Steam Navigation on the Levisa Fork
by Russell Lee Whitlock
Steamboat Andy Hatcher unloading merchandise at Prestonsburg. For a larger picture, click here.
When Jenny Wiley was rafted across the Big Sandy  River by Henry Skaggs in 1790, the main means of transportation  in the Big Sandy Valley was by saddle horse over Indian trails or  pushboat on the river. Here is a turn-of-the-century photo of a Big Sandy pushboat  moored at the mouth of Johns Creek:
Kentucky historian Lewis Collins says that the Big Sandy welcomed its first steamboat on May 20th, 1837. The new-fangled contraption traveled from Catlettsburg to Prestonsburg carrying goods ordered by local merchants. The reporter covering the event noted that coal of the finest quality was visible in the sandstone along the riverbanks.
One of the most prominent Big Sandy steamboat operators during the early days was Captain Archibald Borders, who owned a farm near Whitehouse. In 1860 he built and began operating a steamboat called the Sandy Valley. During the Winter of 1861-62 the vessel was requisitioned by Colonel James A. Garfield and used to convey military supplies from Catlettsburg to Pikeville. Since the river was at flood stage, Judge Borders and the boat's captain protested that the trip was too dangerous to undertake. Garfield had been a canal boat pilot before the war, so he placed the captain under arrest and piloted the boat up the river himself.
Records at the Ashland Public Library indicate that dozens of steamers operated on the Big Sandy during the 1860s and 1870s. Among these were the Tom Hackney, named for the ugliest man in Pike County, and the Jerry Osborn, both of which were built by Captain Orlando C. Bowles of Pikeville. The Tom Scott and Major O'Drain were built by Captain Daniel Vaughan of Louisa and were piloted by Captain W. Fuse Davidson. Records show that Captain Vaughan built five large steamers for use on the Ohio and four smaller boats for use on the Big Sandy.
During the 1880-1899 period, a completely different fleet of steamers traveled the river. According to Altina Waller, the steamboat Andy Hatcher regularly plied the Levisa Fork as far as Pikeville. A very pretty sternwheeler, it was often used as a showboat. Occasionally it even carried riverboat gamblers.
The Andy Hatcher was owned and operated by Captain John Hopkins, a native of Tazewell County, Virginia. The boat ran in direct competition with the Frank Preston, a craft built in Paintsville and owned and operated by Captain Green Meek.
Captain Meek also owned the steamer Argand, a coal-burning three-decker and the largest steamboat on the river.
Steamboat Thealka. For a larger image, click here.
Steamboat Argand. For a larger image, click here.
The best-known of Captain Meek's fleet of boats was the little  batwing steamer Thealka. It was named for his daughter, Alice  Jane Meek. whose nickname was Alka. Unfortunately, when the name was painted on the boat, the painter forgot to leave a space between "The" and "Alka."
Thealka was classified as a batwing boat due to the position of her paddle wheels. Instead of a single stern paddle wheel, she was equipped with two smaller side wheels, set well towards the stern of the boat.
The expression "batwing steamer" originated in the following way. Small steamers like the Thealka were lightweight, shallow-draught vessels with thin hulls. People liked to say that they were "thin as a bat's wing," and hence the expression.
On February 15th, 1900, the Thealka broke the Big Sandy's  speed record by completing the round trip between Catlettsburg and  Pikeville, a distance of 240 miles, in twenty-four hours.
Water levels in the Big Sandy varied so much that steamboats couldn't ascend the river more than six or seven months out of the year. When Hell's Gate Shoal near Paintsville became difficult to cross, seasoned pilots knew that the summer steamboat lull was approaching.
Old-timers recall that the Thealka had a whistle that sent shivers up your spine. The last batwing steamer to operate on the river, she was lost near Whitehouse when her hull was crushed by ice.
Although the Thealka came to an unhappy end, the girl for whom she was named lived a happy life. Everyone knows the story of John C. C. Mayo, the Paintsville school teacher who became a millionaire coal tycoon.
During his early years as a school teacher, Mr. Mayo became  acquainted with Captain Green Meek's pretty daughter Alka.  In early 1895, following a business trip through the region, Mayo  developed pneumonia and took to his bed. After returning to Paintsville, his place of residence, he obtained lodging in the Alger House Hotel, which was owned and operated by Captain Meek.
Mayo convalesced at the Alger House for more than a year. During his stay, his friendship with Alka blossomed into a full-fledged romance. They were married on February 21st, 1897 in the parlor of her father's Paintsville home.
During the 1890-1910 period, no less than eighty-eight steamboats operated on the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy. They included boats like Miles H., Lena Leota, Mountain Boy, Mountain Girl, Beulah Brown, Ingomar, Ada, Maxie Yost, Fanny Freese, Sonoma, Mary L. Hatcher, Guyandotte, Dewdrop, Sandy Valley, Sea Gull, and  Cricket.
Here is a rare 1903 photograph of the sternwheeler Cricket docked at the landing below Charles Stafford's Store at Hell's Gate Shoal north of Paintsville in Johnson County.
For a larger image, click here. Courtesy of Henry D. Fitzpatrick of Prestonsburg.
Another sternwheel steamboat, the Cando, was a fairly large, triple-deck boat built originally for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. The boat acquired her name in the following way. When workmen were putting the finishing touches on the boat, a local painter was hired to paint the C & O logo on the side of the superstructure. Whether by accident or intent, the painter spelled out the word "and" and failed to leave spaces between the three elements. As a result, the logo became CANDO.
The Cando enjoyed a long and useful life. She was still in service in the early 1920s, when the C & O Railroad used her to deliver supplies to miners engaged in a strike at Auxier Coal Camp. Although Auxier had rail service by that time, the supplies were shipped the last leg of the trip by steamboat.
Steamboat Cando. For a larger image, click here.
After the railroad was extended upriver, steamboat usage decreased at a rapid pace and eventually stopped altogether. I have not been able to determine exactly when the last steamboat made its final trip to Pikeville, but it was probably sometime in the early 1930s.
When I was a child growing up in Auxier, I often heard the old folks speak of paddlewheel steamers on the river. I suspected that such a boat might have come along occasionally, but back then I had no conception of the actual volume of the Big Sandy steamboat trade.
The steamboat season lasted about seven months of the year. During this period, the crews lived aboard their boats and operated them twenty-four hours a day, six days per week, and stood six-hour watches, which we would call work shifts. Every twelve hours they spent six hours on duty and six hours off, for a total of twelve hours every twenty-four hour period.
This routine continued until the river grew too shallow for steamboats.  Then the pushboats took over. Here is a photograph of a Big Sandy pushboat loaded to the gills:
New Orleans-style pushboat. For a larger image, click here.
Here is a list of all the Big Sandy Steamboats I have found during my research:
Ada, Captain Daniel Vaughan, owner, Captain W. Fuse Davidson, Master. Built in 1852.

