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The River: Paddlewheelers, especially wooden ones, are a special kind of boat; here’s a tutorial


The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and Captain Don Sanders will be sharing the stories of his long association with the river — from discovery to a way of love and life. This a part of a long and continuing story.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

The paddlewheel on the Rafter CLYDE, my 53-foot sternwheeler, is said to be one of the very few authentic wooden paddlewheels remaining on the Mississippi River System. (Paul Richardson Art)

The paddlewheel on the Rafter CLYDE, my 53-foot sternwheeler, is said to be one of the very few authentic wooden paddlewheels remaining on the Mississippi River System. Now, there are many external, stern-mounted “spinners” on various riverboats, large and small, but except for a very few, CLYDE included, most incorporate materials other than the stuff derived from trees. 

Other boats boasting of all-wooden paddlewheels, not counting particular necessary steel, structural parts, includes the likes of the BELLE of LOUISVILLE, W.P. SNYDER, JR., DELTA QUEEN, LONE STAR, and the GEORGE M. VERITY. All these boats were constructed early-to-midway in the last century; with the BELLE and the SNYDER already past the century mark. The QUEEN, too, is fast approaching that milestone age.   

Since the first steamboat came down the Ohio River in 1811, a sidewheeler named the NEW ORLEANS, with a paddlewheel on either side instead of at the back of the boat, wood was the material used. After all, a vast forest covered much of the route of the New Orleans, and paddlewheel parts could be easily fabricated along the way, if necessary. Wood remained the raw material of choice well into the 20th Century when steel and aluminum began replacing wood for its strength and lesser weight. But by then, paddlewheels had enjoyed their brief time in the sun and were all but obsolete and replaced by metal propellers except for a few excursion, overnight, casino, and pleasure sternwheelers. 

Since the first steamboat came down the Ohio River in 1811, a sidewheeler named the NEW ORLEANS, with a paddlewheel on either side instead of at the back of the boat, wood was the material used.

Even wooden paddlewheels must have certain parts made of metal for the strength only that material can offer. Iron was used in the early years until steel replaced the softer and more brittle metal. Those parts are namely, the Shaft, Flanges, Circle bands, and Stirrup and other bolts. 

In the days before I tested for, and was awarded an Inland Mate’s license by the U. S. Coast Guard, one question usually asked on the exam was: “Name all the parts of a paddlewheel.” Was I disappointed when that question failed to appear on my test! 

I might add that wood is still the preferred material in an otherwise all-metal wheel, and those parts being the “Buckets,” the boards pushing through the water giving a vessel forward or reverse thrust. Most greenhorns might call them “paddles.” They’re not; they’re “Buckets.”

Even wooden paddlewheels must have certain parts made of metal for the strength only that material can offer. Iron was used in the early years until steel replaced the softer and more brittle metal.

Radiating out from the Shaft like spokes in any wheel are a paddlewheel’s “Arms.” Bolted to circular Flanges, wheel Arms attach to the Shaft. On a wooden wheel, White Oak, preferred for its strength, is the traditional material of choice. On metal wheels, angle, tubular, or channel stock replace wood. 

Buckets are traditionally attached to the Arms with U-shaped “Stirrup Bolts” which fit around the Arms and penetrate holes drilled through the Bucket Boards. Between the Buckets and the washers and nuts on the Stirrups, a piece of wood or metal plate adds strength and buffers the tension between the bolts and the boards. These are known as “Battens.” 

Steel, or iron, Circles band the Arms together to reinforce the Wheel into one structural unit. Circles come in pairs that run parallel to each other on opposite sides of the Wheel Arms. On large Wheels, like the DELTA QUEEN’s, multiple sets of matching Circles ring the wooden Wheel.
 

Even wooden paddlewheels must have certain parts made of metal for the strength only that material can offer. Iron was used in the early years until steel replaced the softer and more brittle metal.

“Circle Fillers” are the curved wooden pieces between the metal bands that bolt to the metal Circles. However, the Circles are never bolted to the Arms if they are the outermost set of Circles. The Arms closest to the Buckets need to be as tight as possible, for this is the section of the paddlewheel taking all the pounding and beating.

