Sunday, December 18, 2016

Queen of the Rivers

Steam-powered, paddle-wheeled riverboats were a mainstay on America's waterways for well over a century, and when the age came to a close, its nostalgic memory was carried on by a handful of large boats which managed to survive as tourist attractions into the mid and late 20th century. One of these was the celebrated sternwheeler Gordon C. Greene, which would live on to be an acknowledged queen of the rivers, as well as a movie queen.

The Gordon C. Greene in about 1939.

The boat had gone through a lot of changes in her life. Built as the Cape Girardeau in 1923 for the Eagle Packet Company, she was the last riverboat built by the Howard Shipyard of Jeffersonville, Indiana. The Cape originally only had three decks, with the main deck being mostly open. Eagle ran into tough times during the Great Depression, but Captain Tom Greene of the Greene Line foresaw business on the Ohio River improving, so bought the boat for $50,000 in 1935, with the intent of hauling tourists.

Tom came from a riverboating family. His father, Gordon Christopher Greene, started the business in 1890, the same year he married Mary Catherine Becker. Mary earned her riverboat master's and pilot's license, and was the only licensed woman steamboat captain on the Ohio River. Together, they had three sons, Christopher, Thomas and Henry, with the first to also becoming captains. Gordon had died in 1927, and Tom named the line's new boat after him.

To accommodate this new tourist role, Tom Greene started making some major changes to the boat over the course of the late 1930s. The upper deck on a steamboat is called the "texas deck", and was traditionally where the crew was housed. Later, with riverboats becoming tourist haulers rather than regular packet boats, the texas deck housed some of the premier passenger cabins.One of the first things he did was to add a second texas deck, first a fairly short one, then later lengthening it. In the promotional materials, Greene started referring to the upper decks not by their traditional name, but as "sun decks". He also enclosed, in phases, the main deck. These changes help fix the dates of old photos of the Greene, and the full second texas deck, plus the still-open section of the main deck suggest a 1939 date for this photo. The Greene was well marketed, and tourists from all over the US flocked to relive by-gone years on the river.

Of course, stardom in major motion pictures didn't exactly hurt the Greene's popularity. Her first appearance on the silver screen came in 1935's Steamboat Round the Bend, directed by John Ford and staring Will Rogers. Then came Gone with the Wind, in which the Greene plays the civil war era boat that Rhett and Scarlet travel on to their honeymoon in New Orleans.

After World War II, the tourist industry continued to grow unabated, and Tom saw more opportunity for expansion. When California's Delta Queen came up for auction in 1946 (it had been used by the Navy as a transport around the San Francisco Bay during the war), Tom Greene jumped at the opportunity to acquire and even larger riverboat. The Delta Queen was towed through the Panama Canal and up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to Pittsburgh, where she was refurbished. In 1948, she entered service, displacing the Gordon C. Greene as the line's premier boat (and on April 22, 1949, Captain Mary Greene died aboard the Delta Queen just after departing New Orleans).

With the new queen on the rivers, the Greene began to show her age, and was retired in 1951, and in 1952 was sold to Portsmouth, Ohio, to be used as a floating hotel under the name of Sarah Lee. In 1955, she was moved to Owensborough, Kentucky and used as a restaurant and museum with the rather unimaginitive name Sternwheeler. Also in 1955, the old queen gave one more movie appearance, in The Kentuckian. In 1957, the boat appeared in another Clark Gable pic, Band of Angels.

When the museum failed, she was towed to Tampa, Florida to serve as a restaurant, and in 1960 moved to New Orleans to become a theater and bar. That lasted a whole year and she was sold yet again, this time to Hannibal, Missouri, as a restaurant named River Queen. That project, too, failed, and she was moved one more time, to St. Louis, Missouri, again to serve as a floating restaurant. The end came for the River Queen on December 3, 1967, when she sank at her moorings.

Parts of the old steamer were salvaged, and the rest was left to rot. On days when the water is running low, bits and pieces of her hull can still be seen.

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