Join the Conversation

Join the Conversation.
I invite your comments, suggestions, and additional information about any topic mentioned.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Two Gems

Valley Gem..... the name has a nice ring to it, especially since Marietta, Ohio is nestled in two valleys. Today’s VALLEY GEM sternwheeler cruise boat has been operated at Marietta for nearly fifty years by the Sands family. That boat’s namesake was a Muskingum River steamboat, also named VALLEY GEM.    Captain J. J. Sands explained that the VALLEY GEM was suggested by riverboat expert Frederick Way because that boat had the longest service on the Muskingum River without an accident.

She (sorry guys, but female pronouns are typically used for boats) was built at Marietta’s Knox and Sons boat yard in 1897. She was large enough to carry 300 passengers and 150 tons of freight but small enough to fit through the smaller lock chambers on the Muskingum River. Newton Price of McConnelsville was the captain and part owner of the VALLEY GEM.

VALLEY GEM  steamboat image on a postcard from

VALLEY GEM was one of over two hundred steamboats which ran on the Muskingum River. These boats were an integral part of the culture and economy of Southeast Ohio. They moved freight, farm products, passengers, and provided entertainment in the 1800’s up to about 1920. Many of them were built at Marietta’s Knox Boat Yard.

For steamboat enthusiasts, the original VALLEY GEM engineering details are as follows: She was a wooden hull sternwheel packet boat 125.4 feet long by 26.5 feet wide with 4.2 feet of draft. There were two boilers, 43 inches in diameter and 20 feet in length. The two steam engine cylinders had a 13 inch bore with a 5 foot stroke. That all added up to a state of the art steamboat which would touch the lives of thousands over nearly 20 years. She ran on the Muskingum River, mostly in the McConnelsville - Zanesville trade, from 1898 to 1917. 

The VALLEY GEM’s maiden voyage was on Friday, February 18, 1898. There were 99 passengers on board. The Zanesville Times Recorder was effusive in its description of the VALLEY GEM. Excerpts:

The steamer is indeed a gem. She is provided with each and all requirements of the United States government. The entire boat is lit up with electric lights. Her cabins and staterooms are elegantly furnished throughout. In all details and respects she is an A-1 steamer....Captain Price received many congratulations and high compliments upon his success in bringing out such a fine packet steamer.

Very laudatory verbiage, eh? How often today can a newspaper article also be your marketing message? All went well until the boat approached Zanesville. She suffered a “slight breakdown” in one of her engines, drifted downstream, and was “detained until a late hour last night” with necessary repairs. The passengers had to be offloaded from the boat. “The excursionists returned home by the steamer JEWEL and Zanesville and Ohio rail line.” It was not the ideal finish to a maiden voyage.

Steamboat VALLEY GEM at landing in Zanesville, Ohio circa early 1900's, from Muskingum Valley History Facebook page

Steamboat VALLEY GEM at unidentified location, viewed at

She ran a regular schedule from McConnelsville to Zanesville. There were also excursions and events on weekends. Captain Price entertained his Sunday School class on the boat in 1905. Crowds of 200-300 were typical for excursions; seems like a lot for a 125 foot long sternwheeler, smaller than today’s VALLEY GEM. 

There were often unexpected situations that the VALLEY GEM - and other steamboats, too - had to contend with. Examples:

3/2/1904. Riverboats usually tied up during winter. In 1904 the boat restart was delayed by ice in the river lasting 92 days, the longest stretch in 20 years. 

8/6/1899. Passengers were terrified by a severe electrical storm during a cruise. Many became hysterical; a pastor circulated and offered prayers.

9/3/1907. Two unidentified men opened fire on VALLEY GEM passengers with shotguns. Several were injured; none seriously. 

3/4/1898. The VALLEY GEM collided with a rival riverboat JEWEL. There was “ill will” from Captain Webster of the JEWEL who claimed the incident was intentional. Some area steamboats were heated rivals with the VALLEY GEM. They often raced each other to the same locks. It’s not clear if the VALLEY GEM was always the instigator. 

5/13/1899. VALLEY GEM collided with steamer ZANETTA as they raced to the Philo locks. The latter boat was heavily damaged. The two were especially bitter rivals. In 1901, the same two boats raced for the drawbridge at Gaysport. The VALLEY GEM was slightly ahead but the ZANETTA charged forward and ran into the VALLEY GEM. 

