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Modeling History
John Bowman and his Steamboats

Text and photographs by Carl E. Feather

John Bowman
John Bowman of Wheeling is a self-taught historian and model maker, devoted to the history of steamboats on the Ohio River. Photograph by Carl E. Feather.

When John Bowman was a lad growing up in rural Wellsburg, his mother purchased a model airplane kit made of balsa wood and sent him to his bedroom to build it. John’s first task was to use a razor blade to cut out the parts.

Some 50 years later, John Bowman is an accomplished model maker. He now safely cuts his balsa wood using X-acto knives on a sheet of glass, spread across a workbench in his basement, to create one-of-a-kind replicas of historic steamboats. The highly detailed, scale models he builds are décor focal points in the 1868 townhouse he and his wife, Glinda, have restored in Wheeling’s Centre Market District. His models are also held in private collections and those of the Point Pleasant River Museum and Monroe County (Ohio) River Museum.

Not content to simply build models of the coal barges and packet, wharf, shanty, and dish boats that once plied the Ohio River near his home, John has authored three books about Wheeling’s steamboats. The books document a subject long ignored in published literature, despite the city’s prominence in this all-but-extinct form of transportation.

“This was the birthplace of the steamboat, but there was no written history of it,” John says.

“It was a much-needed subject for a book,” adds Glinda, an author herself. Glinda has written two books about collecting perfume miniatures. John says having an author for a wife helped keep him on track with his own writing projects. His most recent book, published in 2010, is titled, Steamboats on the Western Rivers in the Civil War.

John knows of no ancestor who built boats or worked on the river. Although he grew up less than 20 miles north of the “Birthplace of the American Steamboat,” John has only a very vague first-hand memory of his subject matter.

“Living in Wellsburg, we shopped in Wheeling,” he recalls. “When we came down the river to the south end of Warwood [north of Wheeling], there was a coal mine with a tipple. And at that tipple, there were always two or three old steamboats sitting there in the water. That was the only thing I remembered about seeing steamboats as a child.”

John headed off to the Air Force after high school and trained for a gunner’s job. But when the Air Force eliminated the aircraft he’d trained on, John switched his specialty to pest control — as in termites, rats, and fleas. That education gave him the foundation for a 40-year sales and management career in the pesticides field. He worked in the Southwest, typically driving 250 miles a day doing commission sales.­

“I drove 1,237,000 miles,” says John, who has the documentation to prove it.

As the health of John’s parents back in West Virginia began to fail, John and Glinda made the decision to move back to the Northern Panhandle, where he could establish his sales career in a different region. They returned in the 1980’s and purchased a small farm in Bethlehem to fulfill their dreams of living in the country. John says raising chickens, growing and canning vegetables, and caring for land came with a huge “time tax.”

“Cutting those three acres of grass became my life,” John says. “We decided maybe we didn’t need that for the rest of our lives.”

They purchased their townhouse on Market Street and spent $50,000 modernizing the living space and restoring the property to historical standards. The two-story, free-standing brick townhouse features a separate entrance to a room the couple call the “Antique Parlor,” a small shop they open on Fridays and Saturdays, or as their busy schedules allow.

There’s not a blade of grass to mow. “If I see a piece of grass growing here, I just pick it out,” he says.

One of the second-floor rooms is dedicated to John’s library and study, which includes his extensive collection of books and other reference material on the Ohio River steamboat industry. Although John has never owned or operated a pleasure craft, let alone a steamboat, he can speak on the subject like an experienced river man, as a result of his years of research.

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