Steamboat Building   in Elizabeth, PA

A Journal of daily activities at the Elizabeth Marine Ways 1898 to 1925 




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Packet Kanawha

Packet KANAWHA from collection of William Fels


Packet KANAWHA at dock

Packet Kanawha Freight Statement from 11/1/1905


This photo showing the Packet KANAWHA tied up at the Wharf in Pittsburgh under the Smithfield Bridge is from the collection of Historic Pittsburgh.  The photo is dated 1912.

A closer view of the Packet KANAWHA

Close up of the Packet KANAWHA


The Packet KANAWHA visited the Ways during March 1914.


"Wreck Of The "Kanawha"

On January 5, 1916, the steam packet "Kanawha" sank in the Ohio River with a loss of 16 lives. The second clerk on the "Kanawha" was Fred M. Hoyt who survived the wreck and later wrote a vivid account of his memory of the tragedy. What follows is the story of the sinking of the "Kanawha" based on Fred Hoyt's original writing.

The steamer "Kanawha" left Pittsburgh just before dark on the evening of January 4, 1916. She had recently been overhauled at the Parkersburg Docks and the passengers and crew had no cause to fear that the boat was not equal to the task of completing her regular trip safely to Charleston. The pilots, engineers and mates were all well qualified and mature men. Fred Hoyt had made 130 round trips between Pittsburgh and Charleston over a period of three years. Even though the Ohio River presented a foreboding scene running high and fast, Hoyt felt confident that this would be another routine trip. For reasons unknown a big metal lifeboat had been removed from the boat a few weeks prior to January 4th and the packet was now running without all of its usual lifesaving apparatus.

After steaming through the frigid night for 172 miles the "Kanawha" reached Marietta, Ohio on a blustery midwinters day and there fate would set into motion the first of a series of events that would eventually lead to the end of the "Kanawha".

Henry Best owned the wharfboat at Marietta and he wanted two barrels of lubricating oil delivered to the landing at Little Hocking, Ohio. He declared that this was a rush order and had to be delivered. Captain Brady Berry had protested to Henry that the stop at Little Hocking would be difficult and dangerous especially with the high wind and the construction of Lock 19 opposite the village. Best was adamant, however and Berry did not argue further.

Fred Hoyt looked out on the Marietta Landing and saw his mother waiting to see him for a few minutes. He quickly reached her side and as they talked she spoke of her concern for her son and her premonition of an impending disaster unless Captain Berry tied the "Kanawha" up.

Fred Hoyt looked out across the river and understood his mother's concern. There were heavy swells running and the river was at a 30-foot stage. For a moment he thought about taking his mother's advice and then decided that she was just overly concerned. Bidding her a reluctant farewell he reboarded the packet and they headed downstream to Parkersburg.

Upon arriving at Parkersburg, Tom Sams, the cook, walked down the landing gangway and headed for the B & O Train depot. He had told Captain Berry that he was frankly scared and just couldn't go on.

Fred Hoyt knew a Mrs. Fitzpatrick and her six-year-old son were scheduled to leave the boat at Lee Creek near Belleville, West Virginia, but he realized that the low bottom at Lee Creek would be flooded and she would have to get off at Belleville or even Reedsville, Ohio. He suggested to Mrs. Fitzpatrick that it might be advisable for she and her son to spend the night in Parkersburg and take the morning train home. Mrs. Fitzpatrick declined. A fateful decision on a fateful day for within a few hours she and her son would be among the victims.

From Parkersburg to Little Hocking required less than a hour and by 7:00 p.m. the graceful vessel had landed the fateful two barrels of oil and was trying to get back into the main stream. The "Kanawha" was known for her good handling but the combination of the swift current and the high wind was just too much for her--in a moment she was broadside to the waves and Captain Berry had to try a difficult manuever to bring her back on course. The river was so high that Lock 19 was completely submerged but that in itself was not a problem. The light draft packet could have safely run across the lock walls but the barely submerged light towers on each side of the lock were another matter.

At 7:20 p.m. in the pitch dark as Captain Berry struggled to "right" the boat, the "Kanawha" smashed into the lower tower. Fred Hoyt had just started for the Texas deck and was talking to Lloyd Gee, a steward when the collision occured. Both men were nearly thrown from their feet and Hoyt remarked: "Lloyd, I fear she won't stand that!"

