|Back||Kanawha Rivermen Produced nearly 30 Steamboat Captains, Pilots|
By W. H. McGinnis, compliments of Don Wright,
County Clerk of Putnam County, Winfield, WVa
From rafts to screw propellers, from peaceful packets to war-time blockade runners ---Such is the story of the Wrights, one of whom is shown holding the gun that commemorates the most spectacular event in the history of the old Kanawha river men, which in five generations has produced about 30 Steamboat Captains, Pilots and Engineers.
The rifle was presented by the city of Gallipolis, Ohio to Stapleton Crutchfield Wright, pilot, for running the Confederate blockade on the Kanawha River, near Frazier’s Bottom, March 29, 1863. The boat was the Victory No.4 carrying supplies through Confederate lines. Sharpshooters lining the river bank fired at the pilot. One bullet went through Wright’s hat. Another struck wood and sent splinters into his hands. A third bullet he later picked out of the pilot wheel. Wright stuck to his post, shaking his fists at the fools. Two horses on board were killed, but the rest of the cargo was only slightly damaged when delivered at Gallipolis. The rifle is now one of the prized possessions of Stapleton C. Wright and Capt. James S. Wright of Winfield, and is shown in the picture in the hands of the latter’s son, Ralph.
For many years before the Civil War, the Wrights had roamed the river. The first was Alexander, who in the 1840’s joined the steady stream of migration from Culpeper County, VA to the Kanawha Valley. That was before the dams were built in the Kanawha River, and boats had to have a draft of not more than 30 inches to navigate. Great quantities of lumber were shipped down the river in the form of rafts or flatboats. These were broken up when they reached their destination, and the lumber was used for construction or other purposes.
After the first system of dams was built, packet boats and smaller craft plied the river daily. Each plantation along the river had its own steamboat landing, and as there were no improved highways, shipping and traveling for both business and pleasure were mainly by steamboat.
Throughout that period from rafts to steamboats, one of the most skillful of the river men was Alexander Wright, and it was said that no salt water tar could surpass that freshwater boat man in picturesqueness of language. He lived to be 97 years old and is remembered by the older Wrights today.
Alexander’s five sons, all of whom became steamboat captains, were Stapleton C. Wright and James H. Wright of Scary; William Penn Wright of Pliny; Claiborne Wright of near Leon; and George Wright of Poca.
The brothers at Scary married the Dudding sisters—Stapleton married Lois Eretts and James H. took Emmeline for his bride. Stapleton lived in the little dwelling on the Winfield road a few hundred feet down the river from the present summer camp of D. Jackson Savage, former Judge of Kanawha Intermediate Court. James H. lived in the old house on top of the cliff nearby, overlooking Nitro and now occupied by his son Lorenzo and daughter, Mrs. Margaret Simms.
James H. Wright was the first captain on the towboat Mount Clare and served on the towboat Lookout and on the George Matheson. He was the first pilot on the Ohio Marmet and also piloted the packet boat Kanawha Belle.
William Penn Wright, the best business man of the five brothers, saved his money, invested wisely, acquired property and soon owned a steamboat, which was named for him. He married several times and outlived all but the last of his wives; if traditions are true, he was as brusque in his wooing as in his piloting. After the death of one of his wives, the story goes, he heard of a likely widow up Eighteen-Mile Creek. Mounting a horse, he rode to her home, introduced himself as the steamboat Captain William Penn Wright, and announced immediately that he wanted a wife. Startled by the sudden proposal from a man whom she had never met before, she murmured something to the effect that it was so sudden.
“There is no use mincing words,” he is quoted as saying. “If you are not interested, I’ll ride on.” She was interested and they were married.
George Wright, another captain, was a mild man who did not indulge in profanity. He lived between Nitro and Poca and part of his estate is now owned by his granddaughter, Hilda “Billie” Wright, until recently an employee of the State Road Commission. At the deaths of George Wright and his wife, the Wright river men chartered a steamboat each time to transport relatives and friends from Winfield to Scary to attend the funerals.
The third generation of Wrights on the river includes four sons of William Penn Wright, namely: Capt. Thomas Wright, Capt. James “Shoofly” Wright, Capt. William of the Bee and the Rumley and the John.
Six sons of James J. Wright served in various positions. John Charles of Scary was a striker engineer. Capt. Henry Lorenzo Wright of Scary, a licensed pilot, who because of his age does not care for the responsibility of pilot, is now serving as a cook on a steamboat. Capt. James Franklin “Frank” Wright is pilot on the towboat Joe Cook. Major Anderson Wright (Major is a family name) was a pilot and engineer. Lewis Boston Wright and Frederic F. Wright were towboat cooks.
Five sons of Stapleton Wright entered different departments of steamboat work. Capt. James S. Wright, Winfield, operates towboats of the West Virginia Sand and Gravel Co. John William “Doc” Wright operates the Gallipolis Ferry. Edward was an engineer, Eugene, a cook and watchman and Lemuel W. a cook.
Three sons of George who chose river careers were: James Brady Wright, George A. Wright and Henry Wright, all captains and pilots.
The fourth generation of Wrights on the river includes three sons of Capt. Thomas Wright, Capt. Francis Wright, Buffalo, Capt. Loyal Wright and Dana Wright, engineer of Henderson.
William Wright’s son Gus, a former steamboat pilot, is now a railroad engineer.
Major Wright’s sons on river boats are Henry Stapleton Wright, a fireman, and R.C. Wright, Sr. who operates the ferry at Ravenswood on the Ohio River.
Capt. James S. Wright has had three pilot sons, Capt. William McKinley Wright, Master of the Rahaun, Capt. Harry on the Slack Barrett, and Capt. Andrew on the West Virginia Sand and Gravel Co. fleet. A fourth son, Ralph, an entertainer, has beat drums on show boats to the rhythm of the waves.
Edward Wright’s two sons, Russell and Irwin, an engineer, work on boats in the Pittsburgh district.
The fifth generation of the river Wrights includes R.C. Jr., who helps his father run the Ravenswood ferry and probably others.
Other descendants of Alexander Wright through marriages of daughters into other families have worked also on river craft in various capacities.
Loving the larger streams in all moods, no wind or rain, no snow or ice, no fog or flood has cooled the devotion of the Wrights to Ole’ Man River.