Amherst Madison Honors Nelson Jones

Waterways Journal
16 May 2011
By H. Nelson Spencer

Formerly the L. Fiore, the 5,600 hp. O. Nelson Jones works for Ingram Barge Company.

When Amherst Madison christened the mv. O. Nelson Jones at its landing April 29, the ceremony was distinguished by the blare of a trumpet that filled the West Virginia evening with "Amazing Grace." It was as joyful an occasion as Amherst Madison had intended and a fitting tribute to the boat's namesake, the company's late president who died last year at 52 after a long battle with cancer.

"The christening is very significant. We wanted to name a boat after Nelson, but what we're trying to have here today is not a memorial service, as much as it is a celebration," said Charles T. Jones, chairman of Amherst Madison and Nelson's father. His sentiment was echoed by Keith Blount, Amherst's vice president of construction, who, before giving the invocation, beseeched everyone to "Rejoice and be glad!"

The gathering drew close to 300 people, some of whom had flown in from Nashville, Paducah and St. Louis. "Nelson had many, many friends," allowed his father, "and he did a great job for the company." He was named president when he was 24, at a time when the company was struggling, and it now operates over 30 boats.

The renaming celebration was supposed to have taken place at Charleston's riverfront park, but high water on the Kanawha River prevented that. The renamed towboat was previously the Pennsylvania, a 164-foot vessel that Amherst Madison has owned since 2004. It was built in 1964 by St. Louis Shipbuilding as the L. Fiore for Midland Enterprises. Amherst bought it from Ingram Barge Company, for whom the boat works today.

Speaking at the ceremony, Nelson's brother, C. Tandy, described his sibling's "encyclopedic memory" and his love of the river and boats. He said as an eight-year old, Nelson could name every model of car on the road, which was a skill that, "fortunately for us," he later transferred to boats.

Soon after, he converted a wooden yawl into an 18-foot sternwheeler that he named the W.F. Sullivan after the Amherst carpenter who helped him build it, and his love affair with boats grew from
there, said Tandy. Whenever Nelson was on that boat, he said, "a happier lad you never saw."

"I can think of no finer tribute (than naming this boat for him). He was a wonderful brother and a wonderful man."

His vast knowledge of boats was also mentioned by Amherst's vice president-operations, Alan Hall, who told the crowd that Nelson knew every boat in the fleet "from stem to stern," every piece of the boats' equipment and every crewmember. "No one interacted better with the crews than he did. He was a hands-on guy, an amazing person," and if someone had a problem with a boat, he'd better know what he was talking about, because Nelson sure did, he said.

The crews (current and relief) were present at the ceremony: Capts. Bobby Smith and Paul Randolph, pilots Rick Haney and Mark Handley, engineers Addison Moore and Johnny Darnell, mates Brent King and Richard Chapman, second mate Eric Taylor, and deckhands William Wallace, Billy Tackett, Tracy Barker and David Russell.

They did a great job readying the boat for the ceremony, Hall said, as anyone who toured it could attest. For a boat that's almost 50 years old, it is in remarkable shape. Amherst's, and Nelson's, formula for success was always to obtain vessels with solid, heavily built hulls, and then restore and painstakingly maintain them.

Company workers replaced the Fairbanks-Morse engines on the namesake boat with a pair of GM 16-645E7B diesels in 2006, upping its horse-power to 5,600.

Not to escape mention at the renaming ceremony was Nelson Jones' sense of humor. Longtime friend and towing industry associate Omer Coleman, who worked with Nelson when he was general manager at Crounse Corporation's Maysville, Ky., office and chairman of the Huntington Waterways Association, told a few humorous stories. One was about the time he and Nelson went boar hunting, and the taxidermist balked at Nelson's wanting to adorn the mounted boar's head with a pair of deer antlers. Then, he said, there was the time he led a band at a Vicksburg bar in a stirring rendition of "Country Roads" for all his friends from West Virginia, who were there for a Corps of Engineers meeting.

Nor did his involvement with pleasure boaters and the Charleston Sternwheel Regatta, which he founded, go unnoticed. Tom Pile, fleet commander of the Great Kanawha River Navy, presented a plaque to the mv. O. Nelson Jones for Nelson's role in establishing the great camaraderie that exists between the marine industry and recreational boaters on the Kanawha River.

When he was 12, Jones persuaded the mayor of Charleston to hold a race between five sternwheelers at the city's waterfront.
The event morphed into a Labor Day celebration that, over its 35-plus-year run, was named the best festival in the southeast by a national magazine. Name bands, parades, food fests and all types of side attractions throughout the city were added. Thousands attended, but when it lost its focus, Jones withdrew his support and it faded away.

Hall presented ship's Bibles and flags to the vessel's captains, and Nelson's wife, Robyn, broke the champagne bottle over the boat's second deck. She was accompanied by Nelson's sisters, Laura Pray and Jennifer Jones.

The fact that the trumpeter was Joseph S. Lewis IV hints at the rich history of Amherst Madison. His late father and uncle were principal stockholders of the company and served on the board of directors. The my J.S. Lewis, a 1930s steamboat that Amherst bought in the late 1950s, dieselized and still uses for entertainment, bears his name. Nelson and Robyn spent their honeymoon on it.

Amherst Madison's roots date back to 1893, when, as the successor to Star Coal & Coke Company, it produced coal for conversion to foundry coke. Known as Madison Coal & Supply in 1915, the firm bought its first barges some 30 years later and added more — plus two coal-fired sternwheel towboats — when it purchased the Hatfield Campbell Creek Coal Company in 1951.

Many artifacts are on display at Port Amherst in a museum that Nelson helped establish.

The more than 30 towboats the company operates today are between 800 and 5,600 hp. The company also has 11 floating cranes between 90- and 300-ton capacity, a fleet of large deck barges and an assortment of auxiliary barges.

Besides towing on the Kanawha, Monongahela and Ohio rivers, the company operates a terminal at Port Amherst, repairs boats and barges at Charleston and Henderson, W.Va., and performs marine construction and salvage work on the Ohio River and its tributaries.