Overlooking Pomeroy's downtown riverfront and Main Street from atop a sternwheel, the William D.
Overlooking Pomeroy’s downtown from atop the William D. before the opening ceremony on Sept. 19. (Photo/Connor Kurek)

Historic sternwheel boats leave Pomeroy’s Sternwheel Regatta to head for home

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Twelve sternwheelers—houseboats controlled by large wheels with paddles attached at the stern—docked in Pomeroy for the 39th annual Pomeroy Sternwheel Regatta last weekend. 

The 12 sternwheelers, ranging in age from 5 years old to 100, are docked at Pomeroy’s levee for the Sternwheel Regatta, Sept. 19-21. (Photo/Connor Kurek)

The three-day festival lasted from Sept. 19 through 21 at the levee on Main Street and was hosted by the Pomeroy Eagles Club. 

“Everything we’re doing here is family friendly,” said main organizer John Lehew, “and to promote boating and to promote the town of Pomeroy.”

Lehew is a Pomeroy Eagles Aerie 2171 member and ran the regatta with the support of the Pomeroy Fire Department and the Pomeroy Merchant’s Association.

Many of the boaters who came to Pomeroy, like Leport, were part of clubs like the Gallipolis Boat Club. (Photo/Connor Kurek)
The view from atop a boat: The sternwheelers are lined up on Pomeroy's dock Thursday, Sept. 19. (Photo/Connor Kurek)
The Riverside Cloggers dance on the levee on Saturday, Sept. 21. (Photo/Connor Kurek)
Sternwheel owners share a meal at the Captain and First Mate Cookout on Saturday, the final day of the regatta. (Photo/Connor Kurek)
Fest-goers watch as cars and trucks travel down Main Street during the parade on Thursday, Sept. 19. (Photo/Connor Kurek)
A car with Santa and reindeer shoots snow as it travels down Main Street during the parade on day one of the festival. (Photo/Connor Kurek)
Grand Marshal Carson Crow talks with visitors at the Pomeroy Sternwheel Regatta on the festivals opening day, Thursday, Sept. 19. (Photo/Connor Kurek)
Festival-goers listen to music, enjoy food and watch the sunset just hours before the fireworks show. (Photo/Connor Kurek)
The sternwheels of John and David Lehew's boat, the William D. (Photo/Connor Kurek)

The festival featured food vendors, live music, a raffle with items like a stained glass Sternwheel picture made by Debbie McKinney, plenty of games and competitions and what Lehew, a Pomeroy native, called the “loudest fire truck parade in Ohio.”

A truck from the Bashan Volunteer Fire Department travels through downtown. (Photo/Connor Kurek)

The competitions included a kayak race, duck race with cash prizes, the annual River Rat 5k walk/run and a dance and hula hoop contest.

There were also horse carriage rides, inflatables for children and fireworks to conclude the festival Saturday night. 

The festival brought hundreds of visitors who strolled up and down the docks to talk with boat captains and admire the sternwheels, many of which were built by their owners. 

John and his son, David Lehew, built their boat, the William D., together in 2014; it’s named after John’s father.  

For festival-goers, the regatta was like a living outdoor museum showcasing icons from another era.

Sternwheel boats were crucial to early commerce on the Ohio River because they could maneuver through shallower, not-so-wide parts of the river; now, these boats are used for luxury, rest and relaxation. 

Many captains and their families lived in their boats during regatta season so for boat owners like Lou and Linda Wendell, from St. Albans, West Virginia, the regatta was like a vacation. 

“It’s just relaxing and everybody’s entertaining to each other,” said Linda. “It’s just like a home away from home.”

Lou Wendell, captain of the Rufus B. II, stands by the wheel inside his boat. (Photo/Connor Kurek)

Lou, Linda’s husband, said he returns with his boat every year because of the comradery among the captains, built up over the years. 

“If one of the boats breaks down, one of the other captains will stop, and pick ‘em up, give ‘em assistance to help them get back to shore,” said Lou. “It’s just a great feeling to be among friends like this.”

The sternwheel owners shared meals, wine, laughs, conversation and even the space on their boats with each other. 

David Lehew stands aboard The Leport. (Photo/Connor Kurek)

The Wendells bought the Rufus B. II 18 years ago from the Bettler family at an auction.

Their boat was the oldest on Pomeroy’s dock—built in 1926 by Chicago attorney, Carl Lamback—the boat’s original name was the Freddie Boy. 

The Rufus B. II has traveled over 30,000 miles of rivers and Lou said Lamback even defended Al Capone in court and that the American gangster and businessman would’ve spent lots of time on the Wendell’s boat. 

“This is a part of history that’s slowly vanishing,” said Lou, “and people need to come look at this.”

The Rufus B. II was just one of 12 boats docked in Pomeroy over the weekend: The Wendell’s neighbors on the levy owned a sternwheel that used to be a towboat for cargo, built in 1954.

As the Wendells traveled down rivers from regatta to regatta in September, Lou said he saw onlookers come outside their houses on the riverbank to take pictures of the passing boats. 

Saturday saw the highest attendance in festival history and Lou said seeing that interest and the enthusiasm of families who come to Pomeroy keeps his hopes and all the stories that come from these boats afloat.

The next opportunity to see these sternwheelers and more up close in Southeast Ohio will be in September 2020, the weekend after Labor Day.

The 2020 Ohio River Sternwheel Festival will be held Sept. 11, 12 and 13 at the Ohio River Levee on the corner of Front and Greene Streets in downtown Marietta.

Linda and Lou Wendell share dinner and wine on their sternwheel, the Rufus B. II. (Photo/Connor Kurek)
Boat owners and families relax on their sternwheelers as the sun sets on the regatta’s final day. All the boats left Pomeroy by dawn Sunday. (Photo/Connor Kurek)