A Requiem for the Becky

A Requiem for the Becky

by Keith Norrington

Curator, Howard Steamboat Museum

Steamboat enthusiasts are saddened by the news that the Becky Thatcher, a fixture on the Marietta, Ohio riverfront for 34 years and prior to that at St. Louis and Hannibal, Missouri did not survive her recent sinking at Pittsburgh, where she had been moored since October, 2009, awaiting a new lease on life that was not to be. The Becky’s demise removes yet another from the rapidly dwindling roster of historic riverboats.

Once the proud and pristine steamer Mississippi, flagship of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Becky’s history is somewhat convoluted and confusing, due to the fact that there were three steamboats operated by the Mississippi River Commission to bear the name Mississippi, beginning in 1882. It has often been erroneously reported that the Becky dated back to 1899, owing to the fact that her upper works came from the steamer Leota, an 1899 built dredge tender noted for her trim lines and speed. She was famous for being the only towboat to ever overtake and pass the steamer Kate Adams. The Leota, originally built at Dubuque, was totally stripped down and her hull and machinery sent to New Orleans where new boilers and cabin work were completed in 1922, at which time the boat was renamed Mississippi (#2). She remained in service until declared unserviceable in 1926.

In 1926 a new steel hull, measuring 220′ x 39′ x 7.5′ was constructed at the Howard Shipyard in Jeffersonville, Indiana. In early 1927 it was towed to the Ayer and Lord Marine Ways at Paducah, Kentucky, where the upper works (boiler deck and above) of the Mississippi (#2) still in excellent condition, were transferred over to the new hull. This unique feat was accomplished with the only casualty being a broken pane of door glass! New Gillette and Eaton engines and O’Brien water tube boilers were also installed. Capt. Fred Way recalled having the Betsy Ann on the ways at Paducah during this time and of seeing the transfer operation, which is well documented in vintage photographs. Thus, the new steamer Mississippi (#3) began service in early 1927, on the eve of the great Mississippi River flood.

The Mississippi provided accommodations for 65 passengers for the annual inspection trips made by the Mississippi River Commission during the high and low water seasons. In 1934 the Texas deck was extended forward, creating more passenger space. The 24′ x 24′ sternwheel was originally of the staggered bucket type, but was replaced by a conventional paddlewheel in 1933. The model bow was squared off and towing knees added in 1931, enabling the Mississippi to function as a towboat when not being used by the Mississippi River Commission for survey trips.

Succeeding years saw the Mississippi transferred to the Vicksburg, New Orleans and Memphis Districts of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Among her officers were Capt. Bennie Bernstein, who enjoyed being referred to as “the only Jewish pilot on the river” and Capt. David M. Cook, who served as master from 1946 until her decommissioning. Capt. William H. Tippitt, well known to many members of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen, was a longtime pilot on the boat.

The final Mississippi River Commission cruise aboard the Mississippi was in October, 1960. On April 19, 1961, decommissioning ceremonies were conducted at McKellar Lake, Memphis, at which time the new diesel Mississippi (#4) constructed at Pascagoula, Mississippi, was placed into service. Replaced in the early 1990’s by Mississippi (#5) this vessel is now placed high and dry at Vicksburg, soon to become part of a new river history interpretive center for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Following retirement, the Mississippi remained in the fleet at Memphis until September, 1963, when she was sold at auction to Mr. John C. Groffel, a St. Louis steel company executive, who placed the successful bid of $35,110. The boat was towed to St. Louis and moored alongside the Showboat Goldenrod until taken to Hannibal on May 8, 1964, replacing the River Queen (formerly the steamer Cape Girardeau / Gordon C. Greene) also owned by Mr. Groffel and a business partner, which was moved to St. Louis. Moored on the Illinois side at the Hannibal bridge, the Mississippi was open for tours with a steamboat museum on the Texas deck and a gift shop occupying her main deck. No restaurant service was offered at this time.

