Carolyn White
Olathe, Colo.

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December 19, 2011
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Float back in time on the Valley Gem Sternwheeler

It's one thing to take a trip down a lazy brown river on a pontoon or in a motor boat, but it's something entirely different when you're sitting up high on the deck of a Sternwheeler like The Valley Gem, which is docked in scenic Marietta, Ohio.

It not only moves evenly through the waters of the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers, but the rhythmic splashing of the rear-mounted paddle wheel makes you feel as if you've been transported back in time. This modern-day cruise boat, built by Captain Jason "J.J." Sands and his long-time employee, Don Sandford, travels at a rate of 7.5 miles an hour - allowing plenty of time for sight-seeing - and can seat up to 296 passengers for daily tours between April and October. "The last of the (coal) steam-powered sternwheelers was replaced by diesel in 1955," Captain Sands told me. "The paddle on this one is driven by a 500 HP, 12.7 liter engine with a German ZF marine transmission." When I remarked on how smooth the ride was, he explained how he and Don (both Merchant Marine officers), have to replace the boards "every 10 years, otherwise the Gem will shudder." The comment made me wonder what travel must have been like for the pioneers who'd originally settled the territory back in 1788.

A "sternwheeler" - also known as a riverboat, paddleboat and showboat - is known for having a single wheel mounted at the rear, or stern. Invented by James Rumsey of Shepherdstown, West Virginia in 1787, it revolutionized transportation because unlike flatboats and dug-out canoes, it could run on its own power. By the 1830s, steam-driven sternwheelers were all over the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio Rivers covering territory from Pittsburgh, Pa., to Cincinnati, Ohio, to Nashville, Ten., and New Orleans, La., with trips ranging from one to four weeks. Providing an efficient and inexpensive way to transport travelers, mail and vast amounts of salt, glass, agricultural supplies and manufactured goods, their popularity remained heaviest up until the Civil War. But although river travel gradually faded after the onset of the first transcontinental railroad, the handful of sternwheelers that remain in use today have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity over recent years ... and it's easy to understand why.

Jason's father, Jim Sands, started his touring boat business in Marietta back in 1973, drafting the plans for the family's first Sternwheeler himself. The Valley Gem is the second in the family, built by Jim and Ivan Arnold, and according to the website, Ohio River Boat Trips, it was "named after a historic stern-wheel boat that, more than six decades ago, journeyed from Zanesville (Ohio) to Marietta every day except Sunday carrying passengers and cargo." More modern than its namesake, the Gem is both United States Coast Guard approved and handicap accessible, plus has a climate-controlled (lower) deck, gift and snack shops, and spacious, comfortable seating. It took 18 months for them to build, and is 157-feet long, 25-feet wide, and weighs 100 tons.

In addition to a narrated, 90 minute trip, tourists can choose from Saturday dinner, Sweet Sunset Dessert, and Stockport Day Tours (covering 40 miles) or opt to go through the historic Devol's Dam and Lock on the Muskingum River, which is "Home to America's last, complete hand-operated lock system, built in 1841." And during the annual Sternwheeler Festival (held over the first weekend after Labor Day) you can book an up-close, view-from-the-water seat for the spectacular evening fireworks display. No matter which cruise you go on, however, the Southeastern Ohio scenery - which consists of bridges, hardwood tree forests, vintage tugs and houseboats, assorted monuments, and gorgeous, turn-of-the-century buildings - makes each trip especially worthwhile.

Marietta, which was founded by Rufus Putnam in 1788, has a large number of historic homes on display, most built during the Victorian era when ship building was at its peak. It is still known as "The Riverboat Town" since it was a primary stop along the main trade route (beginning in Pittsburgh, Pa., the Ohio River actually covered more than 900 miles.) As the population exploded, however, so did the problems that come from rapid growth - one of them being the spread of smallpox. During my own ride on the Gem this past October 4, as we were chugging past Buckley Island, Captain Sands narrated its somewhat sad history to those of us on board. "This island is 3 miles long, and quarantined people were hauled out here and left for several weeks. At the end of that time period, if they raised a white sheet someone rowed out to fetch them. If not, crews returned for burials." On the other side of the coin, he continued, "The Island later became an entertainment center complete with a Ferris wheel. That amusement park, however, was wiped off during a 1913 flood," a common event for a city that sits at the confluence of two rivers.

There's plenty of work involved in operating a boat this size, and during the winter the Valley Gem's owners stay busy with maintenance. They pressure-wash and repaint both the Gem and the dock plus take care of any engine repairs and modifications. "It's challenging," Captain Sands concluded, "but I couldn't imagine doing anything else."

Captain Sandford, who was piloting the craft during this interview, added, "It's a nice way to make a living." From a passenger's high-up point of view, I couldn't agree more.

The Valley Gem is docked at 601 Front Street in downtown Marietta, Ohio, behind the Ohio River Museum. For more information on daily or special event cruises, or to reserve the sternwheeler for weddings, receptions, reunions or meetings (catering services are available) call (740) 373-7862 or view the website at ValleyGemSternwheeler.com.

