As the Flavia. (Dan Owen Boat Photo Museum collection)
Old Boat Column

The W.C. Kelly, Vanguard Of A Major Barge Line

Last week in the June 5, 2023, issue of The Waterways Journal, it was noted in the “This Week (From back issues of the WJ)” column that 100 years ago the diesel towboat W.C. Kelly of the Kelly Axe Company was on its maiden trip to Pittsburgh. Kelly Axe had origins dating to the mid-1800s when a William Kelly and his brother John established Kelly & Company, an iron works at Eddyville, Ky. This eventually led to the manufacture of steel and a move to Louisville, Ky. Under William’s son William C. Kelly, the company became the Kelly Axe Mfg. Company. In 1896, the company relocated to Alexandria, Ind., and in 1904 a final move was made to Charleston, W.Va. The impetus for these last two moves was to ensure enough natural gas availability for the manufacturing process.

The Kelly Axe Mfg. Company, known also as the Kelly Axe & Tool Works, Kelly Works and Kelly Axe Company grew to be one of the major axe manufacturers in the world. In the early 1920s, the Kelly company took an interest in river transportation. In 1923, the Charles Ward Engineering Works, also of Charleston, delivered several pieces of floating stock to the Kelly Axe Mfg. Company. This fleet consisted of a derrick boat, a covered barge and three open barges. To handle these barges, Ward also constructed a diesel-powered sternwheel towboat named, appropriately, W.C. Kelly.

Diesel power for towing vessels was in its infancy when the W.C. Kelly began operations. The boat was of all-steel construction with a hull measuring 90 feet by 23.2 feet. It was a sternwheel vessel with pitman drive to a 200 hp. Fairbanks-Morse engine. It had a single cabin with a large pilothouse situated forward on the roof. A large single smokestack was behind the pilothouse.

Two years later, in 1925, Kelly took delivery of the twin-screw diesel towboat Geo. T. Price (WJ, April 21, 2021) which was listed in the Ward records as having been built for Kelly Transportation Company. In 1926, Ward shows nine more barges being delivered between January and August, but the owners are noted as the Kelly Axe & Tool Company. An additional eight barges were built between October 1926 and July 1927 and were shown for the W.C. Kelly Barge Line. In April 1927, a near sister to the Price named W.A. Shepard was delivered to the Kelly Barge Line, followed by the diesel sternwheel Duncan Bruce (WJ, February 24, 2022) in July of that year.

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In latter 1927 W.C. Kelly joined with Andrew and Patrick Calhoun to form American Barge Line. (ABL was the forerunner to today’s ACBL.) W.C. Kelly was the president of the new concern. Patrick Calhoun Jr. was first vice president, and Andrew P. Calhoun was second vice president. The towboat W.C. Kelly was in service then for ABL, and the only photo this writer has of it depicts it in tow with several other ABL boats and the Str. Tu-Endi-We, helping to shove the pass at old Lock 29 on the Ohio River at Ashland, Ky. (WJ, December 26, 2022).

In late 1935, it sank at Eddyville, Ky., on the Cumberland River. It was raised and sold to Earl Webster of Pittsburgh, who in turn sold it to West Penn Sand & Gravel Company, Rochester. Pa. West Penn repowered the boat with a 300 hp. Fairbanks engine and changed the name to Flavia. In addition to herding sand and gravel barges, the Flavia took part in the opening ceremonies at the Montgomery Locks and Dam at Ohio River Mile 31.7 in June 1936. A photo taken at the time shows the boat rigged with an awning behind the pilothouse, decked out in flags and bunting and towing an empty sand flat loaded with people.

As the Charles Z. Jr. under Zubik ownership. (Dan Owen Boat Photo Museum collection)
As the Charles Z. Jr. under Zubik ownership. (Dan Owen Boat Photo Museum collection)

The Flavia was in the fleet of West Penn until it was sold in December 1944 to Charles Zubik of Pittsburgh. In April 1945, he renamed the boat Charles Z. Jr. In 1962, it was again repowered with another Fairbanks-Morse diesel of 450 hp. At some point earlier, the pitman drive had been removed in favor of a gear drive to split sternwheels.

The boat was owned by Zubik until about 1970 when the Zubik assets were sold off. Capt. Robert H. Bosworth’s G&C Towing acquired several pieces, including a landing boat that had been the former sidewheel dredge Henry Flad of the U S Engineers, the diesel sternwheeler Harry Z and the Charles Z. Jr. The two towboats were dismantled and were last listed in the 1970 edition of the Inland River Record.

Caption for top photo: As the Flavia. (Dan Owen Boat Photo Museum collection)