Answer Man

Cotton Blossom’s short time on the riverfront

Q: I remember back in the late 1970s a riverboat on the St. Louis riverfront that was moored just north of the Poplar Street Bridge, probably just south of the old Robert E. Lee. I’m thinking it was over the winter of maybe 1977-78 that ice cracked the hull and the boat sank. Even after much Googling, I cannot remember the name of the boat or what ultimately became of it.

P.K., of Fairview Heights

A: As they might have said on the old “The Outer Limits” TV show, do not attempt to adjust your newspaper. Yes, this is the same question I tried to answer on May 13 — and, as I do on (hopefully) rare occasions, failed miserably.

Last spring, I suggested that your memory may have been off by a decade or so and that the boat you may have been thinking about was the River Queen, which, after 50 years of plying the Mississippi, inexplicably sank on Jan. 2, 1967, in St. Louis’ cold river waters. That’s the best my searching and talks with the Army Corps of Engineers could muster.

But probably proving again that nothing ever dies on the Internet, reader Penny Cannon must have stumbled on that article recently and quickly sent me this terse e-mail: “The boat (that) sank in ’78 was the Cotton Blossom.”

Indeed, it was, and with that major clue, I was able to unlock the story behind the tragedy that ended the colorful and, in the end, ill-fated 75-year history of this once proud riverboat. Thanks, Penny, for the chance at a redo:

They were hoping the third time would be the charm when the Cotton Blossom opened yet again in 1977 on the St. Louis riverfront. Originally christened the Minnesota, the boat seems to have been built about 1904 as a palatial private yacht and occasional floating clinic for the Mayo brothers, of Mayo Clinic fame (in Rochester, Minn.).

But perhaps looking for something newer, the Mayo family sold the boat in about 1929. After passing through several owners, James Sinovich, an East St. Louis beer distributor, bought it in Memphis in 1966. That’s when the boat started running into more trouble than the Titanic.

Sinovich wanted to open it as a riverfront attraction, but was told the city was not issuing mooring permits. So Sinovich had it towed to East St. Louis — where it promptly sank.

Strike one.

After repairs, Sinovich was apparently still unable to get mooring rights, so he had it towed to Cape Girardeau, where it operated as the Rebel Queen for three years. Finally, Sinovich brought it back to St. Louis in the summer of 1972 only to have the massive spring flood in 1973 delay the reopening by months. Finally in 1974, the vessel was leased to another operator, renamed the River Queen (since the former River Queen was by then long gone) and opened as a vaudeville nightclub and restaurant. The operation quickly went financially belly up like a dead catfish.

Strike two.

Enter Jere Wilmering Sr., who bought the boat from Sinovich in July 1976. He promptly towed the boat to St. Charles and remodeled it before floating it back to the St. Louis riverfront on June 11, 1977. After redoing “every inch” of the 130-foot, twin-stacked paddlewheeler, Wilmering was looking forward to entertaining patrons with a family-style restaurant with entertainment by well-known banjo artist Don Scherrer and his Cotton Gin Jazz Band.

The good times lasted just seven months. On Jan. 24, 1978, the Southeast Missourian reported that Cape’s once-popular Rebel Queen was lying partially submerged in about 10 feet of ice-choked water. Experts theorized that the hull or a hull fitting had failed.

It was strike three for the Cotton Blossom. Although Wilmering said he thought he could have it up and running by St. Pat’s Day, there was no Irish pot of gold at the end of his rainbow. In the summer of ’78, Dennis Georges inaugurated his new River Diving & Salvage business by scrapping the old boat, which cost about $180,000. The floating McDonald’s restaurant eventually would occupy the space.

In case you were wondering, our Cotton Blossom had no connection with the Cotton Blossom that MGM built for $125,000 for the 1951 movie musical “Show Boat.” Eventually, it was purchased for $15,000 by Texas oilman Lamar Hunt, who had it disassembled and trucked to Kansas City, Mo., to serve as an attraction at his Worlds of Fun theme park. In 1995, the once mighty ship powered by two hidden diesel engines was bulldozed to make room for a newer attraction.

Today’s trivia

Compared to the 30 trillion human cells, how many bacteria can be found in the average body?

Answer to Friday’s trivia: Watch out, Garfield, you’ll need an extra-large newspaper to kill the Goliath birdeater, which is believed to be the largest spider (by mass) on Earth. Found mainly in the upland rain forests of northern South America, these members of the tarantula family can have a leg span of up to 11 inches, be 11 inches long and weigh close to a half-pound. Despite its name, however, it rarely feeds on birds, favoring rodents, frogs, lizards and snakes instead. Looks like fat cats are safe, too.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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