Argand, Captains Gordon C. Green and Mary Becker Green, owners. Largest steamer on the Levisa Fork. Length: 132 ft. Width: 24 ft. Leased to Captain Green Meek of Paintsville.

Greendale, Sternwheel type.

Eclipse, Sternwheel type.

Dexter, Sternwheel type.

Ida Smith, Sternwheel type.

Andy Hatcher, built sometime around 1870 by Captain Marcum and Captain John Hopkins. Operated by Captain Green Meek. Burned at mouth of Paint Creek late in the last century. Sternwheel type.

Mary C. Hatcher, Sternwheel type.

Ingomar, formerly named Arrillo Wood. Owned by Captain Steve Thompson in 1852. Sternwheel type.

Edna Riley, Sternwheel type. Built by Captain Tom Vaughan.

Tom Hatcher, Sternwheel type. Built by Captain Tom Vaughan.

Dew Drop, owned by the Garred family.

Buckeye Boy, owned by Captain Carl Mace, used in log rafting work. Later named Gate City. Bought by Captain Tom Hall and renamed Douglas Hall. Converted to a sawmill boat, she burned at the mouth of Johns Creek while under the ownership of Uncle Wash Davis, who had changed her name to Champion.

J.M. Grubbs, Towboat, Sternwheel type.

Jerry Osborn II, Towboat, Sternwheel type.

Doctor York, Towboat, Sternwheel type.

Louisa, Sidewheel type.

Willie Jones, Sidewheel type.

Henry M. Chiles, famous for carrying Colonel James A. Garfield to Pikeville in 1862. Also transported some of his troops and supplies.

Major O'Drain, owned by Captain Daniel Vaughan. Captain W. Fuse Davidson serverd as master in 1860.

Tom Scott, believed to be first boat owned by Captain Daniel Vaughan. He operated her on the Big Sandy in 1852.

Homer B., Towboat and Packet, Sternwheel type.

Geraldine, destroyed by fire on August 2nd, 1910.

Natchez, shouldn't be confused with Mississippi steamer of the same name.

Emma Lou, a small sternwheeler owned by Mr. John Hager of Auxier.

B.F. Johnson, a gasoline-powered boat of the batwing type.

Sonoma, owned by Captain Rush Williamson and operated on both the Levisa Fork and the Tug Fork of the Sandy. Small Sternwheel type.