In March, 1966, the Mississippi was purchased by Mr. Frank C. Pierson (who also owned the Showboat Goldenrod) and moved back to St. Louis where she was renamed Becky Thatcher, replacing a smaller entertainment boat of the same name (originally the 1879 snagboat C.B. Reese and later the towboat I.A. O’Shaughnessy and Wood River) which had sunk during the spring flood of 1965. The steel hull of the first Becky was raised to become the landing barge for Becky (#2) and contained a refreshment center, tables and chairs on deck.

Following extensive renovations, the Becky opened to the public in 1969. Her upper decks were outfitted for restaurant and bar service, while the main deck contained a gift shop and the Midship Museum, designed by beloved St. Louis teacher and river historian Miss Ruth Ferris, who presided as curator over a unique collection of artifacts focusing primarily upon the Eagle Packet Company, Goldenrod Showboat, Streckfus Steamers and the history of the Mississippi. Guided tours were conducted of the entire boat. The boilers were removed in August, 1969 to provide space for the Boiler Room Bar, while the engines remained intact until 1973, at which time they were sold to the New Orleans Steamboat Company and removed by Capt. John Beatty, loaded onto barges and taken to New Orleans, where they now reside in a storage warehouse.

On the night of June 28, 1969 a severe storm with winds of near tornadic force struck the St. Louis riverfront. The Becky, with her barge and a replica of the Santa Maria alongside, broke loose and drifted several miles downstream, safely clearing two bridges, before crashing into the Monsanto dock on the Illinois side. Some one hundred restaurant patrons were aboard at the time and all were rescued by the towboat Larrayne Andress and taken back to St. Louis, where they were safely landed at the Streckfus wharfboat while the Admiral was out on her moonlight excursion.

As a result of lawsuits from the accident, a bank seized and brought foreclosure proceedings against the Becky in 1974. Closed and dark for over a year, she was sold to Ohio Showboat Drama for a reported $125,000 and towed to Marietta in 1975 by the M/V Louisiana of M/G Transport Services, arriving, along with her landing barge, on August 27th.

The Becky opened at Marietta in 1977, following renovations to her main deck to convert the space formerly occupied by the bar, gift shop and steamboat museum into a showboat theatre, where productions were offered during the summer months. The upper decks were again utilized for restaurant and banquet service.

On March 4, 1984 the Becky sank, after having been moved to the Harmar side of the Muskingum River following the sinking of her landing barge. It was alleged that the cause of the sinking was due to a falling river and the boat settling upon sharp concrete fragments, submerged since the demolition of Lock and Dam #1 in 1968. Inclement weather and high water plagued salvage operations and for a time it appeared that the old sternwheeler had met her doom. On May 8, 1984, a Pittsburgh firm was successful in raising the boat and she was immediately taken to dry dock facilities at Point Pleasant, West Virginia. A thin steel overlay was placed over the existing hull plates and the Becky was towed home to Marietta on December 28th. Following renovations, much of it done by volunteer workers, the Becky, resplendent in new paint from stem to sternwheel, reopened in June, 1985.

Succeeding years found the Becky in nearly constant financial peril, numerous changes of restaurateurs and other problems. Ohio Showboat Drama sold the boat for $60,000 to an individual in 2004. Receiving yet another facelift, she was reopened for a brief time, closed and placed on the market, including a long running listing on Ebay, the Internet auction service. Due to various issues, Marietta city officials insisted the boat be removed and she was towed to Pittsburgh on October 14, 2009, and moored in an industrial area at Neville Island. During severe weather conditions, the Becky sank during the weekend of February 20-21, 2010. Her decks collapsed and the venerable vessel declared a total loss, the firm of Delta Demolition was contracted to remove the wreckage from the river. Heartbreaking images were published in newspapers and on web sites showing a clamshell and scoop removing huge pieces of the superstructure and dumping them on shore. The Becky had finally come to the end of a long and illustrious career spanning nearly 85 years.

