Living History Takes Shape on the River

Morgantown Dominion Post
21 June 2015
By Conor Griffith

The shores of the Monongahela River will have a new addition in the future as an early 1800s-era flatboat takes form in Morgantown.

Saturday morning marked the beginning of what will hopefully become a community project to bring the region’s history to life.

Steve Stathakis, who lives outside Morgantown, and carpenter Paul Kinkus started the project by crafting saw horses at the mouth of Deckers Creek, in Hazel Ruby McQuain Park. This is the first step toward completing an exhibit on the river featuring authentic clothing, music, refreshments and a feel for the time period.

Only the tools, materials and methods that were available in the early 19th century are to be used, the same era that marked the golden age of flatboat use on America’s rivers.

As a carpenter, Kinkus said he has always been fascinated by the methods used in the past. “They didn’t have electric routers and a lot of the stuff they have today,” he said. “There were a lot of very skilled people back then with more limitations than we have today.”

Kinkus said the flatboat project will be happening during the summer and everyone is invited to come roll up their sleeves and participate, or simply stop by and learn about the history of the boats.

“It might take all summer; it might take two summers and that’s OK,” Stathakis said. He said the more individuals and businesses that help out, the faster the boat will be finished, possibly by the end of the summer. Work will proceed from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays this summer.

WVU is providing some old ash and maple for the project, while the West Virginia Humanities Council provided some grant money.

Stathakis said the boat will be 30 feet long and 10 feet wide when completed and feature a cabin on top.

These boats were used to settle Tennessee by floating down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers — they’re basically glorified barges,” he said.

Flatboats rely only on the river’s current and an operated sweep to move. Once travelers reached their destination, the boats were often taken apart and the wood was sold or used to build homes.

Michael Kerns, one of Morgantown’s earliest prominent entrepreneurs, built flatboats, which were also the primary means to bring goods to market.

Stathakis said steamboats spelled the end for flatboats, but they were still used for years after the first steamers appeared.

“They were used through the 1860s and probably longer,” he said. “They were inexpensive — you could build one out of trees on your farm and didn’t have to pay anyone for transportation.”

Stathakis said these boats changed history in another fashion: In the early 1800s, a farm boy from Illinois took two trips down the Mississippi to sell farm goods in New Orleans, and in the process was exposed to the brutal realities of the American slave trade.

“That farmer grew up to be the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, so don’t tell me flatboats didn’t play a role in our history,” Stathakis said.