The conversation was birthed in a hospital waiting room. The two ladies to my left, friends of a friend who was having surgery, had ping-ponged a dozen topics that morning. When the word “eBay” bounced past, I looked up from my laptop and stopped them mid-sentence.
“What are you selling?” I asked.
One of the women lived near the Ohio River and had a collection of riverboat memorabilia, including older photographs and prints. She was downsizing and ready to part with the material.
“eBay might not be your best choice,” I said. “Depending on what you’ve got, you might do better to run it through a traditional auction.”
She wasn’t convinced. I went back to my work, but the mention of framed prints brought me back into the conversation.
“How big?” I asked.
The prints, it turned out, were poster-size. When I explained the hassles of shipping that type of item, the woman seemed more willing to explore other options, noting she was most interested in selling her collection of steamer photographs.
“How old are the photos?” I asked.
“Oh, they’re old,” she said. “They’re from the ’80s.”
That’s when I knew we might have a communications problem.
“The 1880s or the 1980s?”
“The 1980s,” she replied, as if it was ludicrous to think otherwise.
I forget sometimes that not everyone has the interest in and/or knowledge of antiques as those of us who have been involved in the hobby for years.
Not that I’m belittling the woman’s collection of riverboat memorabilia. I still have photographs I took of the Delta Queen 30 years ago, when I lived a block from the Ohio River. But today I’m more inclined to display an image that’s considerably older, such as a vintage photograph of the steamers Greenwood and Ann Bailey at Point Pleasant, West Virginia. The image captures the paddlewheelers by a bend of land containing a monument. The back has a brief inscription, “Unveiling of monument Oct 9/09.”
The memorial is at Tu-Endie-Wei State Park, a bend of land where the Kanawha River flows into the Ohio River. The park is the site of the Point Pleasant Battlefield Monument, an 84-foot granite obelisk dedicated on Oct. 9, 1909, to commemorate the battle fought on Oct. 10, 1774. That single-day clash, the Battle of Point Pleasant, saw an undetermined number of Indians (possibly 300 to 500) led by Shawnee Chief Cornstalk attack about 1,000 Virginia militiamen under the command of Colonel Andrew Lewis. The fighting resulted in heavy losses on both sides, but the militia prevailed. The significance of the engagement went beyond the initial defeat of the Indians. The outcome led Cornstalk to remain neutral over the next several years, when British forces sought to build a coalition of Native Americans to fight against the Colonists.
Some have argued that if the Shawnees had prevailed at the Battle of Point Pleasant, it would have changed the power structure on the frontier, leading to a British-Indian alliance that might have reversed the outcome of the American Revolution.
In the vintage photograph of the Point Pleasant Battlefield Monument, the obelisk is clearly visible in the background. However, the two steamers are the main focus.
There’s history there, too.
According to Way’s Packet Directory, 1848-1994 by Frederick Way Jr., the Greenwood was built in Parkersburg, West Virginia, in 1898. A sternwheel packet with a wooden hull, the boat nearly sank on its trial voyage when it hit something in the river, resulting in broken floor timbers. After repairs, the Greenwood had a long career, running a number of routes over the next quarter of a century, including Pittsburgh-Parkersburg, Pittsburgh-Charleston, Cincinnati-Pomeroy-Charleston and Pittsburgh-Cincinnati. At Cincinnati in November 1925, the Greenwood was struck by the Chris Greene. The blow ripped open the Greenwood’s hull, turning over the steamer. It was the end of the line for the ship, whose three boilers were salvaged for the towboat John F. Klein.
The Ann Bailey was a sidewheel ferry built in 1909 at Point Pleasant, where it operated between shores of the Ohio River. The boat was named after “Mad” Anne Bailey, whose first husband was killed at the Battle of Point Pleasant, leading her to join the militia. Dressed in buckskins, she became legendary as a frontier messenger and scout. The Ann Bailey ran until the Silver Bridge opened in May 1928, connecting Point Pleasant to Gallipolis, Ohio. The boat was sold in October 1929 and met its demise in heavy ice at New Haven, West Virginia, in February 1936.
There are stories in many of the things we collect, from early steamer memorabilia to riverboat posters from the 1980s. The thrill of the hunt and the discovery of history keep the hobby alive.