Guyandotte, Sidewheel type.

Fannie George, Sidewheel type.

Fashion, built at Ironton, Ohio by Captain Rye Scott and Mike Wise for Wash Williamson, who later changed her name to Reliant. Sidewheel type.

Tom Hackney, built by Captain Orlando C. Bowles on the upper reaches of the Levisa Fork. This was his first boat. Sidewheel type.

John F. Hatton, Sidewheel type.

J.C. Hopkins, built by Captains Bill Vaughan and Rector "Reck"  Vaughan. Sidewheel type.

Josie Harkins, Sidewheel type. Was lost to fire.

Sam Cravins, paddlewheel arrangement unknown. She sank at the mouth of the Sandy during the Flood of 1873.

Fleetwing, Sternwheel type owned by Captain Frank Freeze.

Fannie Freeze, Sternwheel type owned by Captain Frank Freeze.

Catherine Davis, towboat operated by Captain William Smiley.

Cricket, a combination passenger and cargo steamer. Unlike most boats, this boat was equipped with electric lights and a steam calliope.  She was a sternwheel boat.

J.P. Davis, formerly known as the Cricket. Purchased by Captain John F. Davis.

H. M. Stafford, a boat of the Sidewheel type. She sported an upright boiler and was owned by Captain Henry "Speed" Stafford. This photograph, part of the Henry D. Fitzpatrick Collection, shows the H. M. Stafford cruising past Whitehouse:
Steamboat H. M. Stafford. For a larger image, click here.
Sandy Valley, a batwing boat built by Captain Archibald Borders of Louisa around 1860. Considered one of the finest boats on the river.

Big Sandy, built for Commodore C.M. Holloway by Captain William "Bill" Vaughan. She operated with the Cincinnati, Portsmouth, Big Sandy and Pomeroy Packet Company. Sidewheel type.

Banner, operated by Captain Cummings during the mid-1860s.

Lightwood, built at Paintsville by Captains John Hopkins and Marcum.

Independent, formerly the Lightwood.

Champion, formerly named Buckeye Boy. She was a sawmill boat which burned at the mouth of Johns Creek late in the last century.

Reliance, also known as Reliant. Initially known as Fashion, she was built at Ironton by Captain Rye Scott and Mike Wise for the Bay Brothers. She was purchased in the early 1880s by Captain George Washington "Wash" Williamson. Eyewitnesses describe her as a long, lean, lank, single-decker with side wheels. She was propelled by two short-stroke engines geared to a "Bull Wheel."

Pittsburg, reputed to have been one of the first steamers on the Big Sandy.

Tom Hacking, a double-decker sidewheeler that was probably a good-sized steamer. Since this boat was operating in 1878, I seriously doubt that she was the same boat as Tom Hackney, which was built much earlier.

Sallie Freese, a sternwheeler owned by Captain Milton Freese of Louisa.

Jim Montgomery, a sternwheel towing and passenger packet.

Sandy Valley II, a sternwheel towing and passenger packet.

Red Buck, a sidewheeler which operated during the Civil War. A Union boat, she was captured near the mouth of Johns Creek by the Confederates while transporting military supplies to Colonel Garfield's base at Pikeville.

Oil Hunter, a sidewheel type. The name suggests that she was involved in explorations for oil.

Moe Newman, a Big Sandy packet of the sidewheel type, built at Catlettsburg.

Virgie Ratliff, sometimes spelled Vyrgie Ratliff. She was a fast batwing boat built by Captain John Hopkins and his partner Marcum. Operated out of Paintsville.

Frank Preston, a fine sternwheel boat built at Paintsville. Records indicate that she was operated by Captain Green Meek. Named for a well-known Paintsville businessman.

Sea Gull, a sidewheel type.

Enquire, a sternwheel towboat owned by Captain Bill Smiley.

Lena Leota, a sternwheeler used for both towing and passenger service.

Bellevue, a sternwheeler used for both towing and passenger service.

Mayflower, also spelled May-Flower. She was owned at one time by Captain Soloman Williamson of Catlettsburg. A skilled mechanic, Williamson was also a steam-engine repairman.

Wild Boy, paddle arrangement unknown.

Favorite, the grand old lady of the Sandy. She was owned by Captain Marian Spurlock and was a fast batwing type. Captain Robert Owens, well-known Big Sandy pilot, began his career on this boat as a cabin boy. Favorite plied the river for some thirty years. Another owner of the boat was George W. Branham, grandfather of Anna Harmon Stumbo of Prestonsburg. Sometime around 1900, while  passing the mouth of George's Creek, the boat struck a submerged snag and sank.
Steamboat Favorite. For a larger image, click here.
J.C. Hopkins II, a sidewheel type.

