by Nathan Lynn

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I recently had the fortune of visiting the Ohio River Museum in Marietta, Ohio as part of the 2015 Inland Waterways Festival. I was speaking on Mary Wheeler and the African American Folk Songs of the Roustabouts. Between engagements I was doing a bit of research and admiring the displays on hand. Much to my surprise was a model of the sternwheeler the JOE FOWLER, constructed by the late Frederick Way Jr.

The JOE FOWLER, described best by Frederick Way Jr. himself in Ways Packet Directory, 1848-1983 (Way 3031), was a wooden hull packet boat built in 1888 at Howard Shipyard in Jeffersonville, Indiana for the Fowler family. She was named for the notable Paducah river man Captain Joseph Fowler and originally set to run the Evansville-Paducah trade along with the JOHN S. HOPKINS.

11878967_428369510684153_7300692720789436818_oWhile the JOE FOWLER went on to run for a long time on the upper Ohio, her years in the Paducah-Evansville trade are noteworthy. According to the Paducah Daily News, she landed in Paducah for the first time with Capt. Joe aboard on September 11, 1888. She departed the next morning at 6:00 a.m. for Evansville and returned the next night at 10:00 p.m., finishing the first trip in her trade. Way notes that, “On May 1, 1895, she had completed in seven years a total of 327,000 miles as a U.S. Mail steamer, and had carried some 152,400 passengers without a life loss.” Capt. Joe Fowler himself departed Paducah on a relief effort on April 21, 1902 and was the first boat to arrive at the site of the burning of the steamboat CITY OF PITTSBURGH.

Ms. Mary Wheeler describes the JOE FOWLER in her book Steamboatin’ Days as, “…one of the most popular packets on the river. She was named for a member of a family vividly identified with historical events on the Western Waters-the Mississippi River and its tributaries.” Wheeler also notes that the roustabouts called her the “Jumpin’ Joe” due to her speed and the waves she left in her path. Wheeler notes that her whistle was especially distinctive and musical giving one very long blast. Mary goes on to state that, “The JOE FOWLER was a luxurious boat, and every care was taken to insure the comfort and pleasure of her passengers. The ladies’ cabins were beautifully equipped, and in the main salon the white and gold woodwork was carved in delicate and exquisite designs.” Numerous roustabout songs that appear in Wheeler’s book mention the JOE FOWLER, including the pensive, “The Joe Fowler Blue,” in which the roustabouts sang, “…seems like I heerd the Joe Fowler blow…” in which the words paint a picture of the roustabouts waiting on the levee and dreaming that they hear the JOE FOWLER coming around Owen Island, soon to arrive in Paducah with their loved one onboard.

Capt. Way goes on to note in his Packet Directory that, in 1912, she was moved to Parkersburg, WV where she was eventually rebuilt to run mainly on the upper Ohio. Minus a few Mardi Gras excursions, she ran Wheeling-Bellaire, Pittsburgh-Louisville, and Parkersburg-Pittsburg. Eventually the JOE FOWLER was condemned and sold to Capt. Jeff H. Williams and made into the excursion boat CRESCENT (Way 1368) at Evansville, IN in 1919, which burned in winter quarters on the Green River on November 17, 1920.

To learn more about the Jumpin’ Joe or other legends of the Western Waters, have a visit to the Campus Martius and Ohio River Museum or stop by the Local and Family History Department at your McCracken County Public Library.

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Nathan Lynn