The tower had burst a fearful hole in the starboard side of the wooden hull just forward of the boilers. Hoyt raced out to the forward boiler deck and felt the boat tilt crazily as if to capsize. He looked back toward the ladies cabin and saw four or five women.

He considered rushing back to advise them to leave the cabin and take position at the guard rails. At that moment the generator was drowned out and the lights went off. In the awful darkness Hoyt jumped over the port rail and slid down the bull rails as the boat steadied herself for a moment.

The young clerk felt hot steam sweeping over him as the furnaces died out and then ice water swirling above his knees. Realizing that his only hope was to get higher up on the boat he climbed onto the boiler deck rail and gained a handhold on the edge of the roof. Two crewmen dragged him up to a narrow part that was not submerged. The group of five men gathered there suddenly realized that the "Kanawha," although sunk to her roof, was still afloat. Hoyt later surmised that it was probably the thousands of empty egg crates and chicken coops in the hold that gave the boat bouyancy. By this time most everyone trapped in the lower areas of the boat had drowned. Many of them had no doubt been trapped in their staterooms by jammed doors as the twisting hull distorted the frames.

The crew and surviving passengers were crowded around the one available yawl abreast of the pilothouse. The other lifeboat had been fouled and sunk on the opposite side. Hoyt's thoughts went back to the big metal lifeboat that had been left in Pittsburgh and he bitterly remembered his mother's pleas to leave the packet at Marietta.

No one had managed to save a light of any kind and the sheer terror of this situation defys the imagination. Later powerful criticism was directed at the rank and file of the "Kanawha" crew who apparently saved themselves without regard to passengers as many of them were the first ashore.

Hoyt and his companions felt new terror grip them when the hull shuddered and jolted as she ran aground on the rock dike at the head of Newberry Island. The wreck of the "Kanawha" had swiftly covered the two miles from Lock 19 and as she paused on the dike one of the hero's of the tragedy arrived on the scene.

Harold B. Wright, a young Lock 19 employee, had immediately set out after the "Kanawha" in a big U. S. Corps of Engineers yawl. He took into shore two or more loads of survivors and left Hoyt and the others with a lantern which gave them courage. Hoyt heard one of his companions commence to curse and pray. The young man that lost his nerve that night survived and went on to become a local politician in Mason County, West Virginia. Harold B. Wright was to later become a riverboat captain and retire from the river in the 1980's.

While awaiting their turn in the lifeboat, Hoyt and the others could feel the hull grinding on the rocks under the force of the thousands of tons of rushing water. The miserable group was about to face the most incredible and heart stopping moment of that tragic night.

Suddenly, with a sickening lurch, the hull began to capsize completely. These five men had to somehow crawl around the boat from their perch on the roof as the packet rolled over to a new place of safety on the bottom of the hull. With precision born of the fear of death they backed down the stationaries and after the boat had finished her roll they were still five in number and without a scratch.

This "turn turtle" motion had wrenched the boilers free and they were later found at the foot of Newberry Island.

Mercifully the wind slacked off and a mild rain began. It was two miles to Mustapha Island which was to be the last resting place of the "Kanawha". Hoyt could feel the hog chains dragging along the bottom and several sharp lurches nearly dislodged him. At the head of Mustapha Island, at long last, Hoyt and several others were taken aboard the packets lifeboat and they made shore.

The broken remains of the "Kanawha" drifted on with two men still clinging to the hull, Captain Berry and an old cabin boy. They were saved when the wreck went aground for the last time. It was 9:15 p.m.--two short hours since the disaster began.

The B & O Railroad ran a special train from Parkersburg to pick up survivors strung out along the shore.

Hoyt and others took refuge in a small cottage where they were warmed up in front of a roaring fire. To him it seemed a "luxury lodge" and he soon was able to send a wire to his mother in Marietta to say that he had survived. Movie theatres in Marietta had already begun flashing news on the screens that the "Kanawha" had sunk.

As so often happens after such a tragic event, the unexplainable is explained by superstitions or become the basis for the beginning of new superstitions. Prior to the final trip of the "Kanawha," while repairs were being made to the smoke-stacks, the spreader-bar with its decorative star was removed. When it was replaced, the star was upside down and this is the way it was on that last trip when the "Kanawha" sank and turned bottom up.

Wreck of the Kanawha  1916

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