Ohio city’s historic St. Helena II canal boat gets face lift


CANAL FULTON, Ohio (AP) — In 1967, a small model of a canal boat sat on a table during lunchtime in the Louisville Sportsmen Club.

Then-state legislator Ralph Regula and the late Al Simpson, a longtime editor at The Canton Repository, wanted to know if the club members were up for the challenge of building the first canal boat replica.

The boat — St. Helena II — has become a symbol of Canal Fulton as it has been nearly 60 years since the replica was constructed. The boat has undergone restoration in the past and is seeing some new changes now.

Earlier this month, work began to give the St. Helena II a “cosmetic face lift,” said City Manager Mark Cozy.

A new paint job and minor touch-ups to the exterior are planned. A wheelchair accessible ramp also is being added, which Cozy said the city has wanted to build for a few years. The restoration is expected to be finished by the end of May so the boat can be opened for visitors.

“There’s some damage to the boat,” Cozy said, citing a broken door and chipped paint. “The bulk of the project will be a wheelchair accessible ramp system to allow folks to actually get inside the boat to do tours.”

The city originally wanted to build a shelter to protect the boat from weather damage, but the idea failed to get approval.

“The National Park Service ruled out the shelter because it would have been too large, and they felt it would have taken away from the boat and the museum there,” Cozy said.

The city received two grants to help fund restoration, which is estimated to cost $52,000. The Ohio Erie Canal Association awarded $15,000, and the city got a grant from the Canal Society of Ohio for $10,000.

Engelke Construction Solutions is handling the work, and senior project manager Jason Scharton said his group is honored to take on a project of such historical importance to the city.

A security camera system and lights will help deter vandals, said Cozy, who noted problems with vandalism in the past.

John Hatfield worked on the boat during the original restoration.

“Restoring it now is not the same as when we did it,” the 77-year-old Hatfield said. “The boat maybe needs painting and maybe needs a few things, but there’s no relationship in the restoring … to what we did and what they’re doing now.”

According to the Canal Fulton Heritage Society website, St. Helena II made its debut on July 26, 1969 and took countless trips along the one-mile stretch of the canal, carrying students, tourists and residents until 1984, when the keel and rib of the boat were determined to be warped beyond repair. The original St. Helena, which St. Helena II was modeled after, once made Canal Fulton a village lively with activity and economic growth during the 19th century.

St. Helena II remained in the canal until 1994 before it was taken out with two cranes and placed in the St. Helena Heritage Park. Maintenance attempts were made over the next several years, but citizens complained to the Canal Fulton City Council about the condition of the boat.

Hatfield, then a member of the council, said the boat was seen as an eyesore. It was brought to the council’s attention and five members voted to destroy the St. Helena II.

“I stood up and said ‘we can’t get rid of it because it’s the history of Canal Fulton,'” Hatfield recalled. “I was well aware of the significance because it was the first restored boat on the canal ever.”

St. Helena II was built based on the replica of the canal boat model Simpson and Regula presented to the members of the Louisville Sportsman Club. The 10-man team searched the state historical libraries for a set of plans, but could not find anything. They determined the model was the best set of plans they had.

William McLaughlin designed the model boat in 1933 based on St. Helena of Newark. The model was incredibly detailed, and, according to the Canal Fulton Heritage Society, engineer Caroll Gantz used the model to build a set of construction plans.

“There was not a set of plans for a canal boat in existence that we could find,” said Jim Guest, the last living member of the 10-man team who built St. Helena II. “There was a model in the Stark County Historical Center of a boat. It was an excellent model, one inch to the foot, full detail of fittings and so forth. We thought that was the best example we could go by since we didn’t have plans to go by.”

Guest has traveled to most canals in the United States. He has also toured other canal boats that have been constructed. For Guest, the building of St. Helena II flourished a 52-year love of canal boats.

“It was quiet and education,” Guest said. “I had never built a boat before, and neither had any of them. It was a learning experience that was exciting to me, and I developed an interest in the history and so forth in canal things.”

The reconstruction Hatfield did on St. Helena II used the same canal boat model to restore the boat after it had been abandoned for years without upkeep when it retired. The majority of the boat was not salvageable save for some portions of the original frame and sections of the bottom of the boat.

“We totally rebuilt it. We replaced everything pretty much,” Hatfield said. “It set in the park for 20 years and rotted away because it sat without any cover. The way it’s made — they weren’t made to last. They won’t last sitting out in the open like that.”

Hatfield said when the canal systems flourished, boats were made to last a maximum of three years. After it was retired, a boat would typically be used for firewood or repurposed in some way.