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Monumental Miniatures
Kanawha Riverboat Replicas

By Todd A. Hanson

For decades, Bob O’Neill of South Charleston has honed his skills as a woodworker. His mastery of the bandsaw and sander, accompanied with skillful carving and fabrication techniques, make him unique. He’s truly an artist of miniatures. Over the years, his resume has includedminiature racecars, trucks, boats, cranes, birds, football helmets, countless cowboy figurines, and even fish—all from wood, and many with working parts.

His love of the river has dominated his recent work. He’s completed more than 200 replica towboats. His work can be seen in the Ohio Valley River Museum in Clarington, Ohio, and the Point Pleasant River Museum & Learning Center in Mason County. Several corporate towing offices have multiple examples of his work. Other than Bob himself, 99-year-old Charles T. Jones, president of Amherst Madison, claims the largest collection with more than 30 replicas.

Bob recalls, “I built my first towboat, the TAMMY L. WHITE, around 1963. It was a model of a boat operated by the White Brothers of Belle in Kanawha County.” The actual TAMMY L. WHITE was built about 1923 in Point Pleasant as the Trojan.

Most of his models represent riverboats he’s watched on the Kanawha River from the early 1960s to the present. His one-of-a-kind collection includes many replicas of local towing and construction vessels, including ones belonging to Amherst Madison, T. G. Keeney & Sons, John Scott (ABC), and the O. F. Shearer & Sons, just to name a few.

“It's all about the history,” he adds while gazing at the models of past and present towboats. “They bring back fond memories,” he says with a smile. After a slight pause, he continues, “The companies that used to be on the (Kanawha) River are getting fewer and fewer. It’s sad to see all the older boats with their unique designs being scrapped or sent to other countries.”

Bob was born in 1946 and spent his early years in Dunbar. Some of his oldest recollections are of the Kanawha: “I can remember when the showboats would come up the river with their calliope playing and people gathering along the riverbanks.”

His family moved to Fairplain in Jackson County in 1953. Bob remembers, “We would sometimes go for a Sunday drive and cross the Ohio River using the old Ravenswood Ferry.”

When the family moved back to the Kanawha Valley in 1960, they settled in South Charleston, only a couple blocks from the river’s edge. “I saw the old towboats”, Bob fondly recalls, “and watching the water roll off their sternwheels and seeing the steam dredges and cranes. I was fascinated with all the barge traffic and absolutely fell in love with the river.”

 Bob’s dad, B. C. O’Neill, was a crane operator, unloading coal from barges at the FMC chemical plant in South Charleston. The White Brothers had the barge contract. “Dad was acquainted with the rivermen who worked for Harry White,” says Bob, “and he got me a ride on the KATHRYN. We departed from Dunbar—the old Lock 6 dock—and went upstream above Witcher Creek to get a barge load of coal. Ed Carte was the pilot, and Gary Carte was the deckhand. Standing in the pilothouse, I watched Ed reach up and grab the cord to blow the air horn. Boy, was it loud! I would jump every time, but it sure sounded good. The sound of the engines, and the smell of' diesel fuel was a great aroma to me.”

As Bob’s friendship with the White Brothers grew, he got to ride on the TAMMY L. WHITE, MAJOR, W. C. WHITE, and KATHRYN—after they raised her pilothouse and renamed her the TINA M. WHITE. “I got away from the river in the mid-1960s,” Bob says, “but still loved seeing the towboats. I loved all the boats operated by the Ohio River Company, Pure Oil Company, O. F. Shearer & Sons, Point Towing Company, T. G. Keeney & Sons, White Brothers, and Amherst’s Madison Coal & Supply Company. I made some models of the TAMMY L. WHITE, MAJOR, TINA M. WHITE, and a little boat named the CINDY KAY. In the early 1970s, Mom and Dad’s house burned. No one was hurt, but I lost all my models.”

Followingdouble hernia surgery in 2011, Bob was laid up for a long time. Bob’s wife, Cheryl, got concerned over his bottled-up energy and suggested a hobby. “I told her I didn't have time for a hobby!” Bob recalls with a smile. “But she suggested that I make some models of the towboats like I did when I was younger.”

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.