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Kingsport flatboat project makes headway once more

Matthew Lane • Apr 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM

KINGSPORT — After months of delay, work to build a historic flatboat on the shore of the South Fork of the Holston River is finally under way.

The Netherland Inn/Exchange Place Association broke ground on the flatboat project in June 2008, with plans calling for a historic flatboat to be built in front of the Netherland Inn.

The 14-foot-by-53-foot replica flatboat will be mounted on a concrete slab and include a manifest and representations of products sailors used to ship down the Holston, including salt barrels, iron ingots and tobacco.

The flatboat will be dry-docked, not in the water, and people will be able to walk on it.

Kingsport plans to provide full-time video surveillance of the flatboat to help prevent theft and vandalism.

Netherland Inn officials say the replica flatboat illustrates the historical significance flatboats had with Kingsport and the city’s founding. Kingsport essentially started on the banks of the Holston River, and from the 1760s travelers came by wagon down the Island Road to the riverbank, where they built boats and migrated west.

Local businessman Bill Taff agreed to underwrite the cost of the flatboat project, and at the groundbreaking Mayor Dennis Phillips declared the day “Bill Taff Day.” Taff is a successful developer whose works include Willowbrook, Stonegate Shopping Center and the Tanglewood subdivision.

Work has begun, and according to Phillips, who has been involved in some of the discussions regarding the project, it could take about four weeks to complete.

However, this was also said back in June 2008. Phillips said there were several reasons for the long delay, including Taff experiencing some health issues last year.

“The bottom line is no one with experience with flatboats was involved. We had a design for a flatboat, but no one with experience in building them,” Phillips said. “There was special lumber having to be ordered (from Washington, D.C.) and it was having to be trucked in. The cost was getting to be enormous, so Bill Taff (who is funding the project) found a person who would build it.”

Phillips said Taff searched the Internet and found a boat builder from Nashville — Don Cooper — who specializes in building boats and agreed to build the flatboat for Kingsport.

“I met the builder and (Bill Taff’s daughter, who is now project coordinator) and they said they would start in a couple of weeks, and they have done exactly what they said they would do,” Phillips said. “And it looks like it’s going to happen.”

The flatboat is the second of four projects identified as essential to the long-term growth of the Netherland Inn complex. The other projects are the rebuilding of the bank barn (which is nearing completion) and the building of a wharf and warehouse.

In order to make sure the boat was as authentic as possible, Taff had architect Luther Cain of CainRashWest Architects research the project and draw up plans for its construction.

Cain used the findings of a University of Illinois professor who excavated a sunken flatboat on the Ohio River and merged them with research of local historians to come up with a rendering of what a flatboat from this area might look like, he said.

Alex Looney, the previous project coordinator, then enlisted the help of a local specialist versed in antiquated building techniques — David Hildebrand — to help with consultation on the project and make sure the finished boat was as historically accurate as possible.

Looney and Hildebrand are no longer on the project, and Taff’s daughter — Diane Ramsey — is now the project coordinator.

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