Only in Circles closer to the Shaft are they bolted to the Wheel Arms. Consequently, there must be a way of adjusting the tension on the parts of the outer section of the propulsion unit. Wedge-shaped oak pieces called “Keys,” allow for such tightening.

After each landing of the DELTA QUEEN, my crew and I, armed with small sledgehammers, quickly invaded the massive 40-ton paddlewheel; began tapping each Key; testing for tightness as determined by the sound of striking the adjustable part. A bright, sharp tone indicated the Key was doing its job. A dull “thunk” meant the Key needed a few smacks with the business end of the sledge to tighten it. But once a Key was driven even with the surface of the Circle Filler, and still not tight, the Key was declared “dead,” and needed removal and replaced with a larger, oak tightening device. Quite often, I had to fashion a new Key out of scrap Arm stock lying around in the carpenter shop in the hull below the high-pressure engine cylinder,

Radiating out from the Shaft like spokes in any wheel are a paddlewheel’s “Arms.” Bolted to circular Flanges, wheel Arms attach to the Shaft. On a wooden wheel, White Oak, preferred for its strength, is the traditional material of choice.


The Wheel on the Rafter CLYDE is every bit as accurate as any wooden paddlewheel ever built since the NEW ORLEANS set the tone over two centuries ago. Thankfully, though, it is much smaller, but still is about nine-feet by nine-feet and weighs a ton. Still, there’s a lot of lumber in that brush pile to maintain. 

The timber in a wooden Paddlewheel is expendable and is expected to be needing periodic replacement with water, driftwood, and time taking their toll on the natural fibrous, former tree trunks. CLYDE’s Wheel Arms are “rough-cut,” full-size two-by-fours not found on the rack at the Big Box stores. Every piece on the Wheel is custom-cut. Rick Starker of Dream Woodworks in Vevay, Indiana, has to find a lumber supplier with a supply of White Oak that Rick has to cut and plane into size.
  
I’m confident that “green” oak is hard on Rick’s planer. Yet, each piece is milled to the exact dimensions every time I drive to Vevay to pick up a new batch. I try to dry the “green” wood before painting and using it, but sometimes I need to use it before curing. I’ve never noticed any difference. As Captain Wagner so often reminded me when I wanted to get too particular:

After each landing of the DELTA QUEEN, my crew and I, armed with small sledgehammers, quickly invaded the massive 40-ton paddlewheel; began tapping each Key; testing for tightness as determined by the sound of striking the adjustable part.

“We’re building (or painting) paddlewheels; not pianos.”   

As rumored, the lovely CLYDE., the most authentically-built small sternwheeler on the river, is seeking a new owner. The perky paddlewheeler has done worn out its present one and looking for another to carry on the fun and traditions only a boat like the CLYDE can provide. Until that time, though, I am continuing to spruce-up the lovely lady.

As there are a few pieces, yet, needing attention in the Paddlewheel – any volunteers? Just leave a message on my phone. I will be inside the Wheel, and I never take it with me to spoil the tranquility only hammering and sawing oak replacement paddlewheel parts can offer.

As rumored, the lovely CLYDE., the most authentically-built small sternwheeler on the river, is seeking a new owner. The perky paddlewheeler has done worn out its present one and looking for another to carry on the fun and traditions.

Captain Don Sanders is a river man. He has been a riverboat captain with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company and with Rising Star Casino. He learned to fly an airplane before he learned to drive a “machine” and became a captain in the USAF. He is an adventurer, a historian, and a storyteller. Now, he is a columnist for the NKyTribune and will share his stories of growing up in Covington and his stories of the river. Hang on for the ride — the river never looked so good.


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2 Comments

  1. Naomi Whetzel says:

    Love the paddlewheel stories. I loved cruising on the Delta Queen 30+ times.

  2. Ronald Sutton says:

    Really have Learned more about Paddlewheels than I need to know at this stage. Capt. Don does have a real talent for explaining what he is talking about.

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