“When you find something you like to do, stick with it,” Kanawha County businessman and civic leader Charles T. Jones advised during a 2017 interview.
For Jones, that “something” was operating and growing what has become one of the largest fleets of towboats working the nation’s inland waterways. He stuck with the business he loved until Sunday, when he died at age 101.
Jones, the president of Amherst-Madison, a family-owned river transportation, construction and repair firm operating on the Ohio River and its tributaries, began his career on the water in the early 1950s. It was then that his family’s business, Amherst Coal Co., bought Hatfield-Campbells Creek Coal Co.’s river operation, with a fleet of two coal-fired sternwheel towboats and 30 barges and put Jones in charge of running it.
Since then, the river operation, known initially as Amherst Barge Co., and then Madison Coal and Supply before becoming Amherst-Madison, has grown to include a fleet of 29 towboats operating on the Kanawha, Ohio, Monongahela and Tennessee rivers from its base at Port Amherst, near Malden.
Amherst-Madison also runs a dry-dock-equipped repair center at Henderson, in Mason County, and uses a fleet of crane-equipped barges to stabilize riverbanks, build docks and perform other shoreline construction tasks.
Jones maintained a daily schedule of work until his death, with the recent hiring of a driver being one of the few concessions to his advanced age.
“I’ve always liked what I did — that’s why I never retired,” Jones said during his 99th birthday celebration. “Why should you retire if you like what you do?”
Born in Logan County, where his father and uncle ran a coal and coke business, Jones spent his early years in the company town of Amherstdale, before attending boarding school at The Hun School of Princeton, in New Jersey. There, as a member of the school’s rowing team, he met Albert Einstein, then a faculty member at Princeton University, who spent many of his off-duty hours at the lake on which prep and collegiate crew teams practiced.
After earning a business degree at Babson College, in Massachusetts, Jones returned to West Virginia to briefly work in his family coal business, before enlisting in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He helped build airfields and roads on Guadalcanal with the Seabees, the Navy’s construction arm, and later served on a minesweeper, clearing and detonating mines that had been planted off the coasts of the Philippines and Japan.
Jones, a licensed towboat pilot, bought the sternwheel towboat Laura J. for personal use in 1956, and he used it as a waterborne base for family outings for many years. He is the only riverboat captain to participate in every Charleston Sternwheel Regatta, an event founded by his late son, Nelson, in 1971.
Jones’ lifelong appreciation of outdoor activities included, while in his 80s, cutting and splitting firewood and baling and hauling hay at family-owned Lundale Farms, in Oak Hill.
“Charlie is one of the most hard-working, humble and giving people West Virginia has ever known,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said in a 100th birthday tribute to Jones that was read into the Congressional Record last year. On Monday, Manchin described Jones as “truly one of a kind — one of the most warm, kind people I ever had the privilege of knowing. Charlie was a regular Renaissance man, and his zest for innovation never waned throughout his long life.”
Jones ran unsuccessfully for a West Virginia Senate seat, first as Democrat in 1986, and two years later as a Republican.
Jones served on the University of Charleston’s board of trustees, was a former director of the Charleston Area Medical Center Foundation and was a member of Yeager Airport’s governing board for 18 years, serving as construction committee chairman during the three years after the 2015 collapse of the airport’s safety-overrun area.
He was a former trustee of the West Virginia Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, director of the Ohio Valley Improvement Association and a past chairman of the West Virginia Mining and Reclamation Association and the National Inland Waterways Users Board.
Jones was named the Gazette-Mail’s West Virginian of the Year in 2004, inducted into the Coal Mining Hall of Fame in 2008, named the YMCA’s Spirit of the Valley in 2009 and, in 2017, was inducted into West Virginia University’s Business Hall of Fame and named a Distinguished West Virginian by Gov. Jim Justice.
“He embodied the characteristics of a true mountaineer, and dedicated his life to making this state better — giving back to the place called home,” Justice said of Jones on Monday.
Jones “left his mark on the airport by dedicating his time and wisdom to the airport authority for near two decades, and he will be sincerely missed,” said Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper.
Jones’s son, Nelson, who served as president of Madison-Amherst, died in 2011 at age 52. His wife, Mary Ellen, died in February.