Sunday, April 10, 2016

A new name for a favorite boat

A boat that I once enjoyed seeing on the Ohio River has a new name. According to the Waterways Journal, Ingram Barge Company has changed the name of the Omar to the M/V Brian A. Napack to honor a member of its board of directors.

I remember the Omar and its sister boat, the Omega (now the Erna E. Honeycutt) well from when they were built for the Ohio River Company. When they went into service in late 1981 and early 1982, they announced their passing with a low rumble that you felt in your skull. And they made some buildings vibrate. As the late Willie Wilson of Merdie Boggs and Sons would say, they talked to the windows. I remember attending a meeting of the Gallia County (Ohio) Commission in a portable building on the courthouse grounds after the old courthouse had been destroyed by fire. The meeting was moving along when everyone was surprised by the way the building was shaking and the strong low-pitched sound they heard. Everyone but me, that is. I figured either the Omar or the Omega was passing Gallipolis.

The Omar and the Omega were different because they burned No. 6 diesel fuel instead of No. 2, and they had controlled-pitch propellers for steering. In layman’s terms, the propeller blades could swivel 180 degrees on their hubs to give the pilots more control in tight spots.

In March 1982, I got to board the Omar’s sister boat, the Omega, and talk with its crew about life on it. Captain Jim Spires and pilot Larry Pennywitt said the boat performed well, but the vibrations were particularly bothersome.

In January of that year, both boats were worked on in Paducah to reduce the vibration problem, but it persisted.

Here the Omega passes Clipper Mills, Ohio, with Gallipolis Ferry, WV, in the background in late summer or early autumn 1985.

See the photo above? Fast forward two decades to 2005. The Ohio River Company was gone, and so were the Omar and the Omega, from the upper Ohio, at least. Ingram had put them into service mainly on the Mississippi, although I did see the Omar in my area a few times since.

The Omar and the Omega were nice-looking boats, whether in Ohio River Company colors or those of Ingram.

It wasn’t just the modern-era Omar that carried that name, though. The steamer Omar was built for the Ohio River Company when that company was based here in Huntington WV and mainly hauled coal between Huntington and Cincinnati. The Omar was built in 1935 and was named for the town of Omar WV, a mining town formed about a century ago and operated in its early days at least as a traditional coal camp. The town of Omar went through some hard times starting in the 1950s. It’s been a few years since I was in that area, but I remember a lot of identical-looking houses that must have dates from the coal camp era. Sort of like a late 20th-Century subdivision.

If you want to see some photos or read a little history of the town that gave the two boats their names, you can check this link or this one.

The steamer Omar operated on the Ohio River for about 25 years. From the one photo I’ve seen of it, the Omar burned coal, which was stored on the front of the boat on the second deck. The Ohio River Company donated the Omar to the state of West Virginia in 1961, and the boat was remodeled into a showboat in time for the state’s centennial celebration in 1963. The remodeling including adding a second deck and renaming it the Rhododendron, after the state flower.

I seem to remember seeing the Rhododendron towed up and down the Ohio River a few times in my youth in the 1960s, but there are no memories that stand out as special.

Eventually, the state decided to sell the Rhododendron. On Sept. 15,1966, the city of Clinton, Iowa, was the successful bidder at $21,165. The boat was tied up at Morgantown WV on the Monongahela at the time, so it had to be towed down the Mon and Ohio rivers to the Mississippi for its trip to its new home. In Iowa, the boat was taken out of the river and placed on dry land for use as a land-based theater.

If you want to read more about the City of Clinton Showboat, as the Omar/Rhododendron is called now, check out this link.