The Reliance at the Standard Terminal at Pittsburgh, 1925. (Dan Owen Boat Photo Museum collection)
Old Boat Column

The ‘Goose That Laid The Golden Egg’ For UBL

In the Old Boat column of the June 19 issue regarding the Sam Craig, brief mention was made of the Reliance. It was an important part of the beginnings of Union Barge Line (UBL), and it was referred to by Capt. Frederick Way Jr. as being the “goose that laid the golden egg” for that firm.

Charles T. Campbell, one of the founders of UBL, had an earlier company—incorporated as Reliable Towing Company—that owned a steam towboat named Old Reliable.  In 1916, the Old Reliable towed a wooden barge containing cylindrical steel tanks that could hold some 1,200 gallons of gasoline. This movement was for the Atlantic Refining Company from Sistersville, W.Va., to a terminal on the Allegheny River at Pittsburgh.

In 1923, Campbell formed UBL and secured a contract with Standard Oil of New Jersey to tow gasoline from a refinery at Parkersburg, W.Va., to various locations. To perform the towing required by this contract, the steamer Hecla was purchased from Hillman Transportation.

The Hecla was originally the Active, built at Elizabeth, Pa., in 1916 by the Pittsburgh Coal Company. The sternwheel boat had a wood hull measuring 140.9 feet by 26 feet, and the wheel was 19 feet in diameter, with 15 buckets, each 16 feet long with a 36-inch dip. It was equipped with three boilers and, according to Way’s Steam Towboat Directory, the engines were 14’s – 7 foot stroke, rated 339 hp. The engines had previously been on the Little Fred, which had been built at Pittsburgh in 1881 and was dismantled at Elizabeth the year before the Active was constructed. The Active was the first of a series of “alphabet” boats built by Pittsburgh Coal, followed by the Beacon and Conqueror. In March 1918, the Active was sold to Hillman Transportation Company, which renamed it Hecla. While the Hecla was in service for Hillman (sometimes referred to as Hillman Coal & Coke Company), Way’s states that Capt. Rube Brown Sr. was master “for some time.”

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Listings in both Way’s and the Inland River Record show the boat was sold to UBL in 1924, but in a detailed biography of Charles T. Campbell by Capt. Way in the June 1973 issue of the S&D Reflector, the date is given as 1923. This article also gives the purchase price of the Hecla as $30,000. UBL changed the name to Reliance, and the boat with its tow of tank barges became a familiar sight on the Upper Ohio River, often venturing up the Kanawha River to Charleston, W.Va., and after March 1927 all the way to Fairmont, W.Va. on the Monongahela River.

Str. Reliance on the Allegheny at Pittsburgh with a gas tow in 1939. (U.S. Engineers photo)
Str. Reliance on the Allegheny at Pittsburgh with a gas tow in 1939. (U.S. Engineers photo)

The first master of the Reliance for UBL was Capt. John G. Britton. After the fall of 1932 it was Capt. Albert Gilmore, who was succeeded by Capt. Rube Brown Sr. (who had been master of the Hecla) in April 1937. After Capt. Brown the boat was commanded by Capt. Walter C. Booth of Clarington, Ohio. Capt. Booth had long been associated with the packet Liberty, which is generally regarded as the last of the Upper Ohio River packets. The Liberty bowed out of the packet business in June 1936 and then towed showboats until caught on the lower Ohio during the great 1937 flood. It finally returned under its own power to Parkersburg, W.Va., in late February 1937 and never ran again.

Capt. Booth would be master of the Reliance for the rest of its career. In 1930 the boat was rebuilt, and again in 1942 it underwent a rebuilding at Paducah, Ky. By 1942, UBL had several modern towboats in the fleet, including three large diesel vessels. One would have to assume that the wooden Reliance was rebuilt due to the war effort, as well as the fact that it had a reputation as a very good boat for its size and power. Following the Paducah rebuilding, it was towing from Mount Vernon, Ind., to Midland, Pa., for much of the war. In 1946, it was retired and sold to Charles Zubik of Pittsburgh. It sank in the Allegheny River at Pittsburgh on March 14, 1947, and was raised and dismantled. Later photos show it in use as a landing boat.

This writer must confess to smiling when thinking of what the safety professionals and the Coast Guard of today would think if they were to witness a coal-burning, fire-breathing steamboat towing gasoline barges. However, the Reliance did this for some 22 years, with very few incidents. The boat itself suffered a sinking in the mouth of the Little Kanawha River at Parkersburg in 1925 but was raised and returned to service. Two of the gasoline barges in tow exploded and burned at Huntington, W.Va., in 1925, and in the later years of service under Capt. Booth there was a fire on a barge that was successfully extinguished. These barge incidents did not do any damage to the boat itself.

In 1947, UBL had a new 2,240 hp. diesel towboat built at Dravo, Neville Island, Pa. It was christened Reliance and would operate for many years under different owners without a name change, but that is a story for another day.

Caption for top photo: The Reliance at the Standard Terminal at Pittsburgh, 1925. (Dan Owen Boat Photo Museum collection)