Courier-Journal Staff Writer
Down in the quiet backwaters of the Manatee River at Bradenton, Fla., peace at last has come to the restless life of the last of the packet boats to churn the rivers of America.
There, in her own specially built basin, is moored the sternwheeler which once plied the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers as the Gordon C. Greene and the Cape Girardeau.
By day she serves as a museum, recalling for tourists the colorful era when passenger-cargo packets were a vital part of the country's transportation system. By night she is a floating restaurant, recreating the atmosphere and specializing in dishes which once made the river boats famous for dining.
Indications are that the boat, now called the River Queen, will rest at Bradenton for a long time.
Recently I visited the packet at her Florida mooring, and as I followed a guide through a tour of the vessel, restored in most respects as she was in her heyday, I recalled some of her history and figured the lady deserved a good home.
Though some of her enthusiastic admirers at one time or another have sworn that the boat was 100 years old, she actually was built at the old Howard Boatyards in Jeffersonville in 1923. But she was built from plans drafted just after the Civil War, and thus created the impression of age. At that, you might say, as packet boats go, she has lived to a ripe old age, for many of them came quickly to violent ends as their boilers exploded under the pressure for more speed.
(Still plying inland waters, out of Cincinnati, having been saved from retirement by Hollywood investors last month, is the Delta Queen. Technically, she's not a packet, however, since she carries only passengers, not freight.)
During her lifetime, the now River Queen has hauled passengers and cargo over the thousands of miles of the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland, Monongahela and Illinois Rivers. She has been used as a floating restaurant at two locations; almost became a floating hotel once. She has been featured in four motion pictures. She has had five names.
The enclosed article is of this great and beautiful steam boat give credit to Louisville Courier-Journal and also, Harry Shaw, staff Writer. (We thank the Courier Journal and Harry Shaw for the story on this boat.)
When the River Queen-Gordon C. Greene was launched at Jeffersonville, she was christened the Cape Girardeau, and for some 12 years she sailed the Mississippi, from St. Louis. She was a coal burner in those days, 237 feet long, 44 feet wide. She was capable of carrying 170 first-class passengers and a crew of 72.
In 1935 the vessel was bought by the Greene Lines of Cincinnati and renamed for the late Capt. Gordon C. Greene, founder of the Greene Lines. It is by this name that Kentuckiana remembers her best, for she sailed the Ohio and the Mississippi from Cincinnati, going as far as New Orleans.
In those days, the Gordon C. Greene was the pride of the Greene Lines fleet. Two of her masters were Capt. Mary B. Greene, widow of the founder of the line and one of only four women licensed river-boat pilots in the country, and her son, Capt. Tom Greene. The boat was elegantly furnished in the manner of the 19th Century river packets. She was converted to diesel power.
In those bright days, the Gordon Greene was featured in 'Gone With The Wind' and in 'Steamboat Round the Bend,' which starred Will Rogers.
It was while she was a Greene Line boat, too, that the Gordon Greene won the last of the packet-boat races. She tangled with the Golden Eagle between Greenville, Miss., and Arkansas City, Ark., in November, 1946. After hours of steaming along with black smoke trailing and with the two packets just a few hundred yards apart, the Gordon Greene pulled ahead and reached Arkansas City at dusk, a winner by eight lengths.
In March, 1948, the Gordon Greene, bound for Cincinnati from an excursion to New Orleans, had a head-on collision with a towboat near 12-Mile Island, just upstream from Louisville. Holes were stove in the bows of both boats. Two crewmen of the towboat were slightly injured.
The Gordon Greene made her last voyage as a passenger boat in October, 1951, and the Greene Lines regretfully retired her as 'too old.' Within the next five years she changed hands twice, was renamed twice, as the Sarah Lee and the Sternwheeler. She made a false start as a floating hotel for atomic-plant workers at Portsmouth, Ohio. She served as a set for the filming at Owensboro of 'The Kentuckian,' starring Burt Lancaster. For a short time she was a floating restaurant on the Owensboro riverfront.
Late last year the boat was acquired by the group which now is operating her in Florida. She made a long voyage, under tow, down the Ohio and the Mississippi to New Orleans, where she stopped long enough to serve as a setting for the filming of 'Band of Angels,' starring Clark Gable and Yvonne DeCarlo.
The craft arrived at Bradenton last February and was placed in a special basin formed by a coffer dam, so she could rest in fresh water, her hull protected from the salt water of the Manatee River. The effect of the earthen cofferdam is for all the world like a levee which makes the old boat look right natural.
'We have taken great pains to duplicate the furnishings of the period of the packet boats,' said Charles L. Clark, general manager of the operation. The boat's owners, too, have taken pains to learn some of the history of the river and of the Gordon Greene.
Last summer they had a call from the Robert Reising family of 2211 Longest Avenue, Louisville. 'One of the boys, Jimmy,' Clark said, 'gave us quite a bit of information about the boat.'
Here, Mrs. Reising explained that Jimmy, 13, is a great boat lover, who has made quite a collection of boat models and the history of boats. Among other things, he has a set of the blueprints of the boat.
On the deck above the main deck of the River Queen, some staterooms have been preserved, and they have in habitants dummies, all abed in the attire of the period they represent.
All except one of the boilers of the craft have been removed, but the engine room and the cargo spaces have been preserved as they once were. The stern wheel still revolves, but slowly powered by electricity, just enough to create the illusion of a moving river-boat.
At any rate, after 34 years of service and some uncertainty of life, the old vessel has wound up as all good packet boats should admired, well preserved and successful.