Circa 1900. A Mrs. Fanny Richardson of Malta, Ohio, recalled another racing episode between the same two boats. She hailed a ride on the ZANETTA from a country landing, unaware that the two boats were racing. Honoring river tradition, the ZANETTA reluctantly stopped and picked her up. But the boat’s crew was irate because they lost position in the race. She was shunned by all on the rest of the trip. These rivalries sound like a steamboat-era version of today’s road rage.

7/4/1908. A July 4 church excursion from Zanesville to McConnelsville on a very hot day did not turn out well for the 277 passengers. A mechanical problem delayed departure for two hours. On the return trip, several young people fainted from heat exhaustion after running to a McConnelsville baseball game and back to the boat. Others overdosed on ice cream and cold drinks and got sick. A Dr. Trout boarded at Philo to care for the afflicted passengers. Phone calls requesting doctors to meet the VALLEY GEM at Zanesville resulted in a panicked crowd of 400 jamming the wharf there.

Image and caption from Images of Marietta, White, Larry Nash Ph. D., and Emily Blankenship, Arcadia Publishing, 2004, viewed at

The VALLEY GEM’s long run on the Muskingum River ended in 1917. The boat was sold to another company which operated her on the Monongahela River. The stated reason was Newton Price’s health, though declining business was likely a factor. Times were a-changing as automobiles, trucks, and trains were permanently disrupting life on the river. For the first time in 93 years the Muskingum River had no steamboat operating on it, though other boats later ran intermittently.

Sadly, the venerable VALLEY GEM sank in early 1918 when it was caught up in an ice jam at Morgantown WV and could not be salvaged. There was a sheriff’s sale and her equipment removed and sold. 

Image from WV History: 

The wrecked VALLEY GEM from the stern. Notice the name plate: VALLEY GEM of 
McConnelsville Ohio.” The owner kept the boat's original name. New owners often gave their boat a new name, wiping out its previous identity.

Today’s VALLEY GEM sternwheel cruise boats were built and operated by Captain James E. Sands and his family. From the Valley Gem website:

Our History...
All of us like to dream about what we would like to do with our lives, but few of us have the determination to carry our dreams to completion. Captain James E. Sands, Sr., and his wife Peggy were an exception to the rule. After much personal sacrifice, they managed to put their first 98 passenger sternwheeler into operation in 1973. With the assistance of Capt. Fred Way, they named the boat Valley Gem, after a historic packet boat that plied the Muskingum River between Marietta and Zanesville, Ohio during the previous century. It was an immediate success. For more than ten years, he and his oldest son Jimmy Sands, also a licensed pilot, brought pleasure to thousands of passengers with trips on both the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers.

Captain Sands always felt he could improve upon the design of the Valley Gem. He spent several years designing a brand new boat. With the assistance of his friends, master welder Ivan Arnold, electrician Charles Shockey and mechanical engineer Tom Hudson, he completed the new Valley Gem Sternwheeler in 1989. It was designated the Flagship of the Muskingum Navy, with Captain Sands as Commodore. Sands specifically designed the boat for the Muskingum River.  It has two decks so that it can clear the low bridges. It is not wider so that it fits in the hand-operated locks. It is a well maintained all-weather boat with a heated or air-conditioned lower deck for passenger comfort. Then, in 1990 on the day of the Sternwheel Festival Races, tragedy struck the Sands family. Jimmy, at 32 years of age, died after a prolonged illness. Captain Sands, his wife Peggy and their son J.J. carried on.

Captain James Sands passed away in 1998, after living his dream of being a riverboat captain for 25 years. He knew and loved the rivers, and enjoyed sharing river stories with the passengers. His wife Peggy retired from the business in September 2003. She handled reservations for the boat for almost thirty years. Their son, Captain J.J., and his wife, Captain Heather now continue the family tradition, and you can meet them and enjoy a wonderful trip on an authentic sternwheeler here in historic Marietta throughout the year. They look forward to seeing you and extend a heartfelt welcome aboard.

The first VALLEY GEM was 70 feet long by 18 feet long and could hold 98 passengers. Captain James E. Sands, a former contractor then 45 years old, built the boat with a friend. “We worked on the boat for nine months and put 32 tons of steel in it.” The steel was acquired at no cost from a truck accident. Cruises in 1974 departed daily at 1, 2, 3, and 4 pm.  Fares were $1.50 for adults, 1.00 for children.

