Sternwheeler to paddle into new life

MARIETTA – A decade ago the historic Claire E sternwheeler, moored on the Muskingum River just north of the Marietta High School boathouse, had been operating as a bed and breakfast under ownership of local businessman Harley Noland, now a Marietta City councilman.

The Claire E remains moored near the boathouse, but sits a lower in the water, a tarp draped over the upper deck’s midsection. Pieces of stair railing and other items are lying on the main deck.

The owner, Dr. Roger Anderson, says work is under way to return the boat to its former use. It’s taking a lot of time and money, he said.

“But we’ve been working on it through the summer, and in the next couple of months people will be able to see a lot more progress on the upper decks,” Anderson said.

Anderson said most of the work on the sternwheeler has been below the water line, and is not visible from above the surface of the river.

“It hadn’t been out of the water for 30 years, and I discovered the hull was paper-thin in some areas, so I had it placed in dry-dock and a new hull was installed, which cost around $125,000,” he said. “We had new rudders done also, which cost about $13,000, so we already have a big investment below the water line.”

Work on the upper decks will be the easy part of the restoration, Anderson said.

“But for any boat of this age, saving the hull is most important,” he said. “And making that large of an investment is a main reason why there aren’t many of these boats still on the rivers.”

Built in 1926 as a towboat to move barges on the Ohio River, Noland said the Claire E was originally known as the Diesel and records of the vessel are posted under that name.

“It was the first diesel-powered sternwheel towboat to operate on the Ohio River,” he said. “The original boat only had the pilot house, engine and sternwheel. The upper decks and a living area were added by Gene and Claire Fitch of Guntersville, Ala., from whom I purchased the boat.”

He said the Claire E had been renamed for Claire Fitch.

For 12 years, beginning around 1988, Noland lived on the boat and operated it as a bed and breakfast.

“It was listed as one of the top 10 bed and breakfasts in the nation and was featured in ‘Bed and Breakfast Magazine’ as well as in the Cincinnati Enquirer,” he said. “I had people from all over the world who would stay there.”

Anderson bought the Claire E from Noland in 2003 and took over the lease of the riverbank where the boat is moored with the city of Marietta. The original five-year lease was for $500 on execution of the lease, and $5 per linear foot of rented riverbank each year, which amounts to $920 a year for the 184-foot Claire E.

In a November 2004 letter to Marietta Councilman Mike McCauley, who was then chairman of the lands and buildings committee, Anderson confirmed his intention of the boat’s continued operation as a “unique, upscale bed and breakfast.”

Noland, who is chairman of the committee, said that use is part of the most recent lease agreement for the Claire E. But there’s no specified timeframe for the bed and breakfast operation to begin.

Law Director Paul Bertram III said the contract also does not state whether Anderson’s continuing investment and renovation of the boat with the intention of eventually operating the sternwheeler as a bed and breakfast meets the terms of the lease.

In 2009 council brought eviction proceedings against the owner of the former Becky Thatcher Showboat that had been moored along the east bank of the Muskingum River since the 1970s. That boat was eventually moved to the Pittsburgh area where it sank in 2010.

But Bertram said the Becky Thatcher’s owner did not have a lease and was not paying rent for the space where it was moored.

“Anderson is paying for his lease, but if operating the boat as a bed and breakfast is a major condition of the agreement, it would be up to council to determine if he is following the terms of the lease to their expectations,” he said.

On Wednesday, Anderson said he’s still open to the bed and breakfast plan, but would also entertain the possibility of making the vessel available for other uses, including for corporate meetings or other special events.

Also, the Claire E is fully functional and can be piloted along area rivers and there’s been interest from The History Channel about using the sternwheeler in production of a special series airing next spring, Anderson said.