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Dr. Larry W Harris
Custom Built Steam Boats
Back in 1972 I had just started college in Mansfield, Ohio. One morning while going to college I spotted a boiler in front of a barn and, as I had always been a steam buff, I stopped and asked the farmer the story behind it.
I found out that several years before he would grind grain with a grist mill powered by steam. He needed that part of the barn for other purposes and was getting rid of the steam plant, which included a Case boiler and Case steam engine.
I asked him how much he wanted for it and he said $100. We shook hands and I made arrangements to rent part of a barn from another farmer and had the power plant transported there. I had always been entranced by the old steam river boats on the Ohio river arid set to work building a boat around my lovely little Case power plant.
I decided to use the pontoon boat as my floating platform for many reasons, the chief of these was cost. I could build a 35-foot pontoon boat for about a third the cost of a wooden flat bottom boat and the placement of the paddle wheel between the pontoons was almost perfect.
I chose a 6.5-foot diameter water wheel with a four foot width. I chose a sprocket to give me a 4 to 1 reduction. Using my little 5 horse Case steam engine gave me 20 horsepower at the wheel.
Through the fall-winter-spring of 1972-1973 I steadily worked on my boat and launched my little river boat on the Clear Fork Reservoir on Memorial Day of 1973. That summer I had her our just about every day and people would flock to the reservoir just to see her.
People started asking me how much I would charge them to go for a ride around the reservoir and I said five dollars. I installed several plastic benches on the deck and soon realized that I had a real moneymaker in this little steam boat. I quit my part-time job and ran my little boat full time that summer.
One passenger would go with me just about every day. He was well groomed and retired, and kept asking me how much I wanted for her. I had fallen in love with that little boat and did not want to sell her. The truth was that fall I would be going to college in Columbus, Ohio on the main campus and had a lot of additional expenses relating to college. So the next day I told the old gentleman to make me an offer.
The next day he handed me a check for $20,000 and I almost fell overboard for in 1973 $20,000 was a lot of money (equivalent to $60,000 today).
During the next 32 years I looked back regretting having sold that little boat and making numerous mental improvements in the design. By chance I was made aware of an upcoming boat auction in which there were three pontoon boats. I attended and bought all three boats and set about gathering the parts to build another steam boat.
I redesigned the paddle wheel to beef it up and started looking for a steam engine. By chance l remembered that the farmer who had the original steam boiler had several others. After playing phone tag for several days I got in touch with him and to my great delight he had two boilers left. He sold me one.
Starting in April of 2005 one year later I had completed my second steam boat. A 25 footer with a 6.5 x 4 feet paddle wheel with a Kisco 13 fire tube, 5 horsepower boiler and a Semple bidirectional steam engine.
Many a person has stopped by and asked how much I would take for her and how much I would charges them to build them a boat. My response is that I can build them a custom boat anywhere from 25 to 50 feet. (THE COAST GUARD has no special requirements for non-commercial steamboats under 40 feet.)
As every boat will be custom built according to the future owner’s specifications, if they wish to tap into the lucrative tourism market, they would like as many bench seats as feasible. Tell me what you want and we'll go from there.
Dr. Larry Harris
Pontoon Steam Boat
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Alternative Energy for the 21st Century
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This page was updated on 5 November 2011