Maxie Yost, new name of the J.C. Hopkins after she was bought by the Yost brothers and remodeled.

Alex Yost, a sidewheel type.

Donca, sometimes spelled Donkey. This boat was owned by the C & O Railroad and was used for the same purpose as the Cando. She is reputed to have been the fastest boat on the  Levisa Fork. Whenever she came upon the Argand, she passed it at will, a feat which regularly gave Captain Meek a coniption fit. Argand's crew resorted to all sorts of tricks to slow down the Donca, and on one occasion, they even turned their bigger boat at an angle across the channel to block Donca's passage. No self-respecting steamboat man liked to see his boat passed by another one!

Josie Hoskins, built by Captain Green Meek, she displaced ninety tons. Sternwheel type.
Probably one of the best-known boats on the Levisa Fork.

Rover, sidewheel type. Captain Henry Hager, Master.

Fleetwing, a batwing-type steamer that operated during the 1870s.

Katie Mack, a sternwheel boat used for both towing and passengers.

Sea Lion, a passenger-type towboat owned by Captain Carl Mace, Jim Kennedy, and Pearl Brubaker. A powerful boat, it was capable of towing a raft of timber 300 feet wide and 900 feet long all the way from Catlettsburg to Louisville. Needless to say, tows of timber this big were never towed down the Levisa Fork, but were always assembled at Catlettsburg or points where the river was wider.

Vincennes, a sternwheel towing and passenger boat.

Jerry Osborn, a sidewheel packet built by Captain Orlando C. Bowles of Pikeville. Named in honor of a prominent Pike County citizen,  Judge Jerry Osborn, this boat became one of the most popular Levisa Fork  boats.

Ed C. Kirker, a sidewheel type.

Laynesville, a sidewheel type.

Sip Bays, a sidewheeler built by Captain Green Meek. She was about one hundred feet long and seventeen feet wide. Her dimensions gave her a length-to-width ratio of approximately six to one. This  is considered by ship builders to be the ideal ratio for large ships, and many early battleships were built according to this formula. Sip Bays's unloaded draft was reportedly less than two feet, which made her an ideal low-water boat for the Big Sandy.

Miles M., a sternwheel type.

L.T. Moore, a towboat, probably of the sternwheel type, owned by Robert Price and a man named Montague. Probably named after Congressman Laban T. Moore, she was used in the timber rafting trade and was crushed in heavy ice at Louisa in 1881.

J.C. Cole, a sternwheel towboat used in the timber trade.

Gate City, formerly Buckeye Boy.

Douglas Hall, formerly Gate City. This particular boat changed hands numerous times, receiving a new name each time.

M. B. Goble, also known as M. B. Gable. A sternwheel towboat owned by Captain Carl Mace and Monte Goble and used in the timber trade. She capsized at the mouth of the Sandy, drowning her cook and her engineer.

Mountain State, a sternwheel towboat used in the timber trade.

Crown Hill, a fine towboat which made her first trip up the river on April 17, 1906.

Yellow Dog, a sternwheel towboat used in the timber trade.

Fairplay, said to have been the largest batwing steamer on the Sandy.

Mountain Boy, a sternwheel packet boat.

Mountain Girl, a sternwheel packet boat. According to several reports, this boat had a blood-curdling whistle which sounded like a panther scream. People living along the Sandy must have had a hard time getting to sleep when Mountain Girl was in the neighborhood.

J. M. McConnell, a very powerful towing and sawmill boat.

Tom Spurlock, a sternwheel packet and general cargo boat.

Van Meter, paddlewheel arrangement unknown. Most  Big Sandy boats were utilitarian in design, but this boat was an exception. According to several reports, she was an attractive, well-built boat sporting two powerful engines.

Sandy Fashion, a fast batwing steamer which carried both cargo and passengers. She operated on the river until 1879, when her boiler exploded. The accident occurred at the mouth of the Sandy.
Back to Archive Main Page
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Battle of Middle Creek
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Russell Lee Whitlock's article, Steam Navigation on the Levisa Fork, originally appeared in the June, 1994 edition of The Trestle, the quarterly publication of the Auxier Historical Society. Russell is  a native of Auxier, Kentucky and a resident of Ashland, Kentucky.
The photographs of Big Sandy steamboats used in this article come to us courtesy of Henry D. Fitzpatrick, Jr. of Prestonsburg, Kay Anne Frazier Wilborn of Lexington, and the Alice Lloyd College Photo Archive at Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Kentucky.
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