Captain Jim Sands first VALLEY GEM launched in the fall of 1973. Postcard from Walter Havighurst Special Collections at Miami University Library, Oxford OH, Bowden Postcard Collection Online

Captain Jim Sands piloting the VALLEY GEM pictured in a September 21, 1974 in a Dayton Journal Herald newspaper article.

Your author talked with Captain Sands when the VALLEY GEM started service. I was active in the Marietta Area Chamber of Commerce at the time. We were thrilled to see another tourist attraction added to Marietta’s historic attractions. I asked him if the boat would operate on a limited schedule, naively thinking that this would be part time and that there would not be enough demand for full time operation. I was wrong. He was all in. This was now his livelihood; the VALLEY GEM would operate every day (seasonally). It’s been like that non-stop for almost 50 years.

Captain Jason (“JJ”) Sands recalled that former President George H. W. Bush rode aboard the first VALLEY GEM during a stop at Marietta in the 1988 presidential campaign.  The campaign motorcade came to the VALLEY GEM boat landing. JJ’s late brother Jimmy was Captain of the VALLEY GEM for the cruise. Candidate Bush briefly piloted the boat “flawlessly.” 

Advance arrangements were quite thorough. Secret Service agents took possession of the VALLEY GEM during the visit. The boat was inspected for weapons. Divers went under to check the hull for munitions. The Secret Service set up portable armor plates in pilot house for protection. Several agents with sniper rifles were on board during Bush’s cruise.

The current VALLEY GEM is 157 feet long by 25 feet wide and weighs 100 tons - much larger than the first boat. She can carry up to 296 passengers. The paddle wheel is powered by a Diesel engine and a chain drive rather than the steam engine propulsion common until 100 years ago. 

Building this new and improved VALLEY GEM was an adventure. Since this was a larger “K boat” it required Coast Guard approval. Most vessels of this type were built by boat building companies familiar with the procedures. JJ explained that this bureaucratic process was a challenge for  “amateurs building a boat in a hayfield.” 

He said that the plans for the new boat had to be sent in three different times to Coast Guard officials who then failed to respond, claiming the plans didn’t exist.  Those plans were “discovered” and approved only after the Sands asked Charlie Bacarisse, then an advisor in the Bush 41 White House, to intervene.  Bacarisse had been a former deckhand on the VALLEY GEM and was present when candidate Bush visited Marietta. The construction site was an open field along the Ohio River below Marietta. A Coast Guard inspector with an attitude visited the site one day and stated dismissively, “there will never be a boat built here.” He was wrong.

Today’s VALLEY GEM which began service in 1989

The current VALLEY GEM has been in service now for over 30 years, carrying tens of thousands of visitors. Recently, the Discovery Plus cable TV channel was on board filming a segment. The episode host was Clint Harp, the carpentry artisan who often appeared on the Fixer Upper program on Home and Garden TV (HGTV) cable channel series featuring Chip and Joanna Gaines.

JJ remembered an impromptu rescue operation on a VALLEY GEM cruise with the Marietta College baseball team. A john boat transporting 3 crew members to shore from an Ohio River towboat. It was a very windy day; whitecaps and sizable waves kicked up on the river. The boat gradually took on water from the waves and capsized. Two of the guys on board climbed on top of the capsized boat. The lady passenger on the john boat would not let go of the bag with her belongings and nearly drowned. Luckily, the VALLEY GEM was passing by on a cruise and rescued all of them using the landing ramp.

The VALLEY GEM is a family operation run by James and Peggy’s son, Jason, and his wife, Heather. In an Ohio Magazine  article this spring, Heather Sands explains: “Jason is a mechanic, I do marketing, and our family friend Don Sandford is an electrician. (And) we all captain the VALLEY GEM. It is all personal and thoughtful. We want to make sure it is a family-oriented place because we are family.” You can learn more about the VALLEY GEM tours, events, and food service at

The Sands family’s two VALLEY GEMS, and the original VALLEY GEM, each have their engineering pedigrees, stories, and events.  But they were all about people - people living, working, and having fun on the river.

  • Steamer RUFUS PUTNAM made the initial Muskingum River steamboat voyage in January 1824 - going from Marietta up to the Putnam community near Zanesville. It was a daring voyage since there were no dams at the time. The trip had to be made when water levels were high and the current was swift and potentially dangerous. Read more about that voyage here:
  • The Muskingum River Navigation System was one of the first lock and dam systems in the country, placed in service in 1841. All of the locks and dams are still operational today with limited hours for recreational craft. Consult the Muskingum River State Park website for schedules and updates.

No comments:

Post a Comment