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Dunbar couple sells 'Spirit of West Virginia' sternwheeler

DUNBAR, W.Va. -- For the last four years, Capt. Dick Daugherty has lived out a dream at the helm of his "Spirit of West Virginia" sternwheeler.

But next month, the 54-year-old Dunbar resident will bid bon voyage to his dream — and the boat — as it sails off to a new home under a new captain in the deep South.

Daugherty and his wife Nancy announced Tuesday they've sold the Spirit of West Virginia, the last remaining commercial passenger vessel docked in the Kanawha Valley, to a boat operator from Louisiana.

The couple hadn't been marketing the boat for sale. Dick Daugherty said running the sternwheeler has been a labor of love since he bought the vessel, then known as the "Spirit of South Charleston," from Frank Burdette in 2009.

"We've had a great time with it," Daugherty said.

But after four seasons of hosting private parties and offering commercial tours during fairs and festivals along the river, the couple began to notice they were running short on time for other things in life.

Both work full-time: Dick Daugherty owns West Virginia Used Auto Sales in Cross Lanes, Nancy is associate

director of the West Virginia University Geriatric Education Center in Charleston.

"From basically March through October (the Spirit of West Virginia) is another full-time job that we've engaged in," Dick Daugherty said.

He said that leaves little time to drive down to Charlotte to visit their 13- and 10-year-old grandchildren.

"We're missing our grandkids growing up," Daugherty said.

So when a retired tugboat operator from Louisiana approached the couple saying he had heard about the boat and wanted to buy it, they saw it as an opportunity to free up some more time for family.

"He made us an offer we couldn't refuse, essentially," Daugherty said, "because he came to us at a moment where we thought we ought to be doing something different than running a riverboat."

Daugherty has grown up along (and on) the Kanawha River. He bought his first johnboat when he was 12, and spent much of his free time during his teens on the water.

Back in the early 1970s, though, that wasn't a popular form of recreation in the Kanawha Valley, he said. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Water Act were still in their infancy, and the Kanawha River was highly tainted by the valley's chemical companies.

"The only river traffic really back then were the towboats," Daugherty said. "The river was kind of orangeish and there were no fish, at least none that you could eat if you caught them."

The cleanup of the river has spawned a new recreational boating atmosphere, complete with bass tournaments, marinas and other boater-friendly events.

"I've grown up watching it evolve into really nice recreation right here in our backyard," Daugherty said.

In the late 1970s, Daugherty joined his fraternity brother Ross Tuckwiller, then general manager of the P.A. Denny, as a bartender and deckhand on the popular sternwheeler.

By then, the Sternwheel Regatta had started up and Daugherty got to see boats come in from ports all along the Ohio and Mississippi river basins.

"I became enamored with sternwheelers — the way of life and the people," he said. "You'd see all these boats come in town from Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Marietta and different places, and I always thought 'man, I'd love to have one of those boats.'

"So my dream came true," he said.

His best memories came from taking school or senior groups out on the river. He said young and old alike always seem to get a kick out of going out on the water.

"It's romantic, nostalgic," Daugherty said. "It's a civilized way to travel.

"You see a lot of things from the perspective of the river that you don't see from the road or up in the sky," he said. "You can see West Virginia from a different way — that's the way people used to see it, before the hard road and the railroad, when we got around on boats and horses."

Daugherty said he also enjoyed taking people on commercial boat rides during the recent state Sesquicentennial celebrations in Charleston. He said it made him feel like he was a part of the state's history.

While he has run the Spirit of West Virginia as a business, he said a sternwheeler owner shouldn't approach it from the perspective of making it a highly profitable venture.

Among the expenses are $300 annual U.S. Coast Guard inspections, required employee drug testing, which he said has run him about $600 a season, and then also having to purchase enough insurance to cover a $1 million liability for each passenger he plans to carry.

While he's been able to make money on the cruises, Daugherty said he learned to look at the sternwheeler operation as former P.A. Denny owner Lawson Hamilton did, as a public service, not a profit generator.

"He was a philanthropist and he always gave back to the community," Daugherty said of Hamilton.

"He had the idea that he would associate that boat with Charleston, let it be here and help make up the difference if it lost money or help fix it if it breaks," Daugherty said. "Just the whole concept of one guy helping his community because he's done well and he wanted to give back — that inspired me."

The public has a few more opportunities to ride on the Spirit of West Virginia before it sails south next month.

The boat will be offering rides at the Dunbar Fall Festival Sept. 20 and 21 and at Charleston's Rod Run and Doo Wop car show Oct. 3-5. The boat will also host the Stonewall Jackson High School Class of 1953's 60th reunion for a cruise on the afternoon of Oct. 5.

While he'll say goodbye to his boat next month, Daugherty doubts the Spirit of West Virginia will be the last sternwheeler to ever dock at his home along the Kanawha River.

"There probably will be another one in my future somewhere," he said. "But as far as being in the excursion boat business, I doubt seriously that I'll be in that."   

Contact writer Jared Hunt at or 304-348-4836.


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