Answer Man

Mississippi is tough on riverboats

During low water levels, the former riverfront museum ship the USS Inaugural can be seen at its resting place downstream of the Poplar street bridge. The 184-foot-long former Navy minesweeper was ripped from its mooring during the flood of 1993.
During low water levels, the former riverfront museum ship the USS Inaugural can be seen at its resting place downstream of the Poplar street bridge. The 184-foot-long former Navy minesweeper was ripped from its mooring during the flood of 1993. dholtmann@bnd.com

Q: I remember back in the later 1970s a riverboat on the St. Louis riverfront that was moored just north of the Poplar Street bridge and 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. It sat half submerged in the ice by the riverbank until they eventually got rid of it. For the life of me, I cannot remember the name of the boat, what it was used for (restaurant, excursions, theater, etc.), or what its fate was after it was taken away, like if it was dismantled or rebuilt. I did a little Googling and came up empty-handed.

P.K., of Fairview Heights

A: I’m always reluctant to suggest someone’s memory is less than shipshape, but perhaps the river of time has flowed a little swifter than you thought. So maybe you’ve already discovered and rejected this, but I’m wondering if you might be remembering the River Queen, which inexplicably began taking on water and sank on Dec. 2, 1967?

It was a sad ending for a paddle steamer that had plied the Mississippi proudly for decades. Built in Indiana, the 200-foot-long boat was launched in 1923 as the Cape Girardeau and carried passengers and freight between Louisville, Ky., and St. Louis with annual trips to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.

In 1935, she was sold to the Greene Line and rechristened the Gordon C. Greene to work as a tourist boat on the Ohio River between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The new owners added a sun deck and additional cabins. If you look closely, you may see it in Hollywood’s “Steamboat Around the Bend,” “The Kentuckian” — and “Gone with the Wind.”

But by 1951, a series of mechanical breakdowns forced her out of service. After several changes of scenery that included New Orleans and Hannibal, Mo., she wound up in 1964 moored above the Eads Bridge as the River Queen restaurant.

That same year, she was inspected by a private engineering firm and declared riverworthy. Three years later on Dec. 2, 1967, she began shipping water and settled to the bottom of the river in a few hours, listing heavily to port. A salvage attempt was made, but the Queen broke up under the high water and ice. The city later brought in a scoop shovel and demolished what remained, leaving the steel hull in place.

A few months later, a portion of the pilotwheel was sold at auction, and the anchor went to the former Golden Eagle River Museum. Now all that’s left are artifacts in other museums and private collections scattered far and wide. For an extensive history and pictures go to www.steamboats.org/history-education/greene-line-steamer-gordon-c-greene.html

Those with long memories, however, know this isn’t the only boat that met disaster on the St. Louis riverfront in recent times. I’m sure many remember former St. Louis Mayor Alfonso Cervantes’ ill-fated attempt to bring a piece of Spanish heritage to St. Louis with a replica of Christopher Columbus’ famous flagship, the Santa Maria.

Cervantes reportedly won a bidding war with the Rockefellers to snare the ship for $375,000 even though it had flopped as a tourist attraction in Washington, D.C. Undaunted, Cervantes had it moved to St. Louis, where a few people braved windy, 30-degree weather to see it arrive on March 29, 1969. It opened to sightseers in late April.

Just three months later, on June 28, a storm hammered St. Louis with tornadoes, 70-mph winds and a deluge of rain. Along with the old Becky Thatcher, the Santa Maria broke free of its moorings and they both floated 2 miles down the river until striking a Monsanto dock on the Illinois side. The Thatcher was barely scathed, but the Santa Maria sank like a stone.

With a huge gash in her starboard side, the boat was sold for $1, repaired and reopened on the St. Louis levee. But in March 1973, it was moved to Florida, where it was gutted by fire on June 27, 1974.

“Nothing would surprise me about the Santa Maria,” Cervantes said upon learning of the ship’s final demise. “That is just an ill-fated ship.”

Finally, there was the sometimes equally strange saga of the USS Inaugural. In 1967, Robert O’Brien, a former teacher in Webster Groves, became determined to buy this old Navy minesweeper from a shipyard near Beaumont, Texas, and bring it to St. Louis. It most notably had fought in the battle of Okinawa during World War II, but had no connection to the Mississippi and O’Brien was not a Navy vet. Nonetheless, he was sure it could be a tourist draw and so gained mooring rights from the city.

It opened in June 1968, and, for the next four years, curious old sailors came aboard to relive their fighting days while children pretended to use its gun mounts to blow imaginary battleships out of the water.

Then came the strangest event of all. On May 12, 1972, 10 Vietnam War protesters announced they were seizing it for North Vietnam. They wanted to sail it to the Haiphong harbor where it could find the mines that U.S. planes were dropping, but O’Brien waited them out and they gave up quietly the next day. After that, the closest to war the boat came was when Pearl Harbor vets would drop wreaths into the river to mark the sneak attack by Japan on Dec. 7, 1941.

But as I hinted at, this boat, too, met an unhappy end. On Aug. 1, 1993, during the record flooding, the Inaugural along with the Burger King barge tore loose from their moorings and slammed into the Poplar Street Bridge. Although immediately rescued, it rolled over two months later and sank. Now in low water, its rusty hulk can be seen tilted on its side on the riverbed.

So far, neither the Coast Guard nor the Army Corps of Engineers have come up with anything closer to your description.

Today’s trivia

After German flying ace Manfred von Richthofen (aka the Red Baron) was killed, who would become the last commander of the famous Flying Circus fighter squadron?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: The music world began to get all shook up soon after Elvis named Col. Tom Parker as his “special adviser” on Aug. 15, 1955. Parker wanted to get Presley out of his contract with Sun Records, which, facing bankruptcy, could not meet public demands for the rising star. Sun’s Sam Phillips reluctantly agreed to sell the King’s contract for $35,000 plus the $5,000 he owed Presley for royalties. At first, RCA balked at the figure, saying $25,000 would be its final offer. In the end, RCA anted up the $40,000, which, while unprecedented at the time for an unproven 20-year-old potential talent, turned out to be one of the most colossal bargains in recording industry history.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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