Although the Becky is now permanently gone from our sight, she leaves a legacy of memories and memorabilia. Her 8′ pilotwheel and the brass cap from her capstan (engraved with her name and year of her construction) are exhibited at the Point Pleasant River Museum. Other artifacts, such as a whistle, pilothouse nameboard, running lights, flags, porcelain marker plates for doors, stateroom keys, wooden life floats, steam gauges, ornamental wooden columns from her cabin, and numerous other relics reside in the collections of other river museums and private collectors. Several scale models of the steamboat are in existence, an excellent one constructed by the late Mr. Paul McKinney, of Memphis, who often rode the boat as a photographer for the Corps of Engineers. The encased model was displayed aboard the boat for many years and was even insured by Lloyds of London! Today, the replica is exhibited at the River Museum in Tunica, Mississippi, along with a model of her successor, also beautifully constructed by Mr. McKinney. The roof bell, used on all the steamers Mississippi (dating back to 1899) and her two diesel successors, continues to ring over the river.

Through the years various artists have recreated numerous scenes on canvas of the Mississippi, both in her operating days and as the Becky Thatcher. Poets have penned tributes and musicians have paid homage to the boat in songs such as The Becky Thatcher Waltz and Goin’ down to the Becky Thatcher. Fabulous film footage of the boat underway can be seen in the production Iron Crowns and Paddlewheels. Also preserved on tape are the sounds of head deckhand Joe Coleman “singing” the calls of the lead line, punctuated with period blasts of the whistle.

The passage of time has greatly decreased the number of former crew members, but there are still a few remaining who recall, with great fondness, their time aboard the Steamer Mississippi, sharing remembrances of those who served with them and of experiences on the great river. One of the memorable deeds performed by the Mississippi occurred in the early 1950’s when she assisted the Delta Queen, which experienced mechanical problems on the Lower Mississippi River and was drifting. The Mississippi responded to the distress call, came alongside and towed the Delta Queen into Natchez, following which Capt. Cook invited the passengers and crew to come aboard for a tour. Miss Virginia Bennett, who was assistant purser on the DQ at the time, recalled how everything was polished and gleaming aboard the Mississippi and so immaculate that one could practically “eat off the deck”!

The late Capt. Arthur MacArthur, a Corps of Engineers veteran and later pilot on the Delta Queen, told of making a spring high water trip aboard the Mississippi. Some Congressmen and their wives were guests on the boat and the ladies requested that Capt. MacArthur nose the Mississippi into the levee at Oak Alley so they could look down the avenue of oak trees at the magnificent plantation home. Despite the pilot’s best piloting efforts, the swift and relentless current kept swinging the boat’s stern first one way and then the other. He finally had to explain to the disappointed ladies that it was simply impossible and they would have to continue on down the river!

For many years, Mrs. Theo Cook, widow of Capt. David M. Cook, and her best friend, Mrs. Louise Meldahl Carley, daughter of the late Capt. Anthony Meldahl, drove from Memphis to Marietta each September to attend the annual meeting of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen. It was always a delight to visit with these dear southern ladies, now long deceased, both of whom loved to tell of their many trips aboard the Mississippi.

The fondness of this writer for the Mississippi / Becky Thatcher stems from my longtime association and friendship with Miss Ruth Ferris (1897-1993) whom I have always referred to as my mentor and patron saint of steamboating. I was most fortunate to became acquainted with Ruth when I was 13 years old in 1967. Her contagious enthusiasm and zest for life were a tremendous influence in my young life and I shall always be grateful for the inspiration she provided, and which I strive to continue today in my work of preserving and promoting our river heritage. I’ll never forget my first visit aboard the Becky at St. Louis on June 24, 1968. Although the boat hadn’t operated in seven years, there was a feeling that the crew had just recently departed. Exploring every nook and cranny, there were amazing discoveries on each deck. Dishes remained on shelves in cabinets and mattresses were still on beds in the musty Texas, as well as the other usual sights and smells of an old steamboat. With Ruth leading the way, I could hardly wait to ascend the steps to the pilothouse, where I couldn’t resist spinning the pilotwheel, ringing the engine room telegraph and sitting up on the lazy bench. Then it was across the tarpaper roof to the stern to gaze upon the big paddlewheel and monkey rudders. I certainly fell under the spell of the Becky that summer day, now more than four decades ago! Subsequent visits and dinners in the cabin aboard the boat, at St. Louis and Marietta with dear friends, many now departed, will long be remembered with pleasure and gratitude. A long and two shorts of the whistle in salute to a grand lady of the river.

Farewell old friend.