It's one thing to take a trip down a lazy brown river on a pontoon or in a motor boat, but it's something entirely different when you're sitting up high on the deck of a Sternwheeler like The Valley Gem, which is docked in scenic Marietta, Ohio.

It not only moves evenly through the waters of the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers, but the rhythmic splashing of the rear-mounted paddle wheel makes you feel as if you've been transported back in time. This modern-day cruise boat, built by Captain Jason "J.J." Sands and his long-time employee, Don Sandford, travels at a rate of 7.5 miles an hour - allowing plenty of time for sight-seeing - and can seat up to 296 passengers for daily tours between April and October. "The last of the (coal) steam-powered sternwheelers was replaced by diesel in 1955," Captain Sands told me. "The paddle on this one is driven by a 500 HP, 12.7 liter engine with a German ZF marine transmission." When I remarked on how smooth the ride was, he explained how he and Don (both Merchant Marine officers), have to replace the boards "every 10 years, otherwise the Gem will shudder." The comment made me wonder what travel must have been like for the pioneers who'd originally settled the territory back in 1788.

A "sternwheeler" - also known as a riverboat, paddleboat and showboat - is known for having a single wheel mounted at the rear, or stern. Invented by James Rumsey of Shepherdstown, West Virginia in 1787, it revolutionized transportation because unlike flatboats and dug-out canoes, it could run on its own power. By the 1830s, steam-driven sternwheelers were all over the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio Rivers covering territory from Pittsburgh, Pa., to Cincinnati, Ohio, to Nashville, Ten., and New Orleans, La., with trips ranging from one to four weeks. Providing an efficient and inexpensive way to transport travelers, mail and vast amounts of salt, glass, agricultural supplies and manufactured goods, their popularity remained heaviest up until the Civil War. But although river travel gradually faded after the onset of the first transcontinental railroad, the handful of sternwheelers that remain in use today have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity over recent years ... and it's easy to understand why.

Jason's father, Jim Sands, started his touring boat business in Marietta back in 1973, drafting the plans for the family's first Sternwheeler himself. The Valley Gem is the second in the family, built by Jim and Ivan Arnold, and according to the website, Ohio River Boat Trips, it was "named after a historic stern-wheel boat that, more than six decades ago, journeyed from Zanesville (Ohio) to Marietta every day except Sunday carrying passengers and cargo." More modern than its namesake, the Gem is both United States Coast Guard approved and handicap accessible, plus has a climate-controlled (lower) deck, gift and snack shops, and spacious, comfortable seating. It took 18 months for them to build, and is 157-feet long, 25-feet wide, and weighs 100 tons.

In addition to a narrated, 90 minute trip, tourists can choose from Saturday dinner, Sweet Sunset Dessert, and Stockport Day Tours (covering 40 miles) or opt to go through the historic Devol's Dam and Lock on the Muskingum River, which is "Home to America's last, complete hand-operated lock system, built in 1841." And during the annual Sternwheeler Festival (held over the first weekend after Labor Day) you can book an up-close, view-from-the-water seat for the spectacular evening fireworks display. No matter which cruise you go on, however, the Southeastern Ohio scenery - which consists of bridges, hardwood tree forests, vintage tugs and houseboats, assorted monuments, and gorgeous, turn-of-the-century buildings - makes each trip especially worthwhile.

Marietta, which was founded by Rufus Putnam in 1788, has a large number of historic homes on display, most built during the Victorian era when ship building was at its peak. It is still known as "The Riverboat Town" since it was a primary stop along the main trade route (beginning in Pittsburgh, Pa., the Ohio River actually covered more than 900 miles.) As the population exploded, however, so did the problems that come from rapid growth - one of them being the spread of smallpox. During my own ride on the Gem this past October 4, as we were chugging past Buckley Island, Captain Sands narrated its somewhat sad history to those of us on board. "This island is 3 miles long, and quarantined people were hauled out here and left for several weeks. At the end of that time period, if they raised a white sheet someone rowed out to fetch them. If not, crews returned for burials." On the other side of the coin, he continued, "The Island later became an entertainment center complete with a Ferris wheel. That amusement park, however, was wiped off during a 1913 flood," a common event for a city that sits at the confluence of two rivers.

There's plenty of work involved in operating a boat this size, and during the winter the Valley Gem's owners stay busy with maintenance. They pressure-wash and repaint both the Gem and the dock plus take care of any engine repairs and modifications. "It's challenging," Captain Sands concluded, "but I couldn't imagine doing anything else."

Captain Sandford, who was piloting the craft during this interview, added, "It's a nice way to make a living." From a passenger's high-up point of view, I couldn't agree more.

The Valley Gem is docked at 601 Front Street in downtown Marietta, Ohio, behind the Ohio River Museum. For more information on daily or special event cruises, or to reserve the sternwheeler for weddings, receptions, reunions or meetings (catering services are available) call (740) 373-7862 or view the website at ValleyGemSternwheeler.com.


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The Fence Post Updated Aug 14, 2012 04:59PM Published Dec 19, 2011 04:48PM Copyright 2011 The Fence Post. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.