward section. We repeated the process . . . and it really was just that.
Another look at the bow.
Looking More Like a Sternwheeler
The next big step was to fabricate the “arms” to support the paddlewheel. We had these fabricated at Spamco, and they did a first rate job. They are from rectangular steel tubing, 4" x 12" x 1/4", about 20' long, and weighed about 500 pounds each. Getting these from the trailer onto the boat and in position, was undoubtedly the most challenging part of the construction (again, I was working alone). Where there’s a will, there’s a way!
Part of the “spreader bar” (another one of those items fabricated inside on a rainy day) was clamped into position to maintain the proper positioning of the aft ends of the arms. I spent nearly a full day getting the arms from the trailer, to their final position on the boat. But what a great feeling it was when it was done.
From this point, there was a good deal of work to be done on the inside of the boat, which wasn’t readily apparent to the casual observer. We added stern trusses, wheel force transfer bracing, and wheel arm gussets.
The next visible addition was the “wheel arm walkways” and the “A-Frame”. The walkways were “field fitted”, and bent using a torch to heat the metal. We got one area a little too hot, and it bent more sharply than we wanted. One of the nice things about working with steel: if it doesn’t turn out just right . . . it can always be fixed.
Another view of the walkways.
It’s now Thanksgiving and it’s cold. There’s a bit of snow on the ground (and boat), the decking is on the boat with part of it in place and tacked. Time to take a break and enjoy family and friends.
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Steve can be reached at: PortHutch@gmail.com
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