Crews begin demolishing historic ship on Ohio River


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Demolition crews began the sad task of demolishing 111 years of history that lay tipped over in the Ohio River as a clamshell scoop tore into the upper decks of the Becky Thatcher, a steamship lost to the same waters she once surveyed.

"You can replace boats, but you can't replace a ship that was built in 1899. It was the largest one left that was on the river," said Jeffrey Levin, the Nashville property investor who bought the Becky Thatcher in 2004 as a floating restaurant.

He had just had the boat refurbished and it was docked along the Ohio on Neville Island, awaiting spring and a new location in Pittsburgh.

Burdened with snow and listing, she began to take on water Feb. 21 and tipped into the river. Monday, the pilot house, the small chamber atop riverboats from which the captain steers, jutted from the water until the giant scoop tore into it as the historic vessel was slowly ripped apart.

"I just can't understand why they couldn't dry dock it and make a restaurant of it," said Boyd Goughler, a Venango County man who stopped to watch Monday's demolition.

"Trust me, we looked at saving her," said Mr. Levin. "Maybe even cutting her into sections. I looked into dry docking her at another facility."

The problem, he said, was that the Becky Thatcher's upper decks, built in 1899, slid from the steel hull onto which she had been placed 37 years later, and the first floor was crushed.

"The first floor was no longer existing. The second floor was under water," Mr. Levin said. With the whole upper deck threatening to slide off and fall sideways into the river, he made what he said was a painful call.

"There wasn't anything available to salvage and restore the ship," said Lee Chaklos of Delta Demolition, the firm that expects to spend the remainder of the week removing the ship.

"It's basically a memory," Mr. Chaklos said.

While the Becky Thatcher was burdened with snow and dripping with winter, Mr. Levin said he doesn't think it was the burden that sank her. With a 600 ton steel barge of a hull, he doubts there would have been enough snow to push her into the water.

Sometime mid-week, after the wooden upper decks are gone, a diver will be sent below to examine the hull to try to figure out just why the boat sank.

"We can figure that the barge and scrap steel is about 500 tons," said Mr. Chaklos.

Of the upper deck, only the antique furniture and the name signs were saved. The rest is gone and, with it, a piece of inland navigation history.

"Three presidents traveled on the ship," said Mr. Levin. "Teddy Roosevelt traveled on it."

Along the shore, Ed Brezny, a Sewickley boat enthusiast, wondered at the loss. When he first saw the Becky Thatcher moored there in October, he said he had a nagging worry.

"You always have this feeling," he said. "Just the way it's sitting there. I didn't like how it was sitting there. I guess it was destined to sink."


Dennis B. Roddy: droddy@post-gazete.com or 412-263-1965. First Published March 9, 2010 5:00 AM


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