COLUMBIA — On the first day of December,  a blue and white sternwheeler chugged slowly upstream on the Missouri River toward the town of Lupus.

Roger Giles gripped the wooden wheel of the boat, his feet tapping to the music from a pair of speakers. On the narrow deck below, eight or nine passengers crowded around a small replica of the cannon used by Lewis and Clark on their 1804 expedition.

Just as the boat reached Lupus, a mortar shell shot across the water with a loud boom, followed by a burst of fireworks in the grey, overcast sky.

"They know we're here now," Giles said, laughing.

He and his wife, Barbara, own the 1930s-era sternwheeler, once used as a gambling vessel. The Giles welcome friends and interested Boone County residents on their boat for free rides. 

More than 200 people have been on the boat since they purchased it last year, either on sunset cruises every Saturday afternoon or mimosa rides on Sundays.

"We share," Giles said. "We don't charge."

History of the purchase

The couple bought the sternwheeler in May 2011 for $50,000 and took possession four months later. On Sept. 11, they launched the boat at Marietta, Ohio, on a trip to Cooper's Landing that took 28 days and covered 1,200 miles.

Giles' friend Peter McCarthy,  a former navigator with the Coast Guard, was with them and stayed on board for a week afterward.

"It was definitely an adventure," McCarthy said. "It's a pretty neat boat."

Barbara Giles said she and her husband value the historical aspects of their boat.

"We wanted it for its story," she said. "This was an opportunity for us, and we liked the fact that it's an old boat."

History of the boat

The 80-foot boat was built in 1937 with a single deck and no paddle wheel. It was first used for gambling on the Muskingum River in southeastern Ohio.

Later, it served as a houseboat until the stainless steel paddle wheel was added in 1980, turning it into a sternwheeler. The second deck with a wheelhouse and engine room also was added in the 1980s.

Called the Nancy Ann by the previous owners, the boat was renamed Joseph M. LaBarge after a distant relative of Barbara Giles. LaBarge was a riverboat captain on the Missouri River whose passengers included Abraham Lincoln.

"It's beautiful," said Mike Cooper, another friend of couple who owns Cooper's Landing, a campground and marina south of Columbia where the sternwheeler is docked.

"It's the only one on the Missouri River, and it adds something new to the culture of our area."

Navigating a sternwheeler

Barbara Giles noted, however, that owning a sternwheeler can be challenging. It requires a deep understanding of the river, she said.

Because there's so much variation in weather and river conditions, the boat can be sometimes difficult to navigate. Wind can also be a factor, Barbara Giles said, especially during take-off and landing.

The boat, which burns diesel fuel, requires someone to be at the wheel at all times.  Yet, ultimately, the Giles relish the scenery, animal life and history they see along the river and look forward to sharing it with others.

"We like the peace of the river," Barbara said. "It kind of reminds you of your place in the universe."

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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