The Towboat Tornado
Built at Brownsville, Pa., by the Axton yard in 1895, the towboat Tornado was constructed, to specifications drawn by J.M. Hammitt, on a wooden hull that measured 150 feet in length, 28 feet in width and having a depth of four feet. James Rees installed the boilers that provided steam to engines (recycled from the towboat J.S. Mercer) having 17-inch cylinders with a 6-foot stroke.
The new boat was completed in just 54 days and owned by the Posey & Sebolt line. Cumberland Washington Posey was an African-American businessman who was part-owner of several coal and towing companies; he superintended the construction of some 11 towboats and owned three of them outright. With the assistance of several partners, Posey (who was known as “Cap”) also established in 1910 a successful newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier.
The riverboats Posey owned were named Cyclone, Tornado and Volcano. All of them were engaged in towing coal between Pittsburgh and Louisville.
Capt. J.C. Kitchell was the first master of the Tornado and remained in that capacity for much of the time it operated. Other crew members and officers serving in 1897 included Capt. William Boles and Capt. Frank Williams, pilots; Sam Davidson and Howard Cavett, engineers; Harry Carlton, mate; and Elisha McLaughlin, steward. Capt. Kitchell bore an uncanny resemblance to the elder John D. Rockefeller, and in 1930 had his picture run in a Cincinnati newspaper alongside an image of the early oil magnate.
The Tornado moved a record tow in 1897 (from Pittsburgh to Louisville) consisting of 5,200 tons of steel products. In May 1898, the steamboat towed 16 loaded barges and six coalboats, again from Pittsburgh to Louisville, considered quite a remarkable feat for a boat of its size. By 1900, the Tornado was owned by the famous Combine firm of towboats, under the command of Capt. Harry Black with Capt. Henry Lindenburn and Capt. Frank Lindsay as pilots.
While upbound near midnight on the Ohio River at Possum Bar (2 miles below Clarington, Ohio) on August 1, 1908, the Tornado ran aground. On this particular trip, Capt. George Henning was master with John Henning presiding in the engineroom. Other rivermen in the crew included Reuben Brown, mate; Lee Smith, watchman; Joe Mitchell, fireman; and Ed Joyce, steward. With the river stage at 4.5 feet and falling, the boat was soon high and dry. The stranded steamboat became something of a curiosity and was not released until the river rose on the day before Thanksgiving.
The Tornado took the first tow of coal from Pittsburgh to Steubenville, Ohio, for the La Belle Iron Works, arriving there on January 25, 1917. Later that summer, the towboat was sold to Mexico and taken to New Orleans to await its crossing of the Gulf. After a delay of several years, the delivery trip was begun in 1921, but the boat sank off the Mississippi Jetties while en route to the Panuco River and was a total loss.
Caption for photo: The towboat Tornado high and dry at Possum Creek Bar on the Ohio River in 1908. The tarpaulins placed along the hull and over the paddlewheel are protecting the wood from becoming too dry. (Keith Norrington collection)
Editor’s note: For questions or suggestions regarding the Old Boat Column, Keith Norrington may be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com, or by mail through the Howard Steamboat Museum at P.O. Box 606, Jeffersonville, Ind. 47131-0606.