FLORENCE — For nearly a week now, a unique sight has caught the attention of people traveling across O'Neal Bridge.
The three-deck "Paddle Princess" boat has been docked at McFarland Park since Friday while it undergoes some repair work as part of a three-year overhaul of the vessel.
"It draws a lot of attention," the boat's captain, Ray Dennison, said Wednesday, while pointing toward the road at McFarland near the Tennessee River bank. "There's been times when that whole area's been lined with cars."
Those curious about the boat will have to hold off from touring it, however. The vessel is docked at McFarland temporarily while some work continues. It will move on toward its ultimate West Virginia destination within days, Dennison said.
That is where its owners Tom and Sherri New, live and plan to rent the boat for events such as wedding parties, the captain said. They purchased it some two years ago, and workers have been renovating it since then.
The repairs should be completed in about a year.
Built in 1929, the boat originally had two decks and was a pusher for cotton-hauling barges. It had a flat front that made it easier to push the barges, but since then a more pointed front that traditionally is associated with boats was added, Dennison said.
He said the boat has gone through numerous names over the years, including "The Captain Joe" and "The Debbie Sue" before the News purchased it.
"The boat was neglected for years and let set," Dennison said.
He said it is fitting the boat is going to West Virginia, since it was built in Virginia.
"She's going home after almost 100 years," Dennison said.
The boat is 125 feet long and 25 feet wide, he said. It has two main engines to drive the hydraulic pump that powers the twin paddle wheels. The News want to convert it back to a chain drive.
"A lot of them you see today have auxiliary power," Dennison said. "Not us."
It boasts 4.5 baths and three bedrooms, including the original captain's quarters that features a bed from an old clipper ship. That is part of the owners' goal of using period furnishings.
"Every bit of furniture is from the late 1800s and early 1900s," Dennison said.
The third deck includes the original steering wheel, which remains the sole steering source.
The original bell to the "Paddle Princess" still operates, and a collection of original gauges and a compass adorn the area near the captain's seat.
At night, some 200 outdoor LED lights illuminate the boat.
With his loyal and friendly Rottweiler Elsa always by his side, Dennison said he is enjoying the experience of bringing the boat home, even though it means focusing on steering throughout the day.
"You don't leave the wheel," said Dennison, a seasoned captain. "I usually try to run from daylight to dark. It's a neat boat. I've captained a lot of boats, and this is one of the most unusual I've ever encountered."