Man ready to ply Monongahela waters with renovated riverboat

By DAVE ZUCHOWSKI, (Washington) Observer-Reporter
MILLSBORO, Pa. (AP) — While piloting a tow boat on the Mississippi, Michael Hughes spotted a boat he recognized about 4 or 5 miles downriver near Tunica, Miss. It was a 125-foot-long, 35-foot-wide riverboat with three decks, whose stern was rebuilt at a shipyard he once managed.
“I recognized the boat from that far away,” he said.
Hughes, a former tow boat captain, decided to buy the boat in 2016 with “a bunch of my retirement and discretionary funds.” Following his purchase, he and two friends navigated the boat 1,274 miles up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to a dock near his home in Millsboro.
In view from his back yard, the ship is currently undergoing as much restoration as the Coast Guard will allow before it’s dry docked at Campbell Transportation in Dunlevy. There, the boat will get its final restoration work, as well as any necessary repairs prior to its inspection by the Coast Guard.
“From day one, we started with the idea of being a green (eco-friendly) boat,” Hughes said. “With a (federal) grant, we’re putting in new engines and propeller system to make the boat more efficient and reduce emissions. We’re also complying with all Coast Guard regulations and standards. In effect, we’re taking an old boat and making it new again.”
Operating under the business name of Access H2O, Hughes plans to make Morgantown, W.Va., the boat’s home port. He hopes that by spring of next year, the Mountaineer Star will begin offering excursions and dinner, dance and sightseeing cruises along the Monongahela and serve as a platform for more private events such as proms, weddings, children’s theme events and graduation parties.
“Our business footprint will be from Morgantown south to Fairmont and from Morgantown north to Charleroi,” Hughes said. “To save client drive time, we’ll bring the boat to them instead of having them come to the boat.”
The vessel can hold 325 passengers for casual cruising and 240 for formal sit-down events such as proms and weddings. The plan is to operate the boat throughout the year, weather permitting. If the river freezes in winter, the boat will remain static at the dock at the north end of Hazel Ruby McQuain Park in Morgantown, but be available for events, parties and other functions.
While the boat will have on-board confections and small food items available for purchase, Hughes plans to have local restaurants cater the excursions and private events.
“Rather than be a competitor with local restaurants, the Mountaineer Star will be more of a partner,” said Hughes, who was born and raised in Brownsville. “I see the boat as an economic driver to start to daisy chain some of these small river communities together. Fortunately, we can put the boat in along the river at any point that’s safe for the vessel and passengers.”
Hughes recognizes the excursions won’t be able to duplicate the awe factor people who ride the Gateway Clipper Fleet in Pittsburgh experience. Instead, he said the underdeveloped beauty of the riverfront makes up for what it might lack in urban glitter. There’s also the spectacle of autumn leaves that can be experienced by boat. From time to time, he also plans to bring a historian onboard to talk about the area’s past, where it’s at now and where it’s going in the future.
To connect with both the broader area as well as the smaller communities along the Mon, he’s met with senators, congressmen, county commissioners and mayors. He’s also a member of the Morgantown Riverfront Revitalization Task Force, which includes Morgantown’s mayor, city manager, city councilmen and a local kayak group, the Morgantown Area Paddlers.
You might say that piloting a riverboat is in Hughes’ genes. His father, Isaac Hughes, was also a riverboat captain for 48 years. Even though Hughes plans to hire a captain to pilot the Mountaineer Star as part of his 12-employee start-up crew, he’ll also pilot the boat himself on occasion.
“If I have my way, I’ll be pushing people out of the way to captain the boat,” Hughes joked.
A manufacturer in Dubuque, Iowa, constructed the riverboat in 1965. Dubbed the Biscayne Belle, the boat took passengers on Miami-based excursions until the late John Connelly, former owner of the Gateway Clipper fleet in Pittsburgh, purchased the vessel in the mid-1970s. In 2006, the Gateway Belle, as it was then called, relocated to Tunica, Miss., after a new owner took possession. There it remained until Hughes bought the boat two years ago with the intention of refurbishing it to make it river-excursion worthy.
“I am excited about this venture not only for myself, my family and Access H2O, but also for the small communities on the Upper Monongahela,” Hughes said.