About Riverboat Captain
William Penn Wright


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William Penn Wright
By Charles Wright

The Wrights of the river are decendants of one Joseph Wright, who came from England and settled in Virginia during the year of 1750. Alex, one of three sons, came on West to Red House Shoals, in the great Kanawha Valley, there to "live, worship and rear a family". Five sons, Claybourne, Wiliam Penn, George, James and Stape, early began river careers, flat-boating salt to the lower Ohio markets, later taking to steamboating.

William Penn, familiarly referred to as the "Daddy of them all", around who river romance is more closely woven that the others, was born September 9, 1818, and ended his boating days on October 12, 1894. He was one of the first pilots licensed by theGovernment for fresh water vessels, his "papers" covering the Mississippi River and tributaries. When asked by the examiner if he knew where all the rocks and stumps were his answer was, "Contrive my picture! NO! And no other living, but I know where there are none". He was given a license without further ado.

His biographer relates how he miraculously escaped injury and possible death when the boilers of the "Blue Ridge" blew up at Raccoon Island, near Gallipolis, Ohio, in the year of 1848. He was asleep in the "TEXAS" cabin and was blown bodily into the river, alighting on his mattress or straw pad. Afterward walking to his home, some forty miles. During one of his very few playful moods, it is related that while on a Government transport moored on the opposite side of the river and within a few miles of a Confederate camp, he swam the river and stole their flag under the cover of darkness, bringing it back to the boat.

It can be truly said that he was a part of the water on which he lived, his daily calisthenic exercise, when not walking from Cincinnati to is home on a return trip after disposing of flatboat as well as cargo, consisted of an early morning plunge into the river, Summer or Winter. His coming and going from this stateroom to the water with only a blanket around him elicited many quirks from a crew that did not care for health at that price.

He was very religious, a writer of no mean ability, and was a characteristic abolitionist of his day, having successfully engineered several trips via the Underground Railway route, with boats as connecting links. Among several biblical writings, his version of the life of John the Baptist was probably the most interesting. He also wrote and published a prospective pamphlet on the Great Kanawha Valley, which portrayed a meritorious insight into the future of the valley he loved. The prophecy made early in his writings of impending religious strife in "this good country of ours", which already disrupting the populace of a neighboring nation, is yet of little concern to those to whom his remarks were directed.

He left Government service at the end of the war and returned to peaceful boating and farming. He owned and operated the Steamer "Active" and controlled the "William Penn".

His sons, William A., John R., James C., and Thomas C. assisted him. The youngest, Alfred, showed early preference for the farm and never engaged in boating.

William (Billy) A. and John R., after successful careers on the river, died at Charleston and are buried there. Thomas C. (Tommy) was accidentally killed on the levee at Louisville, KY, December 6, 1920, and is buried at Buffalo, on the Kanawha, where he had planned to soon retire to his country home "ELMDALE".

James C, the lovable and versatile "Shoo-fly Jimmie", is the only one of the five now living. He resides at Point Pleasant, W.Va. and is active at the age of seventy-six, having just completed a tour of duty on the two-hundredth and thirty-third boat. He can still match his skill at dug-chuting with that of the younger pilots.

The youngest of the clan, and possibly the last of thirty-four licensed masters and pilots and engineers, of five generations, is Francis E, son of Thomas (Tommy) C., who at the immature age of thirty, is mater and pilot of coal towing boats on the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers.

Thus passeth a long line of pioneers (the word pioneers is used advisedly) into this age of rapid transportation. While the canalization of these beautiful streams, the completion of which will be realized as this article reached the reader, was only a dream to those who knew every rock and bend of nature's work of rivers, we are wont to connect that past with the present era of wonderful accomplishments by wording the thought, "The course of human events may change, but the waters of the river will flow on forever".

Captain William Penn Wright is buried near the place of his birth, at Red House, W.Va., in an obscure place near the River. A plain and inexpensive stone marks the almost forgotten resting place of this Bibliographer, Prophet and Riverman.

Note: the author is indebted for the above article to Samuel R. and daughter Pauline, son and grand-daughter of the late Captain John R. Wright, Charleston, W.Va.

1. This article, written by Captain Wright's decendant, Charles Wright and submitted by his brother Ernie Wright. For more on this family see Ernie's Web Site River Rat 2
2. Also see pictures and article on related person, Capt William McKinley Wright

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